Andra Day’s magnificent, soulful performance

photo by Scott Newton

Once again Austin City Limits is thrilled to host a rising star: Andra Day. The jazzy soul singer and songwriter gained a ton of attention for her inspirational, Grammy-nominated single “Rise Up” from her debut Cheers To the Fall, and hasn’t looked back since. The Spokane-born/San Diego-raised vocalist and her five-piece band gave us a magnificent performance of soulful originals and some choice covers, which we streamed live around the world.

After a taped intro of the Flamingos classic “I Only Have Eyes For You,” Day came out and the band eased into “Forever Mine,” a show-stopping ballad from Cheers To the Fall that really takes advantage of her range. Without pause, she launched into “Gold,” a peppier, defiant R&B tune that packed a powerful vocal punch and a jazz-soaked piano solo from Sir Charles Jones. Love then took a backseat to social commentary, as Day took on Nina Simone’s chillingly angry “Mississippi Goddamn,” recasting it in a more contemporary but no less incendiary style with a furious guitar solo from Dave Wood. Day introduced the next number as a song about two loves, “one of them true.” Jones gave the dramatic “Honey on Fire” a classically-influenced intro, with Day falling to one knee to let her pipes fly, and the tune segued directly into “Gin & Juice (Let Go My Hand),” a gospel-inflected ballad offering contrast to its immediate predecessor.

Before going into Kendrick Lamar’s “No Makeup,” Day explained the significance of the song to her and turned the hip-hop tune into a groovy soul number. After that groovefest, the band stripped down to Day and Jones, letting piano and voice carry a medley of “Rear View” and “Red Flags.” The band returned to pay tribute to another key Day influence on a medley of Bob Marley’s songs “Is This Love” and “Could You Be Loved,” highlighted by crazy falsetto from Jones (a R&B/gospel singer in his own right). Day then took a moment to acknowledge the terrible shooting in Orlando, Florida, which happened that very morning, and dedicated the next song to the victims. That song was “Rise Up,” her anthem about pulling power from tragedy and finding – and spreading – hope in the worst of times. The audience joined her for several choruses, turning the song from performance to communion.

The set shifted back into upbeat mode for “Mistakes,” a funky celebration of where the titular happenings can take one’s life. Day introduced her band, maestros all, and took them into “City Burns,” a soul/jazz tune that’s as consummate an example of her remarkable talents as anything she’s done. The band kept the groove going as she left the stage to wild applause, but the show wasn’t over yet. Day and her band came back with a surprise: a cover of Queen’s aggressively confident “I Want It All,” altered from its original hard rock arrangement into a slinky, pleading blues ballad – a bravura performance that made the song her own. Day left the stage blowing kisses as Wood took the band out with a burning solo. It was a fitting cap to a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.

Florence + the Machine’s dynamic fan-friendly lovefest

photo by Scott Newton

Since the last time they graced our stage in 2011, the UK’s unstoppable Florence + the Machine have become international superstars. In a high energy show that demonstrated dynamic leader Florence Welch’s remarkable rapport with her fans, the band gave us a taping packed with hits and cuts from their most recent, chart-topping LP How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.

Following a pre-taped musical intro, Florence walked onstage resplendent in a long, flowing white gown and barefoot, opening the show with “What the Water Gave Me,” the hit anthem from FATM’s second LP Ceremonials that went from moody to explosive as she moved from standing still before the mic to racing across the stage. Wasting neither time nor energy, the band dove right into the radio ruling monster “Ship to Wreck,” from How Blue. After imploring the audience to stand – and if already standing, to put someone on their shoulders, which a few couples did – Florence led the crowd into the dramatic “Rabbit Heart,” a gospel-like anthem that allowed to her to join the audience in jumping to the beat and bring some thrilled kids to the stage for twirls. She wasn’t done with the crowd afterward, recruiting them as her choir for the massive, Grammy-nominated hit “Shake It Out.”  

Florence returned to her latest record with “Delilah,” which started slow but quickly escalated into another of her patented pop anthems, and one which found her particularly animated as she danced freely across the stage. She then took a quick side trip with “Sweet Nothing,” the dance-flavored pop tune she delivered for British super-producer Calvin Harris. The title track of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful came next – she explained how the horn-laden pop psalm was the starting point for the album, and how it taught her to love not just one person but everyone and everything. The rapturous vibes continued with “Queen of Peace,” a twirlfest from the same LP. The music’s mood darkened a bit for “What Kind of Man,” but that doesn’t mean it didn’t rock, as the guitar and horns traded riffs and Florence cranked up her distinctive, glorious wail.

Florence ended the main set with “Spectrum,” the Ceremonials anthem that brought the audience to its highest peak yet. She left the stage afterward, but the crowd didn’t want to let her leave, of course, and they made their position clear loud and long. Sure enough, the band returned for “You’ve Got the Love,” another unabashedly feel-good widescreener that became a call-and-response anthem. After that, there was only one way to end the magical show, and that was with “Dog Days Are Over,” her breakthrough hit. It was also the moment that best showed off her powerful connection to the crowd, as they followed her in hugs, jumps and waving portions of clothing like flags. The lovefest finally ended onstage, but will continue this fall when this fantastic show airs on your local PBS station as part of our Season 42.

Paul Simon amazes with career-spanning set

photo by Scott Newton

We here at ACL have a shortlist of artists on the “At last!” list. Paul Simon has been at the top of that list for some time, so we were beyond thrilled to have the singer, songwriter and legend on our stage for his first-ever appearance. In a performance for the ages, the New York native traversed all across his astounding five-decade career, from Simon & Garfunkel classics to hits from his solo catalog to material from his highly-anticipated upcoming release Stranger to Stranger (out June 3rd).

The band took the stage in darkness, guitarists Mark Stewart and Vincent Nguini and bassist Bakithi Kumalo laying down a bubbling African groove as the nine-piece band joined in on the instrumental “Proof.” Acoustic guitar in hand and purple blazer around his shoulders, Simon entered as the brief instrumental wound down. Then a distinctive accordion riff from Austinite Joel Guzman signaled the launch into “The Boy in the Bubble,” the Graceland hit that brought African music to mainstream radio. Simon followed that bang-up open with one of his big guns: the monster hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” highlighted by Mick Rossi’s organ solo and crowd backing vocals. He then leapt forward to 2011 to his acclaimed album So Beautiful or So What and the percolating pop tune “Dazzling Blue.”

“I didn’t know it was a set,” Simon joked. “I thought it was the real city of Austin.” Then it was off to Louisiana for “That Was Your Mother,” the zydeco romp from Graceland. Simon then gave a quick explanation of how some songs come to be, combining a handclapped rhythm, acoustic guitar licks and prepared piano for the So Beautiful tune “Rewrite.” The band then went into a rare cover – the Bill Doggett shuffle “Honky Tonk,” which segued seamlessly into the similarly and rapturously received single “Slip Sliding Away.” He kept going with the early hit “Mother and Child Reunion,” the Jamaican lilt of which reminded us that his exploration of international grooves began long before Graceland. Stripped of complexity but no less danceable, “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” shot the show’s energy even higher than it already was, as evidenced by the audience’s wild response.

Switching to electric guitar, Simon told a story about an encounter with a brujo in the Amazon jungle as a prelude to “Spirit Voices,” from his Brazilian-inspired album The Rhythm of the Saints. He stayed with that record for the percussion-heavy radio hit “The Obvious Child.” Simon then touched on the title track of his upcoming LP, crooning over the gentle but insistent percolation of “Stranger to Stranger,” which featured a mallet hitting the inside of the piano as part of the percussion track. “It makes me feel good that you heard a new song and you liked it,” Simon commented. “Now here’s an old song.” That song was “Homeward Bound,” one of the gems from the Simon & Garfunkel catalog and one that earned him a standing ovation.

Simon stuck with the songs of his old firm for “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” though it was used merely as an intro for “Duncan,” the Latin-tinged single from his 1972 self-titled LP that garnered much audience appreciation. Drummer James Oblon donned a lycanthropic headdress and Mark Stewart picked up a didgeridoo for the sardonic sociopolitical commentary of “The Werewolf,” on which the crowd joined him with wolf howls. Cameroon guitarist Vincent Nguini then stepped to the mic, telling a fanciful story about how Simon got the next song, the fizzy Afropop anthem “The Cool, Cool River,” which ended with a free jazz piano solo. That deliberately discordant conclusion led into one of the prettiest musical moments in the show, as Simon and band essayed the a capella intro of delightful Graceland hit “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes.” A percussion outro led directly into “You Can Call Me Al,” one of Simon’s biggest Graceland hits and most irresistible songs (and showcase for bassist Kumalo). One audience sing-and-dancealong later, the main set came to an effervescent close.

Forgoing the walk-off, Simon and band instead stayed on stage for “Wristband,” a comic commentary on backstage stardom from the forthcoming record. He then revisited the iconic Graceland one more time for the slide guitar-saturated African groove of the title tune. The crowd went nuts, but it still wasn’t over. Once again not bothering to quit the stage for the encore ritual, instead Simon eased into a gorgeous take on his standard “Still Crazy After All These Years.” He finally left the stage, but his absence was brief, as he returned solo for an elegiac “The Sound of Silence,” Simon & Garfunkel’s first hit and the song that introduced his immense talent to the wider world. A smiling Simon clapped along with the screaming crowd, taking his final bow. It was an amazing show that ACL fans will talk about for years to come, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.

My Morning Jacket’s epic performance

photo by Scott Newton

The last time My Morning Jacket appeared on Austin City Limits, in 2008, we were still in our original studio on the UT campus. So we were thrilled to welcome the Kentucky quintet to what’s been our home stage for the past five years for its third taping and first to be streamed live around the world. Concentrating on its most recent albums Circuital and The Waterfall, the band turned in a trademark epic performance.

After some brief pre-taped intro music, the band took the stage to the folk rocking strains of “Circuital.” Resplendent in his swirled kimono and big sunglasses, leader Jim James strapped on his Gibson for the neo-classic rock anthemry of “Believe (Nobody Knows),” segueing almost immediately into the similarly-inclined but pedal steel-laced “Outta My System.” Bo Koster’s buzzing synths and a midtempo stomp powered “Spring (Among the Living),” with James and fellow axeperson Carl Broemel alternating meaty solos. The band didn’t have to tell the audience that it would slow things down, instead jumping right into the self-explanatory “Slow Slow Tune” to bring on a mellow mood. The Jacket then did something we love: debuted a new song, entitled “Throwback (When We Were Young),” and driven by dueling riffs and a singalong chorus.

Band and audience paused for breath, before James and Broemel began the fingerpicked guitar web that introduces the epic “Tropics (Erase Traces).” After that storm of guitars and fire, the group brought the mood back down with the languid, soulful “Only Memories Remain,” on which James showed off his vocal range and took a dynamic guitar solo that went from jazzy to jagged. After eight songs drawing from Circuital and The Waterfall, the band reached back to its 2003 classic It Still Moves for the crunchy “Masterplan,” six-strings a-blazing. MMJ dipped back into The WaterfalI for “In Its Infancy,” which shifted from keyboard-led grooves to powerhouse arena rock at will. The band segued immediately into It Still Moves fan favorite “I Will Sing You Songs,” ending the main set on an unhurried note that eased the audience into the break.

Returning for a generous five-song encore, James, Broemel and Koster took the stage for the lovely “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” with bassist Tom Blankenship and drummer Patrick Hallahan joining halfway through to transform it from folk to country. “Get the Point” aimed for an even more mellow target, the better to clear the palette for “Victory Dance.” Donning a towel on his head and a sampler around his neck, James strolled the stage as Koster’s clavinet roiled behind him and the band built up to its proggiest crescendoes yet. A galloping Hallahan beat announced the widescreen groover “Compound Fracture,” which stretched out without zoning out. The band brought the show to a close with It Still Moves’ upbeat rocker/statement of purpose “Mahgeetah,” bringing it all home with James and Broemel’s dueling guitar solos. The audience made its appreciation known loud and long. It was a fitting end to a spectacular show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall as part of our Season 42 on your local PBS station.

Rhiannon Giddens does it all on ACL debut

photo by Scott Newton

Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, interpreter – Rhiannon Giddens does it all on her acclaimed solo debut Tomorrow is My Turn. We were thrilled to host the Carolina Chocolate Drops member for her livestreamed debut ACL taping, and the NC native didn’t disappoint.

A barefoot Giddens and her seven-piece Americana orchestra took the stage to already enthusiastic applause. Donning her banjo, she and the band launched into the dramatic “Spanish Mary,” a Bob Dylan song Giddens finished for the all-star New Basement Tapes project. An accidentally muted fiddle meant an immediate retake – “Here’s a tune you may have heard before,” Giddens quipped – but the eager crowd clearly didn’t mind, and was rewarded with a tougher, grittier performance. She then moved to Tomorrow for the jaunty, fiddle-heavy “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” from the catalog of the great Dolly Parton, “one of the most feminist writers out there.” She stayed with classic country for a stirring take on Hank Cochran’s sad and beautiful “She’s Got You,” made famous by the iconic Patsy Cline, before turning to the catalog of folk singer Odetta for the African-American work song “Waterboy,” a powerful showcase for her classically-trained vocal chops. She closed out the Tomorrow portion of the evening with a rumbling version of the Geeshie Wiley blues “Last Kind Words” that spotlighted her Drops bandmate Hubby Jenkins on mandolin.

Giddens then dug into her own growing catalog of originals for “Julie.” Inspired by a book of slave narratives, the tune recounts a conversation between a slave and her mistress, a performance stripped down to Dirk Powell’s fiddle and her own banjo, which is a replica of a 19th-century instrument. The rest of the band rejoined them as Giddens switched to fiddle and Powell (a folk and traditional music star in his own right) picked up his accordion for the Creole tune “Dimanche Apres-Midi” (“Sunday Afternoon Waltz”). Giddens and the band rocked up the folk for “Louisiana Man,” a snarling romantic putdown from Giddens’ own pen that bore down thanks to the circle of her banjo, Powell’s fiddle, Jason Sypher’s bass and Chance McCoy’s electric guitar. Jenkins then stepped forward to join Giddens on vocals for the gospel song “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” which he brought to the Drops’ repertoire.

Giddens went back to her own catalog for the chilling “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a dark tune inspired by a 19th century advertisement for a slave and her baby and frosted by Malcolm Parson’s scraping cello. After ten songs chronicling American folk, she crossed the ocean for one of the musical strains at its root, closing the set with a stunning performance of traditional Gaelic “Mouth Music” that brought the house down. A standing ovation brought Giddens and the band back, wherein she explained that this was the band’s last show of the year and how thankful she was for her band and the paths on which her music has taken her. Following hugs all around for the musicians, Gidden and friends launched into a medley of “That Lonesome Road” and “Up Above My Head” from the catalog of pioneering gospel singer/proto rock & roll guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe – a rollicking call-and-response closer with solos all around. The crowd sent the band out with wild cheers and applause, all well-deserved. It was a rousing closer to a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall as part of our Season 42 on your local PBS station.    

James Bay brings Chaos & the Calm to ACL debut

photo by Scott Newton

UK singer/songwriter sensation James Bay became the latest British invader to win over the U.S. with his Grammy-nominated breakthrough hit “Hold Back the River.” We were pleased to welcome the Hertfordshire native to our studio for his debut taping as he showcased his acclaimed debut LP Chaos and the Calm.

Adorned in his trademark black hat, Bay and his four-piece band opened the show on a high energy note with the bluesy, rocking “Collide.” He followed that slam-bang with “Craving,” a catchy slice of what would have been called heartland rock back in the ‘80s. “When We Were On Fire” kept the faith, adding a soulful edge thanks to Bay’s elastic vocals. After donning an acoustic 12-string guitar, Bay explained how he and the band “geeked out” on ACL, before launching into the folk rock charmer “If You Ever Want to Be in Love.” Switching to a six-string, Bay got soulful and romantic on the midtempo beauty “Need the Sun to Break,” which generated applause with just the opening riff.

Breaking from Chaos, the singer/songwriter slowed things down with the widescreen ballad “Running,” from his UK breakout EP Other Sides.  Then it was back to the LP, as a harmony guitar riff between Bay and guitarist Andy Cortes garnered cheers for the opening of his massive hit serenade “Let It Go,” featuring a bluesy Bay solo and the audience on backing vocals. He then surprised us with a brief, instrumental excerpt of the immortal Elvis Presley classic “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” used as an intro for the lighter-waver “Scars,” a clear crowd favorite. The band then let pianist Jack Duxbury stretch out on an extended intro to “Move Together,” another lush ballad.

A switch to a Gibson SG heralded a switch in tone, as a chunky guitar riff and Bay’s demand to “see some hands” powered up the gnarly rocker “Best Fake Smile.” Bay and his band kept the energy level high with the crunchy “Get Out While You Can,” which made the crowd into hand-clappin’ fools and ended the main set with a bang. The time between the band leaving the stage and returning was short, however, and they started their encore with a song familiar to all: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s immortal “Proud Mary,” which morphed halfway through into Tina Turner’s powerhouse version, both halves punctuated by steely guitar solos. Bay ended the performance with the fan-favorite anthem “Hold Back the River,” likely to be his own contribution to the classic rock canon. The show ended with the requisite big rock flourish, to the delight of the passionate crowd. It was a memorable ACL debut, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it broadcasts as part of Season 42 on PBS.

Natalia Lafourcade dazzles with ACL debut

photo by Scott Newton

Natalia Lafourcade isn’t a household name to a lot of Americans. A superstar in Mexico, a  2016 Grammy winner and multiple Latin Grammy Award-winner, the indie pop singer/songwriter has the goods to conquer the world outside her home, as she proved on her debut ACL taping, which was streamed live around the world.

Lafourcade and her backing quintet began with a set of songs from her latest album Hasta La Raíz, a platinum-selling, number one LP in Mexico and Grammy-winner for Best Latin Rock album here. Following a pre-taped ambient intro, “Vámonos Negrito”- sitting somewhere between romantic balladry and modern pop – kicked the show off in fine style. She followed with her acclaimed two-time Latin Grammy-winning title track, an intimate, melodic anthem about holding on to one’s roots, which showcased her sweet, airy vocals. Seguing into “Lo Que Construimos,” a jazzy pop confection featuring complementary guitar and trumpet solos, “Ya No Te Puedo Querer” moved back toward anthem territory, the breakup message of the lyrics couched in a tastefully dramatic rock arrangement. “Nunca Es Suficiente” set its lyrics of romantic disappointment to a wistful cumbia.

Lafourcade then announced a special treat – she would sing in English for the first time, just for our audience, nailing Nina Simone’s challenging ballad “Lilac Wine.” Still in tribute mode, she moved to the piano for the sweeping love song “Amore De Mis Amores,” from her tribute album to the classic Mexican singer and songwriter Agustín Lara. She went back to original material for the 70s pop of “Casa,” the title track to her bestselling 2005 album of the same name. She then reached even further back to the catchy “En El 2000,” her breakthrough radio hit and a song she explained that she’d come to hate due to constant requests for it, but now “we’re friends again.” The audience enhanced the rhythm with their own handclaps.

Lafourcade went back to Raíz for “Mi Lugar Favorito,” paying tribute to her “favorite place” with an infectious melody, a dazzling trumpet solo from Alfredo Pino, syncopated band dancing and crowd participation. Then she presented another song rendered especially for ACL – a lovely voice and guitar version of Elvis Presley’s immortal “Love Me Tender” that earned her enthusiastic applause. Her band rejoined her for the equally pretty, bossa nova-influenced gem “Para Qué Sufrir,” a clear fan favorite.

Lafourcade took a moment to express how excited she and the band were to be on our stage, which she kneeled to touch. She then moved back to her piano for the closing song “Palomas Blancas,” a grand pop ballad about being connected to the world. She and the band took well-deserved bows as the audience called out for more. Their enthusiasm was rewarded when Lafourcade and the band returned for “Estoy Lista,” a confident slice of melody-rich piano pop. It was a perfect closer to a remarkable ACL debut, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it broadcasts during Season 42 this fall on your local PBS station.


Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters tape new show for the ages

photo by Scott Newton

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters are a class act. Few rockers of Plant’s generation have matured as well and kept as open a musical mind as he has, as evidenced by the eclectic material he’s recorded in the decades since Led Zeppelin ceased, as well as the diverse skills of his multi-cultural band. The last time Plant appeared on ACL in 2002, he gave us a show for the ages that’s still talked about and referenced. Fourteen years later, he and his six-piece band (a variation on the one that accompanied him last time) did it again, this time livestreamed for fans everywhere.

Plant grabbed the audience by the heart immediately by playing a recording of the song “Twine Time” in tribute to Austin’s late blues/soul/jazz DJ Paul Ray. He and the Shifters then launched into his former band’s “The Lemon Song,” re-imagined as a shuffle that emphasizes the classic blues lyrics Zep borrowed when it was first recorded. Sending a clear signal that he wasn’t living in the past, he followed up with the spacy, bendir-and-eBow-enhanced anthem “Rainbow,” from his most recent album Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar. Then it was back to the Zep catalog for the immortal “Black Dog,” given a roiling tempo, electronic frosting, an extended coda featuring Gambian musician Juldeh Camera’s ritti (a West African bowed instrument) and enthusiastic call and response from the crowd. Plant then Roared back with the groovy powerhouse “Turn It Up,” a song he explained was inspired by his years living in Austin.

Plant followed that slice of modern rock by taking on Howlin’ Wolf’s classic “Spoonful,” giving it a crawling Afro-psychedelic makeover and a duet between Camara’s ritti and guitarist Justin Adams’ tehardant, a West African lute. He then revisited one of his earliest solo hits, the atmospheric, incomparable “In the Mood,” given an acoustic guitar/banjo/piano reading here. Plant went back to the well of the mighty Wolf, taking the heavy blues “No Place to Go” (AKA “How Many More Years”) into spacier, more exotic territory thanks to Camara’s bowing and keyboardist John Baggot’s exotic sounds. He continued his trip through the past by seguing directly into the classic “Dazed and Confused” and following it with that band’s mighty rearrangement of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” – both staples of Zeppelin’s repertoire. “Can you feel it?” Plant asked, and the answer was a definite affirmative, with “Babe” earning a standing ovation.      .

Plant and the Shifters stayed with music history, but given a 21st century update: the Ralph Stanley-popularized folk song “Little Maggie” became a droning worldbeat tour-de-force, while Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die” became the freight-train rhythmed anthem they performed the last time they were here. The main set crashed to a close as Plant and the Shifters gave the audience a treat, running Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” into the titanic “Whole Lotta Love,” which itself incorporated an Africanized “Hey Bo Diddley.” The audience sang the chorus back to them in ecstasy.

There was no way that didn’t leave us hungry for more, of course, and the band soon returned. First up for the encore was a redo of “Rainbow.” Then the Shifters and Plant essayed a brooding version of the traditional gospel blues “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” which Plant recorded for Band of Joy. Plant and the Shifters left us with a major crowdpleaser: the “old English folk song” most of us know as the immortal “Rock and Roll,” taken into a new, groovy place via Baggot’s keyboards, Camara’s ritti and some more audience call-and-response. Plant and the Shifters took a well-deserved bow to a standing ovation. It was a sensational show from a music giant never content to rest on his laurels, and we can’t wait for you to see the broadcast episode when it airs this fall as part of our Season 42 on your local PBS station.