Neko Case’s tour de force

photo by Scott Newton

When Neko Case last graced the ACL stage, she was still the reigning queen of Americana, a minimalist-minded singer and songwriter in thrall to torch songs and classic country. Over the succeeding decade, however, she’s developed into an eclectic, ambitious artist who won’t be hemmed in by genre restrictions, as her latest LP The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You attests. With that acclaimed work in hand, Case and her band gave us a well-rounded, wide-ranging performance.

Opening with “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” an atmospheric slice of art pop, Case followed directly with “This Tornado Loves You,” one of her most accessible and eccentric tunes. Case and her versatile band, including returning stalwarts Jon Rauhouse, Tom Ray and Kelly Hogan, moved from ringing folk rockers like “City Swans,” “Hold On, Hold On” and “People Gotta Lotta Nerve” to classic balladry like “Night Still Comes,” “Lion’s Jaw” and the particularly gorgeous “Calling Card.” She has a singular affinity for 6/8 time, adding subtle 50s-style melodies to songs like “That Teenage Feeling,” “Wild Creatures” and “The Pharaohs,” and added some funny power pop with the snarky “Man.” Case didn’t forget her roots, however, reaching far back to her earlier work for the countrified gem “Set Out Running,” which exploits the Patsy Cline side of her voice, and the classic beauty “I Wish I Was the Moon.” Despite it being a cover, Case was at her most emotionally vulnerable on Harry Nilsson’s understated ballad “Don’t Forget Me.”

It was an eclectic, brilliant performance that perfectly encapsulated where Neko Case finds her artistry circa 2013. We can’t wait for you to see it early next year – watch this space for broadcast details.

Queens of the Stone Age melt faces at debut ACL taping

photo by Scott Newton

Indie rock, singer-songwriters, Americana and soul are great, and we love it all, but sometimes we just need a dose of face-melting rock & roll. Few bands provide that kind of cochlea-destroying good time as well as Queens of the Stone Age did for their first ACL taping. Main Queen Josh Homme has been on the show before, with the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures. (For that matter Queens keyboardist Dean Fertita last visited our stage with the Raconteurs.) But this is the first time he’s brought his main creation to Austin City Limits, and it was a mutual love affair from the first (extremely loud) note.

The quintet opened the show with the pole position track from its breakthrough Songs For the Deaf – “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire” blasted out on waves of drums and Homme’s instantly recognizable guitar tone. This wasn’t the only time the Queens shook the rafters – “Little Sister,” “My God is the Sun” and “No One Knows” (the Big Rawk Hit, played surprisingly early in the set) reveled in the band’s patented blend of singalong melodies and amp-frying roar. Not everything was about sonic wallop, however – the band wove an eclectic, open-minded musical approach into its distinctive sound, with special attention paid to its acclaimed new LP …Like Clockwork. “If I Had a Tail” and “Smooth Sailing” rode a hipshaking swagger, while “Make It Wit Chu” added a seductive slither that subverted the stereotypical sex rap implied by the title. “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” “…Like Clockwork” and “I Appear Missing” essayed the Queensly version of power balladry, while “In the Fade” stretched into widescreen psychedelia. “I Sat By the Ocean” added a subtle early 70s David Bowie influence, like Ziggy Stardust filtered through Homme’s vision of acid rock.

The show ended as it began, with a blazing salvo from Songs From the Deaf. The guitar orgy that is “A Song For the Dead” ripped through classic blues metal at nearly hardcore punk velocity, ending the evening in a wave of feedback, Homme’s guitar hanging from the microphone. Queens of the Stone Age’s ACL set is what rock & roll is all about, and we can’t wait for you to see for yourselves when the episode airs early next year. Stay tuned.

Fun. creates a unique experience

photo by Scott Newton

For some artists, a performance is about self-expression, a way to reveal themselves in a creative fashion. Nothing wrong with that – that approach has given us great art. But for some musicians, a show is all about that distinctive bond with the audience, the magnificent meld of action and reaction that creates a unique experience for band and crowd.

Fun. reveled in that bond during their debut Austin City Limits taping. The band enjoyed a devoted fanbase even before they scored Grammys and number one hits with their LP Some Nights, and their widespread success meant a bigger, more enthusiastic crowd than ever before. The trio and their backing musicians used the marching “One Foot” and the piano popping “All Alone” to prime the pump, so when singer Nate Ruess engaged the audience in some call-and-response lessons before the very Queen-like “At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used to Be),” they were ready. But the group teased a bit more with the rocking “All the Pretty Girls,” before bringing the crowd in for “Barlights,” Ruess exhorting the people to join in on the song’s cathartic chorus of “I feel alive!”

“Carry On” brought the audience completely into the fold, as it sang along without prompting to one of fun.’s best-known anthems. “The Gambler,” Ruess’s tender ode to his parents’ relationship, provided a brief respite, but with “We Are Young,” fun.’s Grammy-winning number one hit, the place exploded. Crowd and band became one, as the former sang along with every word, sometimes louder than the band itself. A cover of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” kept the energy level high, and the encore of “Some Nights” revived the audience singalong, as they provided the massed choral vocals from the recording with the energy of Ruess himself. “Stars” concluded the show with more singing during the bridge, providing a gentle comedown like a cup of coffee after an amazing dessert.

The exuberance came as much from the band’s excitement at being with us as from its rapport with the crowd. “We’re on a stage right now that means the most for us to be here,” remarked guitarist Jack Antonoff. “This is a special, special evening for us,” enthused Ruess. “This is a dream come true – thank you so much for being with us.” We feel it’s safe to say it was a special night for Austin City Limits as well. We can’t wait for everybody to see this episode – check your local listings this fall!

The Black Angels’ Texas psychedelic tradition

photo by Scott Newton

While the West Coast got all the press in the 60s, music lovers often forget that psychedelic rock has its roots as much in the Lone Star State as in California, thanks to acid rock heroes the 13th Floor Elevators, who were the first band to apply the term “psychedelic” to rock & roll. As Eddie Contreras commented on Twitter, Austin’s own Black Angels “are keeping up the tradition of legends like Roky Erickson at #acltv right now – good ol psychedelic music from Texas!”

If any band could be described as being bathed in a sea of reverb, it’s The Black Angels. (Their record label is called the Reverb Appreciation Society, after all.) With a few whammy barred chords drenched in cavernous echo, the band launched into “The Sniper,” swirling together melody and drone. That blend defines the band’s aesthetic, which was in full flower on the ACL TV stage. The set leaned most heavily on the band’s later, more melodic work on Phosphene Dream and this year’s Indigo Meadow – gems like “Evil Things,” “I Hear Colors” and the overtly 60s-worshipping “Yellow Elevator” moved the band close to pop without compromising its essential psychedelic brood. But The Black Angels indulged in plenty of its signature drone rock, as the dark, propulsive brooding of “Mission District,” “You On the Run” and “Black Grease” (the song that put the band on the map seven years ago) set the controls for the heart of the sun. “Twisted Light” ended the main set with layers of guitar and organ compote.

For the encore, they kicked off with “Telephone,” the poppiest song in its repertoire, sounding almost like a lost Small Faces classic. Then it was into the sardonic drone of “Bad Vibrations,” before bringing it all back home with the mysterious and powerful “Young Men Dead,” the first song on their first album Passover. The Black Angels took Austin City Limits into the psychedelic heart of darkness and back out into the light. We can’t wait for our fans to see them in action this fall – stay tuned.

Dawes’ upward momentum

photo by Scott Newton

Here at Austin City Limits, we love to showcase artists on the rise. Dawes is definitely that – the Los Angeles quartet made waves almost immediately with its 2009 debut album North Hills, and has kept its upward momentum going since.

Taking the stage to a subtle organ bed, Dawes launched into “From a Window Seat,” the first single from its latest LP Stories Don’t End. The sharply melodic, harmony-rich tune set the standard for the rest of the set, which draws from the folk/country rock of the 70s. “If I Wanted Someone” and “Fire Away” rode a midtempo groove, emphasizing the song’s natural tunefulness, while “Someone Will” added a fingerpicked country & western vibe. “Just Beneath the Surface” added some classic pop melodicism, while “Most People” highlighted the brotherly harmonies of leader Taylor Goldsmith and drummer Griffin Goldsmith for some stunning counterpoint vocals. The band was at its best when it folded an epic feel into its songs – the widescreen “Time Spent in Los Angeles” and “When My Time Comes.”  The slow-burning “A Little Bit of Everything” brought the show to a close with a conversational saga that crossed narrative storytelling with stadium folk rock.

Though Dawes left the stage following that crowd-pleaser, it wasn’t done yet. Encore “From the Right Angle” multiplied the grandeur times ten, maintaining the epic feel and letting some unruly rock & roll take the performance into the stratosphere. The crowd understandably went wild. We can’t wait for the rest of you to see how Dawes got the audience fired up when this episode airs this fall. Stay tuned!

Jason Isbell’s blurred lines

photo by Scott Newton

“I try my best to have a lot of fun playing really sad songs,” declared singer/guitarist/songwriter Jason Isbell from the Austin City Limits stage.”It’s kinda what I do.” Brooding melancholy isn’t usually a recipe for onstage success, but in the hands of Alabama native and former Drive-By Trucker Isbell, it’s the fuel for a mighty musical engine – what Facebooker Odam Hunt calls “an unstoppable force.” That talent powered a cool ACL debut, as Isbell brought his soulful voice, stinging guitar and acclaimed catalog of tunes to ACL in celebration of his stellar new record Southeastern.

Isbell and his band the 400 Unit opened with blasts of loud, Crazy Horse-style rock & roll, as “Flying Over Water” and “Go It Alone” served notice that this wasn’t going to be an easygoing country/folk show. Then it was straight into “Alabama Pines,” a wistful walk down memory lane that won the 2012 Americana Music Association Song of the Year award. He travelled that lane even further into the past, resurrecting his DBT classics “Decoration Day” and “Outfit,” the latter’s gorgeous waltz-time meditation on fatherly advice reiterating how early Isbell fulfilled his songwriting promise.

Once Isbell strapped on his acoustic guitar, the creeping darkness came to full flower. “Live Oak” and “Different Days” looked back at shameful days gone by with the hope that current loved ones won’t notice the craggy lines left on the character’s face. The jaunty but subtly disturbing country rocker “Codeine” (“One of my friends has taken you in and given you codeine”) induced shivers of unease as much as two-stepping. But the most poignant piercing of our collective heart came from the lovely, quietly devastating “Elephant,” a recollection of death and the difficulty of facing its facts. Despite its somber subject matter “Elephant” brought the biggest crowd response – acknowledgement of an amazing song beautifully performed.

It wasn’t all sad songs and waltzes, though. The atmospheric ballad “Cover Me Up” and yearning folk song “Traveling Alone” invited new love into a hard life, acknowledging the good influence a partner would have – apt, given the presence in the 400 Unit of Isbell’s wife, singer/violinist (and Lubbock native) Amanda Shires. He ended the main set with the sardonic “Super 8,” a greasy rocker in the Stones/Faces mode. Isbell and the band encored with “Danko/Manuel,” another of the songwriter’s noteworthy DBT tracks, and a blazing, guitar-fueled take on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers gem “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” “Unreal ending,” noted John Raffaele on Facebook, “I am shivering.”

Blurring the lines of country, rock and folk, Isbell proved that he’s earned every inch of ink spilled on behalf of his excellent songwriting and confident performance. “Jason’s not just a musician, he’s a wordsmith…and a new favourite,” Stacye Carroll declared. “So glad you showcased him here!” We can’t wait for ACL fans to see this show and experience it for themselves.