Ed Sheeran’s incredible synergy with his ACL fans

photo by Scott Newton

Part of the whole pop music experience is the synergy with the fans. That’s a big “duh,” right? All artists experience it – we experience it ourselves here at Austin City Limits. For all the great fan interaction we see at every taping, however, nothing compares to an Ed Sheeran show. The Suffolk native appeared on the eve of the release of x, his highly anticipated second album, with a setlist full of new tunes and favorites. From the evidence of the British sensation’s first ACL taping, he may very well have the most loyal, enthusiastic fans in recent memory.

The chart-topping, Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter began with “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” from his landmark debut LP +. He started by using his foot-controlled loop station to create a groove, using his guitar as a percussion instrument as much as a melodic one. Adding mouth and breath-generated percussion and a barrage of rapped and sung lyrics, he generated a near-perfectly balanced meld of folk and hip-hop, appropriately enough for a tunesmith deeply influenced by Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP. Once the groove was established, Sheeran put his guitar down to exhort the crowd to clap and sing along. The audience needed little encouragement, eager for call and response before he even arrived at that point in the song. By the time he had the house lights brought up so he could snap a cell phone pic of his congregation, the energy in the room had shot into the stratosphere. And this was only the first song!

From then on, whether he was building more grooving loops on “Don’t,” “Give Me Love” or a fiery take on Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband” or breaking hearts and inducing tears with the stripped-down balladry of “Lego House,” “Thinking Out Loud” and the moving “All of the Stars,” from the soundtrack to the hit film The Fault of Our Stars, Sheeran and the crowd were in it together. The energy bounced back and forth, from performer to audience and back again, never faltering. Even when Sheeran sang the traditional folk tune “The Parting Glass” and led it into the dark “The A Team,” a cautionary tale of addiction, the fans were right there with him, singing along, hanging on his every gesture.

Sheeran ended with, of course, “Sing,” the relentlessly upbeat single from x that required, even demanded, audience participation. At his request the crowd kept up the wordless chorus even after he left the stage. That the audience’s energy never dissipated during this vocal coda proved their dedication to Sheeran’s vision. It’s going to make a great episode, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on PBS.

Valerie June brings organic moonshine to ACL

photo by Scott Newton

“I’ll try not to cry tonight,” said Valerie June directly after taking the stage for her ACL debut. “It means the world to me to be here.” With an intro like that, it would be impossible not to be on the side of this fast-rising Memphis singer/songwriter. The talent bursting from her seams, however, justified the empathy. With one foot in country blues, the other in mountain folk music and her head in the stars, June and her band conjured a distinctive brand of genre-blending songs that she calls organic moonshine roots music.

June opened with the Carter Family chestnut “Happy or Lonesome,” her unique voice working the midpoint between those emotional extremes. Then she and her band – which includes guitarist Binky Griptite, last seen on the ACL stage as part of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – ranged all over the Americana map, from the twanging folk of “Twined & Twisted” and sprightly country of “Rain Dance” to the waltzing honky-tonk of “Keep the Bar Open” and the heartfelt gospel of Jim Reeves’ “This World is Not My Home,” which earned especially vocal approval from the crowd. But whether June was strumming her custom-made “baby” (a banjo/ukulele hybrid) for “Somebody to Love,” crooning through the R&B balladry of “The Hour” or philosophizing the slow blues of “Pushin’ Against a Stone,” June put her own stamp on every note. Once you hear “Goodnight Irene,” her show-closer, you’ll never want to hear it any other way.

This was one of those special first-time shows that will be talked about for years to come. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on PBS.

Beck’s exciting, dynamic performance

photo by Scott Newton

Last night, we were pleased to welcome Beck to the ACL stage for a wide-ranging set of classic hits and stellar new material from his acclaimed new LP Morning Phase. Opening with the riff-heavy rocker “Devil’s Haircut,” Beck and his crack band had the audience in the palm of its collective hand from the get-go. The skittering garage rock of “Black Tambourine” and the groovy rawk of “Think I’m in Love” – which cleverly interpolated Donna Summer’s disco gem “I Feel Love” – kept the party vibe going.

Beck strapping on his acoustic guitar signaled a shift in mood, confirmed by the gorgeous “Golden Age.” The band kept to the spirit of that Sea Change hit, digging deeply into Morning Phase, with attendant hits from other LPs. “Blackbird Chain,” “Don’t Let It Go” and “Blue Moon” proved that Beck’s bag of folk-pop melodies remains bottomless, and his incorporation of banjo in “Say Goodbye” and the anthemic build of “Waking Light” showed him willing to play with the formula. Not content simply to drop new material on the crowd, Beck also essayed takes on Sea Change’s “Lost Cause” and Mutations’ “Dead Melodies,” which fit right in.

After that sustained wave of shimmering beauty, it was time to pump the energy back up, which the groovy “Sissyneck” accomplished nicely. The whooshing rhythm ‘n’ psych gem “Soldier Jane” and the funky blues rocker “Soul of a Man” kept things vibrating, setting the stage for the Big Smash. The crowd went wild at the sound of the familiar slide lick that heralded “Loser,” as the band filled out the sparse original with psychedelic weirdness and Beck danced all over the stage. The frisky electropop of “Girl” and the noisy guitar fest of “E-Pro” brought the main set to a crashing close, with Beck and band on ending up on their back and literally crawling offstage.

But it wasn’t over yet. The musicians came back to redo a few of the Morning Phase songs with renditions even more beautiful than the first takes. The encore exploded to a close with Beck’s classic anthem “Where It’s At,” in an extended version that included audience call-and-response, Beck doing the electric slide with guitarist Smokey Hormel and bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and a coda highlighting the singer’s harmonica showcase “One Foot in the Grave.” The crowd couldn’t have been happier, and we all wished we could have joined the band’s group hug.

Beck’s second performance for Austin City Limits – he first played the show in Season 28 in 2002 – was an exciting, dynamic showcase of talent, and we can’t wait for you to see it when the episode airs in the fall. Stay tuned!


Los Lobos perfectly kicks off 40th anniversary season

photo by Scott Newton

When you’re facing a major milestone, it doesn’t hurt to have some longtime friends help you out. Thus we opened our 40th anniversary taping season with the fifth appearance from ACL vets Los Lobos, also celebrating four decades of musical existence. With that much history to draw from, the East L.A. band roamed all over its long career, pulling from its 1983 coming out EP …And a Time to Dance all the way up to last year’s Disconnected Live in New York.

Settling into a similar format to that latter record, Los Lobos performed mostly unplugged, opening with “Yo Canto,” an original tune in the Mexican folk tradition driven by fleet-fingered requinto licks from David Hidalgo, whom Brian Bierig called “a mountain of a musician.” “El Cascabel,” “Saint Behind the Glass” and the fan favorite “La Pistola y el Corazón” kept the folk vibe going, before Conrad Lozano picked up his electric bass and drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez took the stage for “Malaqué.” The band recast guitarist Cesar Rosas’ sprightly rock & roll tune “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)” with acoustic guitars, though keeping Steve Berlin’s sax riffage intact. Less traditional folk flavors flowed in after that, from the jazzy blues of “Tin Can Trust” and the widescreen epic “Little Things” to the groovy dance tune “Chuco’s Cumbia” and the lovely ballad “Tears of God.”

Electric guitars finally made an appearance in the atmospheric “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” upping the muscle factor, even with a return to less rocking sounds with covers of Flaco Jimenez’s “Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio” (with a lyrical stumble that necessitated an immediate redo) and the traditional “Volver, Volver.” By the time we got to Rosas’ funky “Wicked Rain,” the street song thump of “Rio de Tenampa” (guest-starring the Grupo Fantasma horns) and the clattering rock of the set-ending “Mas y Mas,” Los Lobos was in full amplified flight.

Following a redo of “Tenampa,” the band brought the evening to a close with a volcanic “Don’t Worry Baby,” the best blues ‘n’ roll tune Stevie Ray Vaughan never wrote. With a set that covered the vast width and enormous breadth of its 40 year career, Los Lobos proved the perfect act to kick off ACL’s own anniversary celebration. And since we streamed the taping live as it went down, the whole world could join in the fun, prompting 54Moredoor to comment, “ACL you know how to throw a PARTY!”

Kacey Musgraves and Dale Watson: two sides of modern country music

photo by Scott Newton

For our final taping of our current season, ACL paid tribute to its roots, with country music both old-fashioned and new-fangled. First we welcomed Austin honky-tonk legend Dale Watson back to the ACL stage, and then CMA Best New Artist winner and Texas native Kacey Musgraves.

For Dale Watson’s set, the studio was transformed into a substitute for his regular haunt Ginny’s Little Longhorn, with a room full of dancers two-stepping in the time-honored manner. Indeed, Watson drove the point home with a shout-out to the eponymous founder of the Austin favorite as he delivered his Ginny’s tribute “Honkiest Tonkiest Beer Joint in Town.” Not that he needed to – he and his band the Lone Stars gave us plenty of danceable tunes. “Honkiest” and “Hey Brown Bottle” provided the prototypical Texas shuffles, while “My Baby Makes Me Gravy” and “Runaway Train” trucked in Johnny Cash’s chickaboom. The Lone Stars brought Western swing back to the ACL stage with “Give Me More Kisses” and lilted into a pretty waltz with “Your Love I’m Gonna Miss.” Classic honky-tonk reigned supreme on “Cowboy Boots” and “I Lie When I Drink,” while the set-ending “Exit 109” barreled down the highway with a classic trucking song. Watson soared over it all with his amazing voice that sounds genetically engineered to sing C&W. It was a gloriously fun set that celebrated old school country.

From the traditional to the contemporary: Kacey Musgraves took the stage with her talented band and a fresh sound that highlighted her Texas twang and original songs. “Stupid” and “Back On the Map” revolved around stomping beats and memorable guitar riffs, putting rock through a country wringer. The exceptionally melodic “Silver Lining” and “Merry Go ‘Round” incorporated as much folk and pop as C&W. The cheeky “The Trailer Song” and countrypolitan-flavored “High Time,” both new songs as yet unrecorded, proved the Golden, Texas native’s sure hand with the traditional stuff. Her self-described “depressing country music” gave the ballads “Keep It to Yourself” and “It Is What It Is” extra heart and soul. Best of all were her twin anthems: “Mama’s Broken Heart,” written by Musgraves but recorded by her friend and champion Miranda Lambert, and “Follow Your Arrow,” an empowerment anthem that, mark our words, will become her signature tune.

It was a lovely night of modern country music for our final taping of the 39th season. Look for this show to air on PBS early next year.


Sarah Jarosz and The Milk Carton Kids: the sound of contemporary folk music

photo by Scott Newton

When ACL vet Sarah Jarosz and newcomers The Milk Carton Kids decided to bring their complementary visions of acoustic music together on tour, we here at Austin City Limits knew we had a golden opportunity to showcase the sound of contemporary folk music. So we were happy to present this double shoot with two of acoustic music’s leading lights.

Despite their youth, The Milk Carton Kids could have stepped out of the early 60s folk revival. Playing almost purely acoustically – no guitar amplification, one vocal mic – Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale recalled a time when the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary and (especially) Simon & Garfunkel ruled the hit parade. Driven by close harmonies and skillful guitar work and punctuated by deadpan humor, the besuited duo’s songs had a timeless quality that only the best folk contains. From the peppy “Honey, Honey” and “New York” to the melancholy “Snake Eyes” and “Michigan,” the Kids moved through every iteration of folk music, even touching on Woody Guthrie-style commentary with “Memphis” and “I Still Want a Little More.” The pair finished the set by inviting tourmates Jarosz and her band up for “Years Gone By” –  “It turns out for this song that we sound better as a five-piece than as a two-piece,” noted Ryan. That may have been true, but regardless The Milk Carton Kids proved that they needed only the two of them to make music worth hearing.

One quick set change later, Sarah Jarosz and her band, Nathaniel Smith on cello and Alex Hargreaves on violin, took the stage. A recent graduate of the New England Conservatory, Jarosz brings a composer’s eye and a virtuoso’s ear to folk, moving from tradition into a realm of her own. She began with “Tell Me True,” which builds on Appalachian music, before moving into the more modern forms of “Left Home” and “Come Around,” both of which featured burning string work from Hargreaves and Smith. The trio then ranged from the minor key pop of “Build Me Up From Bones” (the title track of her latest LP) and the dramatic folk rocker of “1,000 Things” to the gorgeous balladry of “My Muse” and the busy instrumentalism of “Old Smitty.” Jarosz also dipped into the songbooks of others, treating the audience to an accessible take on Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right-On,” a solo rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song” and, count ‘em, two Bob Dylan songs: “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Ring Them Bells.” She also repaid The Milk Carton Kids’ favor by having the pair join her and the band for two tunes, “Annabelle Lee” (based on an Edgar Allen Poe poem) and “Mile On the Moon.”

We’re proud to have been a part of this presentation of the best in young folk artists, and we can’t wait for you to see it when the episode airs early next year. Watch this space for details.