Sam Smith tops his previous ACL performance

photo by Scott Newton

When British sensation Sam Smith first visited the ACL stage in 2014 he was just beginning his U.S. rise, having already conquered his homeland. The soulful singer/songwriter returned as a fully-established worldwide superstar, showcasing his acclaimed sophomore LP The Thrill of It All and a hit parade of highlights in a dazzling, entertaining set.

As his five piece band hit the first notes, Smith, nattily-attired in a slim tan suit, and his quartet of backup singers took the stage for the doo-wopping “One Last Song.” The London native strode out onto the uniquely extended stage and had the rapt crowd sing the intro of the soulful “I’m Not the Only One,” letting the song become a call-and-response number by the end. After reminiscing about his first ACL appearance, which he called one of his favorite shows ever, he asked, “Can we beat that show?” The audience enthusiastically replied in the affirmative, leading into a standout “Lay Me Down,” the epic he described as the first song he wrote with longtime collaborator Jimmy Napes. Then most of the band members left the stage, leaving Smith with only piano and cello in support of the showstopping “Latch,” his hit collaboration with electronica duo Disclosure. The band and singers returned in full force for the sly gem “Money On My Mind,” followed by musician intros and a romp through “Like I Can,” which became a massive crowd sing- and clap-along. The charming and effervescent Smith wasn’t done with the audience yet, encouraging them to dance and sing with the sparkling pop/soul of “Restart.” “You guys, much love – that was amazing!” he smiled after the song concluded.

For the loping soul tune “Baby, You Make Me Crazy,” Smith generously threw the spotlight to his singers, letting them finish the tune. He returned for “Say It First,” a crowd-pleasing, widescreen pop tune about devotion. Smith and company went from romance to breakup, reclaiming the soul vibe for the heartbreak of “Midnight Train.” That was simply a warm-up, however, for “Him,” a stirring anthem for anyone refusing to be marginalized for being who they are. After that exhilarating emotional ride, he ended the main set with “Too Good at Goodbyes,” the jazzy top five single from Thrill that once again welcomed audience participation. The crowd went wild, unready for the show to end. Luckily, it wasn’t the end, as the band returned for the new album’s “Palace,” and Smith harmonized in an exquisite duet with knockout backup singer Lucy Jules. “It’s been four-and-a-half years since I released this song,” he grinned for the follow-up,” and I still love singing it as much as I ever have.” He meant the Grammy-winning breakthrough smash “Stay With Me,” of course, a perfect showcase for his massive vocals.  The audience accompaniment on the chorus worked the tune’s gospel feel and brought the house down.

You might think that’s how the show ended, but you’d be wrong. “I have to say – you’ve beaten my last Austin City Limits,” Smith remarked about the crowd’s enthusiasm. “That was incredible!” He ended the show with “Pray,” another gospel-flavored anthem that celebrated inclusion and the power of connection. Smith left the stage to a well-deserved standing ovation. It was a magnificent show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall as part of our Season 44 on your local PBS station.  

 

Miguel brings eclectic soul to the ACL stage

photo by Scott Newton

Standing proudly in the vanguard of contemporary R&B artists, Miguel has garnered massive critical acclaim since his emergence in 2011. The Los Angeles native describes his eclectic sound as  “fly, funkadelic, intergalactic-hip-hop-meets-sexy-orgasmic crazy, dope shit,” and that’s a fair approximation of the sonic waves Miguel brought to the Moody Theater stage for his debut ACL taping, which we streamed live around the world.

With his four-piece band (clad all in white), Miguel took the stage in a trench coat and launched into the rocking “Criminal,” from his latest album War & Leisure. He stepped back to his breakthrough LP Kaleidoscope Dream for the equally vibrant “The Thrill” and the bouncing “How Many Drinks?,” updating classic R&B sounds for the twenty-first century. Ditching his trenchcoat, he and the band went immediately into the poppy “Banana Clip,” keeping the groove and melody flowing. After that uninterrupted salvo, Miguel paused to hail ACL and the audience, who came out in force on a Sunday night. After explaining how his bi-ethnic heritage formed his perspective and how he writes songs about his experiences on the journey to his current success, he cheekily followed with the sardonic “Do You Like…” (drugs, that is), frosting it with reggae, his soaring falsetto and a quick snippet of Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie.” Then the singer jumped all the way back to the beginning with “Sure Thing,” from his first LP All I Want is You. That set the stage for the Grammy Award-winning “Adorn,” his anthemic breakthrough hit that became a dynamic call-and-response singalong.

Miguel kept the widescreen feel going with the power chord-driven “Simple Thing,” taken from his wildly extolled third record Wildheart. Most of the band exited the stage, leaving just Miguel with guitarist Josh J. strapping on his acoustic for the stripped-down “Now,” a politically-charged tune about cultivating positivity in troubled times. “Now back to our regularly scheduled programming,” he said as the band returned. With his musicians laying down some atmosphere, Miguel talked about growing up with a foot in two different cultures and the lessons he learned from it. After instructing the audience in the song’s interactivity, he ripped into the blazing “Waves,” encouraging everyone in the house and on the web to ride their own wave. After that explosion, the only thing to do was to bring things down with the sexy ballad “Come Through and Chill.” “Nasty,” he smiled after the audience indulged in some provocative call-and-response. Miguel followed that with “Pineapple Skies,” a clear audience favorite. But that was merely a scene-setter for his current smash hit “Skywalker.” You gotta stay up!” he exhorted the eager crowd, and they did through the course of this powerhouse, show-closing anthem. The audience went nuts by the end, chanting “One more song” – to no avail, alas. Still, it was a hell of a show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.  

Lukas Nelson expands on family tradition for his debut ACL

photo by Scott Newton

The great Willie Nelson has been a mainstay of Austin City Limits since the 1974 pilot  – indeed, many of us think of him as ACL’s patron saint. It was inevitable that some of Willie’s kids would follow in his footsteps, not only in music, but onto our storied stage. Lukas Nelson is not merely a chip off the old block, however. With his band Promise of the Real, the 28-year old singer, songwriter and guitar-slinger has regularly backed Neil Young and built his own legacy over the course of a decade with five albums and a handful of EPs. Nelson the younger recorded his debut ACL episode in support of his and POTR’s acclaimed 2017 eponymous album, which formed the heart of the show that we streamed live around the world.

“You ever watch that show Rick & Morty?” said Nelson as he strapped on his guitar. “I wrote a song after watching it and I want you to hear it.” With that, he and the five-piece Promise of the Real (plus special guest Micah Nelson, Lukas’ brother) launched into the unrecorded song “Entirely Different Stars,” a psychedelic anthem that included plenty of fireworks from Nelson and steel guitarist Jesse Siebenberg and a coda redolent of Nelson’s native Hawaii. The frisky country rocker “Die Alone” revved the engines back up, while “Fool Me Once” took the same tack with a choogling tempo and sardonic lyrics. Nelson and company visited the other side of the law with “Runnin’ Shine,” with the scion really showing off his vocal resemblance to the father. “Caroline” showed an affectionate debt to the Texas singer/songwriter tradition, while “Lil Girl” incorporated reggae into the band’s rocking Americana.

“Four Letter Word” married clever wordplay with an expanded Nelson guitar solo, including a quick snippet of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” The band brought the rock back for “Something Real,” including more six-string magic. Then the Real quit the stage, leaving the Austin-born Nelson alone with an acoustic guitar for the crowd-pleasing “Just Outside of Austin,” a song destined to be a mainstay in his set for decades. Nelson underscored the Austin connection by soulfully covering Willie’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” garnering an audience reaction as loud ‘n’ proud as that for “Austin.” Nelson then sang Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” paying tribute to his sometime employer, for whom he and the rest of Promise of the Real have provided backup for the last few years. He wasn’t done with other folks’ tunes yet, though, as he then went into Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” connecting his father’s distinctive vocal style with the late classic rocker’s.

P of the R returned to the stage for “Forget About Georgia,” a melancholy country song that bespeaks driving all night and thinking too much about the love left behind. Nelson left heartbreak behind for the skanking kiss-off “Find Yourself,” which became an enthusiastic crowd singalong. A faithful cover, complete with a cappella intro, of Paul Simon’s “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes” was a surprise, giving bassist Corey McCormick and percussionist Tato Melgar chances to show their stuff. The spotlight then turned to steel guitarist Jesse Siebenberg, who provided an extended intro to “Set Me Down On a Cloud,” returning the band to the kind of elegiac anthemry with which they began. Nelson reclaimed his acoustic guitar for the gentle ballad “Turn Off the News,” before sending the appreciative audience into the night with the Southern rock singalong “The Awakening.” It was a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs in ACL’s forty-fourth, only on your local PBS station.       

Anderson East brings heavy soul to his debut ACL taping

photo by Scott Newton

Singer/songwriter Anderson East hails from Alabama and resides in Nashville, and he brings serious firepower to every note he sings. Armed with his acclaimed new album Encore (produced by Dave Cobb, who’s helmed records by Zac Brown Band, Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, John Prine, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and others who’ve been on the show in the last two years), East gave the audience a strong shot of soul on his debut Austin City Limits taping, which we streamed live around the world.

Taking the stage in a snakeskin jacket, East and his eight-piece band immediately paid tribute to the ACL legacy by opening with Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” giving it a funky soul ballad reading. Putting his acoustic guitar aside, East dug into the songbook of the late, great Ted Hawkins for the raucous stomper “Sorry You’re Sick.” That Southern soul energy kept running for “Surrender,” featuring fireworks from East and singers Whitney Coleman and Kristen Rogers. Donning his guitar and welcoming a four-piece string section (led by Nashville’s Kristin Wilkinson, here a couple of months ago with Brandi Carlile), East sang a song “about how I feel tonight” – the mid-tempo charmer “King For a Day.” Guitarist Scotty Murray donned an electric dobro for the lighter-waving ballad “Devil in Me,” while keyboardist Philip Towns powered the gospel groover “Learning” with some seriously funky organ.  

After that tour-de-force, East went back to ballad territory for “If You Keep Leaving Me,” which sounded like a vintage Otis Redding cover. The strings returned for “Without You,” another heartbreaker that filled the room with sound. The musicians revved up again for the swaggering “Girlfriend,” which segued directly into the funky “All On My Mind,” both of which showed off the band as much as East’s prodigious pipes. The singer went back to his Southern soul roots for his hit “Satisfy Me,” which could have been a long-lost gem from the Stax catalog of the sixties and was a clear crowd favorite.

“I’ve been watching this show for a long time, and I never thought I’d be on it,” remarked East, before launching into the set-closing “This Too Shall Last,” a widescreen ballad highlighted by Murray and East trading guitar solos that brought the cheering crowd to its feet. After that reaction, more was required, and East, band and strings returned for “House is a Building” (“then home is a feeling”), which built on Towns’ jazzy piano to East’s powerhouse vocal climaxes. “Thanks for making us feel at home tonight,” East said, and the audience made sure he knew the feeling was mutual. It was a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs as part of our forty-fourth season on PBS.

Wild Child brings upbeat energy to the ACL stage

photo by Scott Newton

When Austin City Limits first hit the air in the mid-70s, it was all about showcasing the burgeoning Austin music scene. So it always makes us happy to welcome another rising star from our own backyard. In support of this year’s fourth album Expectations, Wild Child hit our stage with youthful energy and an eclectic, genre-spanning performance, which we streamed live around the world.

Taking the stage to pre-recorded disco, the band went into “Fools,” a midtempo folk popper. Perpetually smiling singer/violinist Kelsey Wilson and cellist Sadie Wolfe brought their instruments forcefully to bear on “The Tale of You & Me,” a more rocking tune. Wilson and co-writer/singer/ukelele player Alexander Beggins brought their voices close on the playful “Alex,” before the tempo dropped and the emotion rose for the lush ballad “Eggshells.” Wilson welcomed a three-piece horn section and her singing younger sister Skylar to the stage for another ballad, the undulating “Rillo Talk.” The sibling harmony continued on the sweetly rolling “Break You Down” and the peppy “1996.” Beggins took the lead vocals for “Stitches,” a tune inspired by too much time away from home.

The band and the horn section quit the stage, leaving Wilson and Beggins by themselves onstage to duet on the sweet ‘n’ sour, asides-filled romance of “The One.” Beggins then moved to the piano for “Break Bones,” the best showcase yet for Wilson’s pretty voice. The rest of the duo’s compadres returned for “My Town” and “Follow Me,” more ballads for Wilson to make her own. “Take It” brought the energy level back up, and the funky “Back & Forth” rode the wave. The energized piano pop of “Crazy Bird” set the stage for the radio hit “Think It Over,” as sweet a tune as the airwaves can receive.  

The band stripped down to guitars and vocals for the harmony-laden, shimmering fan favorite “Sinking Ship.” Beggin switched from uke to guitar for the closing “Expectations,” a funky, melodic charmer that got the crowd roaring. The group quit the stage, but of course, that didn’t mean it was over. Wild Child returned to the stage for “Bad Girl,” a frisky folk/pop number dedicated to Wilson’s niece, who was in the house. It was a nicely upbeat way to end the show, which we can’t wait for you to see when it airs in our 44th season on your local PBS station.

Kacey Musgraves tapes expansive, special ACL

photo by Scott Newton

When Kacey Musgraves first visited our stage in 2013, she was a year into the breakthrough success brought to her by Same Trailer, Different Park, her first major label release. Now, a few years and several major awards later, the East Texas native returned on the heels of Golden Hour, an album that’s earned her even more kudos than her breakthrough. That album formed the backbone of her second ACL performance, with some of her previous gems sprinkled in along the way.

With Beatles harmonies playing over the P.A., Musgraves and her band took the stage and gently rolled into “Slow Burn,” the lushly poppy opening track to Hour. The melodic “Butterflies” followed, its affirmation of true love floating on sparsely plucked banjo, brushed drums, quiet synth and Musgraves’ rhythm guitar. “Let’s get a little bit weird, freak your neighbor out, cross a few lines,” she said, before going into “Love is a Wild Thing,” a gentle anthem proclaiming the triumph of love over hate. She kept to the new album for the sly pop tune “Velvet Elvis,” another ode to a strong relationship, before hitting up the 70s soft rock of Golden Hour’s title track and the self-explanatory “Happy & Sad.” Taking a break from the new record, Musgraves revisited Same Trailer for the placid kiss-off “Keep It to Yourself,” then it was back to the Hour for the pretty, catchy “Lonely Weekend.”

The band got a quick showcase to itself on the Santo & Johnny-like instrumental “Western J,” as Musgraves had her hair and makeup – her “Texas look,” as she earlier explained – refreshed. Then the musicians segued into “High Time,” her whistling-enhanced, countrified ode to letting stress go. After introducing her bandmates, she dedicated the “Family is Family” to “all the weird members of your family,” letting drummer Scott Quintana drive the rhythm with his spoons. “Happy Pride Month,” she then declared, “so I think we should sing this one together real loud!” It was her individuality anthem “Follow Your Arrow,” of course, and the crowd did indeed sing along at top volume, including an a cappella section all to themselves. “Space Cowboy” came next, a break-up ballad to leaven the palpable happiness powering most of the Hour songs. Musgraves ended the main set on a stool, crooning the beautiful ballad “Rainbow,” the same song that ends Golden Hour.

“Kacey! Kacey!” chanted the audience, welcoming her back. Alone onstage, she played her Grammy-winning hit “Merry Go Round,” a tribute to stifling small towns everywhere. Her band returned for a loping cover of Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon,” another crowd singalong. She and the band ended the show on the dancefloor with the disco pop of “High Horse,” Musgraves, guitarist Kyle Hurlbut and bassist Adam Keafer hoofing the show to a close. Except that it wasn’t quite over, as Musgraves decided to redo “Love is a Wild Thing,” “Family is Family” and, appropriately, “High Horse,” a situation the audience didn’t mind at all. It was an expansive, special show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs as part of ACL’s Season 44 on your local PBS station.

John Prine’s triumphant return to ACL

photo by Scott Newton

Singing and songwriting legend John Prine has been through some trials and tribulations since the last time he visited the Austin City Limits stage in 2005, but he’s come through it all swinging with a hugely acclaimed, top 5 record The Tree of Forgiveness. That album formed the heart of the setlist for his eighth ACL appearance and the longtime Nashvillian graced us with a funny, moving performance.

Before giving us Forgiveness, however, Prine dipped into his debut album for a pair of well-loved classics. Taking the stage with his four-piece band (including guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist David Jacques, last here with Prine in Season 31) to huge applause, the Illinois native opened with the lovely “Six O’Clock News,” from his 1971 self-titled debut. “This song goes out to Bonnie Raitt,” he said as he went into the timeless classic “Angel From Montgomery,” made famous by the singing slide guitarist. Then it was into The Tree of Forgiveness with the sprightly “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,” the first of seven in a row from the new landmark. “Caravan of Fools” followed, a song co-written with Dan Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin and featuring, as Prine noted, “has more verses than there are original members in the cabinet of the present administration.” He dipped into the more humorous side of his personality for the wry “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska (Crazy Bone),” before dedicating the heartfelt “Boundless Love” to his wife Fiona. “This next song is probably, at least for me, the prettiest song on The Tree of Forgiveness,” he said by way of introduction to “Summer’s End,” a tune that indeed could have competed in the musical equivalent of a beauty pageant. The folky “I Have Met My Love Today” returned to the theme of found love, while “Lonesome Friends of Science” sardonically saluted the dwarf planet Pluto and the Greek god Vulcan – “the only thing Pluto and Vulcan have in common is that they’re both in my song.”

The band then quit the stage, leaving Prine by himself to dig deep into his catalog. He started the solo portion of the set with the passively defiant “Everything is Cool,” from the early 90s’ hit The Missing Years. Then he returned to his first album for its opening cut “Illegal Smile,” which turned into a singalong during the chorus – the audience even sang the final chorus “solo.” Prine climbed the Tree again for “No Ordinary Blue,” a song about a couple’s argument that he wrote with old pal Keith Sykes. Prine then welcomed newcomer Tyler Childers to the stage, duetting on Sweet Revenge’s “Please Don’t Bury Me” and letting the young Kentucky native singer/songwriter do his own “Lady May” alone.

Prine and his band returned to the stage and went into “Lake Marie,” a fan favorite from Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings that serves as an anthem as much as a story song. The penultimate song in the set was the final song on Tree, the raucous, oft-hilarious “When I Get to Heaven,” featuring the band on kazoos during the instrumental break. Prine and company finished the set with his classic “Paradise,” another gem from his ‘71 debut, this version enhanced by a returning Tyler Childers. The crowd went crazy, letting Prine know just how much his artistry is loved and appreciated. It was a fitting end to a great set, and we can’t wait for you to see it when Prine’s episode airs this fall as part of ACL’s Season 44.  

St. Vincent lights up her second ACL taping

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Few rock artists are as creative, acclaimed and wildly imaginative as St. Vincent. Nine years after her first appearance, the erstwhile Annie Clark hit our stage for the second time to support her widely praised fifth St. Vincent LP MASSEDUCTION, which hit the top ten on the album charts and topped many year-end best-of lists. In front of an impressive strobe-lit set, St. Vincent gave us a show unlike anything we’ve had before, which we streamed live around the world.

Taking their places in front of massive blocks of futuristic strobe lights, Clark, clad in a red vinyl bodysuit and matching thigh-high boots, and her three-piece band began with a throbbing electronic pulse and flashing silhouettes for the kinetic Masseduction track “Sugarboy.” The rhythm got funkier for “Los Ageless,” Clark singing full-throated and casually extracting steely riffs from her guitar. “Pills” followed, twisting blatantly hooky synth-pop into a distinctly St. Vincentized shape, complete with anthemic guitar coda. Setting aside her guitar, Clark stepped forward, mic in hand, for the unabashed pop of “New York,” before re-donning her ax for the bluesy electropop of the sensual “Savior.” The lights dropped, and when they came back the spotlight was on bassist/keyboardist Toko Yasuda, who sang out the opening chant of Masseduction’s hypnotic title track, before Clark and her fuzz-soaked slide guitar retook control.  

When the lights came back from their dip to black, Clark was joined for “Huey Newton” by a black-coated, masked creeper (actually her tech in disguise) holding her guitar. As the first half of the song reached its crescendo, the figure strapped her instrument on in time for her to shred the heavy riffs that drove the tune’s second half – a nice bit of theater that earned appreciation from the crowd. After that track from her 2015 Grammy-winning self-titled album, she went all the way back to her second LP Actor and the thrilling “Marrow,” a devilishly catchy rocker that tastefully showed off her superior six-string skills. The band then dipped into the album Strange Mercy for a pair of tunes: the dramatic pop tune “Cruel” and the dynamic alt-anthem “Cheerleader.” Then Clark returned to the eponymous album for the diabolical “Digital Witness,” its melange of electro-funk, fetching melody and effects-laden slide shifting into another dimension. Switching to black and white, the strobes went crazy for “Rattlesnake,” another catchy groove rocker that featured some extended soloing in the coda. Shifting back to Masseducation, the band blasted out the flashy “Fear the Future,” the paranoia of which was leavened by more hooks and guitar. St. Vincent closed the set with the appropriately-titled “Slow Disco,” in which Clark adapted Giorgio Moroder’s synthesized danceability to a perfect set-closing anthem. The audience agreed, going crazy as the band quit the stage.

“I can’t even count the times I’ve seen mindblowing performances on this TV show,” said Clark as she and the band returned to the stage, “so it’s an honor to be back for the second time.” The group went into “Hang On Me,” a lush ballad from Masseduction. Then her band left Clark alone on the stage, so she could play a couple of songs “that I used to play in coffee shops, bad bars and, in a couple of embarrassing instances, pizza parlors.” She then performed a lovely “Severed Crossed Fingers” and a dignified “Prince Johnny,” as a reminder that, stagecraft and effects aside, the core of St. Vincent’s artistry has always been strong songwriting. The lights went to black and the show ended.  We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall as part of our upcoming Season 44 on your local PBS station.