Asleep at the Wheel’s all-star homecoming

photo by Scott Newton

It’s always a thrill to welcome back ACL alumni. It’s an even bigger thrill to re-open the stage to a band that was literally there from the beginning. Asleep at the Wheel appeared in ACL’s first official episode in 1976, joined by Bob Wills’ Original Texas Playboys. It’s now 40 years down the road, and Austin’s beloved Western swing institution returns for their tenth taping in salute to the Playboys’ vast catalog.

After opening with straightforward renditions of “Cherokee Maiden” and “Miles and Miles of Texas” (which is as much a Wheel standard at this point as a Playboys staple), bandleader Ray Benson welcomed 92-year-old saxophonist Billy Briggs, who was a 1950s-era Playboy, to the stage for a hopping take on “Route 66,” co-sung by pianist Emily Gimble, the granddaughter of former Playboy (and frequent ACL guest) Johnny Gimble. The band then took a skillful, joyful trip through Wills’ back catalog, hitting not only the obvious hits (“San Antonio Rose,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Faded Love”) but titles that ring bells only with hardcore Western swing fans (“Keeper of My Heart,” “It’s All Your Fault,” “A Good Man’s Hard to Find”). Ending the first half with the party-hearty “Big Balls in Cowtown,” the Wheel brought the crowd to their feet.

For the second half, the band brought out some special guests. The Quebe Sisters, a trio from Burleson, TX, brought triple harmonies to both their fiddles and their Andrews Sisters-styled vocals on “Navajo Trail” and “Across the Alley.” Amos Lee gave “I Hear Ya Talkin’” and “Sweet Pea” a bluesily soulful spin. The Avett Brothers and their band turned “Girl I Left Behind Me” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa” (the Wheel’s first song on their debut episode 40 years prior) into down-home folk songs as much as Western swing. Then came the night’s biggest coup, as former Playboys singer Leon Rausch, who played with Wills in the ‘50s and with the Playboys on ACL’s 10th anniversary episode in front of the Texas capitol, arrived onstage for a rousing “Milk Cow Blues.” Eighty-eight years young. Rausch hasn’t lost a step and the audience showed its appreciation.

The entire ensemble then took the stage for a nifty run through the “Texas Playboys Theme,” which used to open the Playboys’ radio show; the band interpolated “Happy Trails” into the old chestnut. The Wheel encored with another of its standards, the jumping “Choo Choo Ch-Boogie,” before closing things out with a crowd singalong on country superstar – and Western swing fanatic – George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas.” We can’t imagine a better way to complete a circle that began in the mid-70s, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs later this year on PBS.

 

Foo Fighters conquer the ACL stage

photo by Scott Newton

When our good pals the Foo Fighters returned to Austin City Limits, it was not only as stage-conquering rock superstars-it was also as filmmakers of the much-acclaimed HBO series Sonic Highways, which chronicles the making of the band’s latest LP of the same name. Episode four of Sonic Highways, centered around that song and our town, was rapturously received, and on its heels we were thrilled to welcome them to our current studio in the Moody Theater for the band’s second ACLTV appearance.

The Foos opened with the moody, spacy epic “Aurora” before slamming into the raging “The Feast and the Famine.” Once the needle hit red it stayed there, as Dave Grohl and the band pumped out anthem after fan-favorite anthem: “Learn to Fly,” “Times Like These,” which featured the first of Grohl’s many trips into the audience, “Rope,” “The Pretender,” “My Hero,” “Monkey Wrench,” deep cuts “Arlandria” and “Hey, Johnny Park!” The Foos barrelled back down the Sonic Highways with the blazing “Congregation,” before launching into the album’s two part Austin-based song. The melodic “What Did I Do” garnered immediate audience approval, but that enthusiasm turned into fervor when album guest and ACL alumnus Gary Clark Jr. took the stage to perform his elegiac solo on the second half, “God As My Witness.” The fervor didn’t stop there, as not only did Clark stay for the next song, but Grohl welcomed ATX blues legend (and co-star of the Austin episode) Jimmie Vaughan for a spirited run through the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Tuff Enuff,” with Vaughan replicating his distinctive solos.

After that, the band could do no wrong, digging into its catalog for the rocking “Cold Day in the Sun,” sung by drummer Taylor Hawkins, before another series of back-to-back-to-back killers with “In the Clear,” “I’ll Stick Around,” “Walk,” “Outside” and the punky “All My Life.” Then things took an epic turn. Grohl took off his guitar and headed back into the audience with a bottle of champagne to share with the delirious crowd as the rest of the group launched into the Rolling Stones’ disco rock hybrid “Miss You,” sung by Hawkins (who admitted he didn’t know the words). Grohl then took over the kit so Hawkins could come up front for a punked-up take on Cheap Trick’s “Stiff Competition.” The Foos’ living jukebox didn’t stop there, though – next up was “Under Pressure,” the Queen/David Bowie classic done as a duet between Grohl and Hawkins, then Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” with an extended electric piano solo from keyboardist Rami Jaffee, and finally a roaring bash through Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love.”

“I guess we better play one more Foo Fighters song,” chuckled Grohl, cueing up “Best of You,” with its “whoa-ohs” taken over by the audience. The band ended the show with “Everlong,” another hit and crowd favorite, and then, almost three hours from when it started, the show was over. It was a monster of a performance, one that Grohl described as “the weirdest f-g show we’ve ever played.” We can’t wait for you to see it when it broadcasts early next year as a highlight of our milestone Season 40. Stay tuned.

 

The Black Keys deliver a knockout show

photo by Scott Newton

Here at ACL we’re always pleased to see our alumni come back bigger and better than before, and that is certainly the case with the Black Keys, who returned to our stage for a knockout show. Since the Akron duo’s last visit in 2010, they’ve added a staggering number of radio hits, Grammy awards and arena tours to its arsenal.  Thus energized, the band delivered a charged performance that we also streamed live around the world.

Augmented by keyboardist John Clement Wood and bassist Richard Swift (last seen on our stage playing keyboards for the Shins), the powerhouse pair of guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney launched into “Next Girl” with a squeal of feedback. The riffy rocker set the tone for the rest of the evening, as the band rarely let up. From the ripping “Strange Times” and the rumbling “She’s Long Gone” to the countrified “Gotta Get Away” and the stomping “Gold On the Ceiling,” the Keys kept the hooks flowing and the energy level burning. The band dipped into its first album for the rawboned “Leavin’ Trunk” and covered Scottish pop pioneer Edwin Collins’ hit “A Girl Like You.” The bluesy ballad “Too Afraid to Love You” provided slight respite, but it was just the pause to refresh. Soulful riffs and memorable rockers ruled, especially when the band essayed its patented blues/glam hybrids a la the devilishly catchy “Money Maker” and the smash hit “Lonely Boy,” which had the crowd dancing in the aisles.

Declining to leave the stage, the Keys went straight into the encore with a pair of psychedelic soul tunes from its latest LP Turn Blue. “Weight of Love” boasted a dreamy feel reminiscent of Pink Floyd, while “Turn Blue” itself could easily have fit onto a Philly soul comp. But the band really brought the house down with its final number. Auerbach provided an extended resonator guitar intro to “LIttle Black Submarines” before launching into the first verse, on which the audience joined him. Once the tune kicked into its electric half the place exploded, providing a perfect, powerful end.

The Black Keys have become rock stars the old-fashioned way: by earning it show by show. We can’t wait for you to see this one when it airs early next year as part of our milestone 40th season. Stay tuned.

Ryan Adams’ triumphant return to ACL

photo by Scott Newton

Ryan Adams made a triumphant return to the Austin City Limits stage last night playing a quiet, soulful acoustic set followed by a rocking electric set keeping fans on their feet for over two hours. Tonight’s taping was two shows for the price of one.

In perfect contrast to the nature of the first set, Adams hit the stage in a Dag Nasty T-shirt and a blue jean jacket adorned by punk rock patches before essaying a series of his patented melancholy ballads. He opened with “Oh My Sweet Carolina” from his debut solo album Heartbreaker; while it was originally a duet with Emmylou Harris, it worked just fine solo. Adams alternated between older tunes (“Desire,” “Please Do Not Let Me Go,” “My Winding Wheel”) and songs from his new self-titled LP (“My Wrecking Ball,” “Am I Safe,” “Gimme Something Good”), peppering his tales of disappointment and heartbreak with enough snappy patter to make Spider-Man proud. He ended the solo set with a particularly affecting “If I Was a Stranger” and a ramshackle romp through Bryan Adams’ “Run To You,” leaving the audience in both tears and stitches.

With a stage festooned with a fake giant amp, a golden skull, an American flag with a peace symbol, a stuffed tiger and a video game console loaded with 80s classics, Adams and his new band the Shining arrived and launched into a fully-amplified version of “Gimme Something Good,” making the title a demand instead of a plea. Expertly backed by his quartet (which included Mike Viola, the voice of “That Thing You Do”), Adams followed the same pattern as the acoustic set, moving back and forth between new tunes and old favorites. Recent songs like the Stonesy rocker “Stay With Me,” the dramatic rock ballads “Do I Wait” and “Dirty Rain” and the atmospheric noisemaker “Shadows” were greeted with the same enthusiasm as older set pieces like the pretty folk popper “La Cienega Just Smiled,” the sad country lament “Dear Chicago” and the rousing anthem “New York New York.”

The show came to a head near the end, with a medley of “Rats in the Walls” and “When the Summer Ends,” a pair of brief tunes from his recent 1984 EP, and the mood-swinging dynamics of the charged “I See Monsters” from Love is Hell. Adams ended the show where he began, revisiting his solo debut Heartbreaker for the profane country kiss off “Come Pick Me Up,” at which the audience cheered as soon as he played its opening harmonica lick. It was a sprawling, wide-ranging trip through Adams’ musical mind, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it broadcasts on PBS early next year. Stay tuned.

 

Spoon returns to rock ACL

photo by Scott Newton

We love having hometown heroes on Austin City Limits. So we’re thrilled to welcome ACL vets Spoon back for our 40th anniversary season. Masterful songwriter and singer Britt Daniel had led his crew to our stage on three other occasions: in 2002, 2005 and 2010. Now riding high on their rapturously received new record They Want My Soul, Spoon returned for their fourth taping to rock ACL once again.

The quintet opened the show with the new album’s “Knock Knock Knock,” a moody rock tune punctuated by Alex Fischel’s noisy guitar solos. The band then swung directly into “Rent I Pay,” another They Want My Soul tune that proved that Spoon has only gotten tighter, hookier and more melodic as they’ve matured. The band drew mostly from its three most recent albums thereafter, banging out tasty, tension-filled pop rockers like “Who Makes Your Money,” “Do You” and “Rainy Taxi” and groovier, more atmospheric numbers a la “Way We Get By” (which found Fischel joining the audience with his tambourine), “The Ghost of You Lingers” (on which Jim Eno abandoned his drum kit to take up one of our handheld cameras) and “Don’t You Evah.” They split the difference with “Don’t Make Me a Target,” which started out stacatto and moved into limber by the end, thanks in part to Eric Harvey’s clavinet. Much to the fans’ delight, Spoon dipped into their two decades’ of catalog as well, with the piano-driven “Way We Get By,” winsome “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” and gloriously choppy “I Turn My Camera On.” Preferring a no-frills approach, Spoon makes a virtue of straightforward, gimmick-free performances, contrasting Daniel’s vibrant, barely contained cool with Fischel’s spastic thrashing.

Spoon ended the main set with the postpunk slash of “Got Nuffin” and the more jangling “Black Like Me,” but the evening wasn’t over yet. The band returned with a pair of gems from They Want My Soul, the nearly funky “Outlier” and the snappy title cut. But it was the ending that brought down the house, as the band blazed through a dynamic version of its radio hit “The Underdog,” giving it as close to a big rawk finish as they’ll ever come. It was a bravura performance, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs on PBS early next year.

The return of the Avett Brothers

photo by Scott Newton

Last night we welcomed the The Avett Brothers back to the Austin City Limits stage in a triumphant return to the show. Fresh from their appearance at the ACL Music Festival, the band was greeted by enthusiastic fans eagerly waiting to hear them and sing along.  Since the band first appeared on the show in 2009, they have been busy writing and recording back-to-back Rick Rubin-produced albums The Carpenter (which received a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album) and Magpie and the Dandelion.

As the band opened with the romantic folk rocker “Live and Die,” there was a clear difference between this band and the one that visited in Season 35, and not just because of the addition of a drummer, keyboardist and fiddler. The ragged, nervous energy of the first show has been replaced by a different vibe, one of confidence and the professionalism that comes from having played hundreds, if not thousands, of shows to people all over the world. The energy level was just as high as last time, but this time the band focused its power, giving the frisky folk tune “The Fall,” the piano anthem “Head Full of Doubt, Heart Full of Promise” and the giddy folk rocker “Satan Pulls the Strings” a blazing vitality that was infectious. Not that the audience needed much prodding – even lower key tunes like “Life” and “Rejects in the Attic” garnered cheers before they’d barely started.

As good as the band was with newer tunes, it was on older songs like “Slight Figure of Speech” and “Kick Drum Heart,” both transformed into rock anthems, that proved explosive. The band ended the show with an especially peppy take on George Jones’ “The Race is On,” on which the septet bounced all over the stage, before coming down with the lovely “November Blue” from their very first LP. The crowd went wild as their heroes left the stage, and we’re sure you’ll go wild as well when we broadcast this episode early next year on your PBS station.

Sam Smith: soulful singer/songwriter

photo by Scott Newton

Soulful singer/songwriter Sam Smith exploded seemingly out of nowhere this year with the hugely successful single “Stay With Me.” Fans in his native U.K. have known about his sensitive songs and amazing voice for a couple of years and now fans stateside are catching up in a big way.   Last night we were happy to welcome them and their hero to his first Austin City Limits taping.

In the tradition of the soul singers of yore, Smith took the stage as his eight-piece band was already a minute into “Nirvana,” the title track of his early EP. The song began as a ballad, but moved into anthem territory, a method with which Smith fans are intimately familiar. A funkier backbeat ruled “Together” from the same EP, pumping up the energy, not that the eager audience needed it. Smith then took us on a tour through the unrequited love that drives his debut album In the Lonely Hour, from the midtempo “Good Thing” and the jazzy “I’m Not the Only One” to the dramatic ballads “Lay Me Down” (which garnered tears and cuddling couples in the audience) and “Leave Your Lovers” (“one of my favorites on the album,” he noted). He also took time out to pay tribute to a key influence by covering Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” as a piano ballad and teaching the audience to dance with his new single “Restart.” He ended the main set with a mashup of a pair of his tunes, the anthemic ballad “Money On My Mind” and the discofied “Finally.” “I don’t care if you can’t sing at all,” Smith insisted to the crowd, “please sing as loud as you can.”

Smith and band returned with “Latch,” his U.K. hit with the electronic act Disclosure, done here as a midtempo pop tune, before going into “Make It to Me,” a song he described as a “massive mating call.” But it was the final song that truly raised the roof. The opening chords of “Stay With Me” drew a roar, and Smith exhorted the crowd to clap along. Audience comfortably instilled in the palm of his hand, Smith then released them by dropping the band out, letting the fans take a chorus by themselves, sounding like a church choir. It was an explosive end to a strong ACL debut, and we can’t wait for you to see this show for yourselves when it airs on PBS early next year.

Jenny Lewis’ smart pop gems

photo by Scott Newton

Singer and songwriter Jenny Lewis last appeared on the ACL stage in 2005 with the band Rilo Kiley for a memorable show that opened our thirty-first season. So we were pleased to welcome her back, this time under her own name, for a sparkling show full of smart pop gems.

Reaching back for a quick history lesson, Lewis and her five-piece band opened with the shimmering country rock of “Silver Lining” from the Rilo Kiley catalog. The song boasted a classic 70s singer/songwriter vibe, which she carried over to other rootsy tune like “Late Bloomer,” “You Are What You Love” and the Linda Ronstadt-like “Rise Up With Fists.” The country/folk elements took a back seat on other songs, with the midtempo pop of “Slippery Slopes” and “The New You,” the sweetly charming “Love U Forever” and the devilishly catchy “Head Underwater” drawing from familiar but less obvious sources. The brash “The Moneymaker” and “The Next Messiah,” on which the band was joined by Lewis’ frequent collaborator (and beau) Johnathan Rice, found her comfortably embracing louder rock & roll, a thread she continued with the climactic shuffle “Just One of the Guys.”

Backed by her bandmates surrounding a single mic, Lewis ended the main set with her acoustic guitar for the beautiful, hymn-like “Acid Tongue.” After blowing the audience a kiss, she exited the stage to wild applause. But it wasn’t over yet  – the crowd response was so eager she came back with a guitarist and harmony singer for a folk take on Rilo Kiley’s “With Arms Outstretched,” which the audience greeted with cheers from the first line. It was a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year on PBS.