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.

Nine Inch Nails exceeds expectations

photo by Scott Newton

As a pioneering artist, Nine Inch Nails constantly seeks new ways to present its vision to the public. As America’s longest-running music television show, Austin City Limits regularly pushes the envelope of presenting music on the small screen. So it was only natural for NIN and ACL to bring their acronyms together for an electrifying performance.

Fronting an eight-piece band that included longtime NIN guitarist Robin Finck, backing vocalists Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson and British bass legend Pino Palladino, Trent Reznor created an atmosphere of tension and release, with songs that offered both discomfort and catharsis. Opening with “All Time Low,” from the new album Hesitation Marks, the band rode an atmospheric funk groove married to classic NIN bile – “Everything is not OK!” Reznor seethed. NIN moved into the broiling “Sanctified,” from the debut Pretty Hate Machine, but pulled back from the original’s pound for a slow burn that raised the temperature in the theater. The droning “Disappointed” and the electrofunking “Copy of a” also grew in power, but never quite exploded, preferring instead to make the crowd sweat. The band constantly kept us on our toes with contrasting flavors – the pretty piano of “The Frail” leading directly into the scorched landscape of “The Wretched,” the noisy guitar swatches that punctuated the Reznorized soul of “Satellite,” the nervous electronic percussion under the soaring vocal of “While I’m Still Here,” the drum-heavy rumble leading into the singalong chorus of “The Big Come Down.” NIN challenge their audience even as they entertain them.

When the tension was given release, the results were awesome, whether it was the roaring rock & roll crunch of “Came Back Haunted” or the melancholy piano and floating groove of “Find My Way.” NIN ended the show with its classic anthem “Hurt” – the ultimate in cathartic performance art. We can’t wait for our viewers to experience this show for themselves – watch this space for broadcast information.

Portugal. The Man’s glorious set

photo by Scott Newton

Continuing Austin City Limit’s efforts to showcase the best in indie rock, we were happy to host the ACL debut of Portugal. The Man. The Portland quintet put a fresh coat of paint on the house of indie, with a blend of new wave, psychedelia, alternative pop and anything else that came to their attention. “I love the blending of psychedelic, synths, and guitars,” declared Scott Wright on YouTube during the livestream of tonight’s taping. “It’s just perfect.”

Unsurprisingly, the band drew heavily from its most recent work, particularly In the Mountain In the Clouds and its acclaimed Danger Mouse-produced LP Evil Friends. The funk-infused “All Your Light (Times Like These)” kicked things off by seguing its synth-pop into burly rock, working itself into an almost progressive rock epic. “The Sun” and “Sea of Air” incorporated a subtle Beatles feel, updating classic 60s psych pop for a new generation. The back-to-back pairing of “Modern Jesus” and “Hip Hop Kids” created a sugary rush moderated by Gourley’s clever, sardonic lyrics. In another callback to the classics, Portugal. The Man started its set-ender “Purple, Yellow, Red & Blue” with the first verse and chorus of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2,” a mashup that worked wonderfully due to the similarity between the rhythm guitar parts. One of the biggest surprises was “Dayman,” taken from the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, used as the middle portion in a mini-suite that began with Evil Friends’ title track and ended with the widescreen coda of “So American.” “I love how they mashup their own songs during live performances,” commented qwertyqwerty1230 from YouTube. “It makes each show unique.”

The band encored with the fan favorite “Sleep Forever,” sending the audience out with a lighter-waving classic rock anthem. It was a fitting end to a glorious set. We can’t wait for you to see it early next year – watch this space for broadcast details.

Local Natives make magic

photo by Scott Newton

There’s nothing quite like catching an artist on the rise. Local Natives attracted immediate acclaim with its first LP Gorilla Manor a couple years ago and has been steadily building a loyal, passionate audience since. We were fortunate to put that audience into a room with the L.A. quintet for its debut ACL taping, and the result was magic.

The atmospheric synth intro of “Breakers” signaled the beginning of a journey through the group’s harmony-rich vision of Afropop-kissed indie rock. Busy percussion and polyrhythmic grooves buoyed soaring melodies in “Ceilings,” “Colombia” and “You & I” to unique effect. “Airplanes,” “Black Balloons” and the crowd favorite “Wide Eyes” tightened the rhythms and emphasized catchy, jangly guitar hooks as much as airy vocals. “Shape Shifter,” “Bowery” and the encore-closing “Sun Hands” stretched the band out dynamically showcasing songs that started gently and ended with vibrant excitement. The band paid tribute to an oft-cited influence with a rattling cover of Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign.”

The most moving moment came during the final song of the main set, when the Natives performed a special acoustic arrangement of “Who Knows Who Cares” worked up for this performance that really exploited the band’s folk underpinnings and choir-like vocal harmonies. We’re always flattered when an artist treats a taping as a special occasion (made doubly so when the band asked their touring bass player to join them permanently), and we can’t wait for this spring to show you why this performance counts as one. Stay tuned.