Leon Russell R.I.P.

The Austin City Limits staff was sorry to learn about the passing of rock & roll legend Leon Russell on Sunday at the age of 74. Though not a household name like so many others of his generation, the piano-pounding singer/songwriter was an important trailblazer of 60s and 70s rock and a prime influence on artists as diverse as Elton John, Bruce Hornsby and Pixies vocalist Black Francis. After relocating from Tulsa to Los Angeles in the 1950s, the Oklahoma native became a first-call session musician, playing on records by the Byrds, Glen Campbell, Gary Lewis & the Playboys and many, many more, including regular dates for super-producer Phil Spector. In the late 60s, Russell became musical director for British soul singer Joe Cocker, producing his 1969 hit self-titled album, penning the hit single “Delta Lady” and pulling together the loose conglomeration that backed Cocker on his star-making live LP Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

Russell’s solo career began in earnest in 1970 with his eponymous LP, which contains the standard “A Song For You,” as covered by everyone from Ray Charles to the Carpenters to Amy Winehouse. (Not to mention Willie Nelson, whose recording of the song from the 1975 ACL pilot gives our upcoming documentary its title.) Russell worked prolifically from then on, as songwriter, producer, sessioneer and solo artist. As well as label owner – his Shelter Records housed not only his own work (including gold records Leon Russell and the Shelter People, featuring “Stranger in a Strange Land,” and Carney, featuring “Tight Rope” and “This Masquerade”) but also Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Freddie King, J.J. Cale, the Dwight Twilley Band, the Gap Band and the sole album by Texas’ own Willis Alan Ramsey.

For the last 30-odd years the iconoclastic Russell worked in any idiom that struck his fancy, merging rock, country, blues, jazz, bluegrass and Dixieland into a style uniquely his own. He’s toured and worked extensively with Willie Nelson and B.B. King, among others. In recent years he teamed up with longtime admirer Elton John for the 2011 duets record The Union, produced by T Bone Burnett, and most recently released the album Life Journey in 2014. He continued to tour, slowed down only by a heart attack earlier this year. Russell was a man living within in his own place in time, not a revivalist but a revival unto himself. He will be missed.

Russell appeared on Austin City Limits twice: as a headliner in Season 14 (1987) and as a guest of Willie Nelson in Season 25 (2000). The clip below is taken from the former, and features his take on his great ballad “A Song For You.”

Giveaway: Cece Winans and St. Paul and the Broken Bones

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UPDATE: Giveaway is now over

Austin City Limits will be taping performances by CECE WINANS & ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES on Sunday, Nov. 20th, at 8 pm at ACL Live at The Moody Theater (310 W. 2nd Street, Willie Nelson Blvd). We will be giving away a limited number of space available passes to this taping. Enter your name and email address on the below form by 9 am on Thursday, Nov. 17th.

Winners will be chosen at random and a photo ID will be required to pickup tickets. Winners will be notified by email. Passes are not transferable and cannot be sold. Standing may be required.  No photography, recording or cell phone use in the studio. No cameras or recording devices allowed in venue.

Leonard Cohen 1934-2016

We at Austin City Limits are greatly saddened to learn of the passing of the great singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen at the age of 82.

Transcending genre, the Montreal native was one of the most unique figures in all of popular music. Many songwriters are credited with bringing literary acumen to their work, usually without any real justification. But for Cohen it’s true – he’d already had a career as a poet and a novelist before turning to music as his main artistic outlet, and he brought his full authorial weight to the songs he recorded. His lyrics reveal a craftsman’s eye, knowing exactly what words to include and what to leave out, and his melodies strip down to support the libretto without becoming forgettable backdrops. While often accused of dwelling too often in the darkness, his songs travel a wide range of emotional terrain, from anger to joy to confusion to, yes, depression, exploring them all with an intellectual’s wit and a poet’s sensitivity. Cohen had a special affinity for navigating that mysterious space between the sacred and the secular – unsurprising for this grandson of a rabbi and follower of Buddhism. His ability to blur the lines between the sensual and the divine highlighted the truth in unbridled passion and the grace in a sense of wonder – not for nothing did Cohen once claim he “Came So Far For Beauty.”

Cohen had a special connection to Austin. On the 1979 tour captured on the live album Field Commander Cohen, he used the Austin jazz fusion group Passenger as the core of his road band, and guitarist Mitch Watkins, keyboardist Bill Ginn, saxophonist Paul Ostermayer and, especially, bassist Roscoe Beck would be off-and-on staples of his backup groups from then on. (Longtime backing singer Julie Christensen also did time in Austin prior to joining Cohen’s troop.) Perhaps it was this connection that led to his decision to make his major U.S. television debut on Austin City Limits. Recorded on Halloween night in 1988 and broadcast in 1989, Cohen’s hour-long episode was and is one for the ages, a tour-de-force of songcraft and performance that has become one of our most beloved and requested shows.

“Leonard was not much aware of ACL until his Austin friends and cohorts convinced him to do the show,” remarks Executive Producer Terry Lickona. “The band played a late show in L.A. the night before and took the red-eye straight to Austin, arriving just in time for rehearsal. They were all wearing the same clothes (Leonard never did change), and his only request was for a bottle of tequila, which the band easily dispensed with. The show was mesmerizing, as was the reaction from viewers who had never heard or seen anything quite like him. Leonard told me some years later that that Austin City Limits performance ‘saved his career in America’ at a time when he had all but been forgotten.”

Cohen returned in 1993 in support of his trailblazing record The Future. The maestro was so pleased with the results he included two of the songs on his 1994 concert record Cohen LiveWe’re honored to have these two classic appearances to document his unforgettable legacy.  You can watch the first one below. 

 

My Morning Jacket and Ben Harper bring big rock to ACL’s Season 42

Austin City Limits showcases two of modern rock’s best live acts: My Morning Jacket and Ben Harper.  The longtime fan favorites make return appearances armed with new material in a must-see installment as part of ACL’s Season 42.

My Morning Jacket return for the first time in nearly a decade for their third Austin City Limits appearance, highlighting songs from their last two studio albums, The Waterfall and Circuital.  The Kentucky indie-rockers, five-time Grammy Award-winners, kick off a blissed-out 4-song set with the title track to 2011’s Circuital.  Charismatic leader Jim James dazzles in a colorful kimono and big sunglasses as the band builds their signature soundscapes, including a tune from The Waterfall, a 2016 Grammy nominee for Best Alternative Album.  Their psychedelic textures expand into a glorious wall of sound for the set-closer “Victory Dance,” as the shape-shifting James prowls the stage with a towel on his head and an electronic sampler around his neck for an epic close.

Ben Harper reunites with his longtime backing band the Innocent Criminals after a seven-year hiatus for his first ACL appearance since Season 35.  Harper and crew deliver a powerful, six-song set featuring classics and new songs from 2016’s acclaimed Call It What It Is.  Opening with the ever-catchy “Steal My Kisses,” the frontman gets the crowd on its feet, then segues into soulful new gems, showcasing his trademark lap steel guitar bona fides.  The socially-charged title track from his latest release has Harper reciting the names of gone-too-soon young black men.  Harper’s show-stopping performance of the take-us-to-church gospel burner “Where Could I Go” leaves both singer and audience overcome from the power of the moment, exposing the painfully honest and self-reflective lyrics that have made Harper a fan-favorite for 20-plus years.

photo by Scott Newton

“Jim James has appeared on the ACL stage in many musical guises, as befits his wildly eclectic virtuosity,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona.  “But My Morning Jacket brings him back to ground zero where he is most at home. He’s one of the best at engaging a live audience, and it shows.  Ben Harper is another perennial favorite, always in tune with the times, his fans and his musical muse.  It’s very much like a homecoming for both of them, but more akin to two old friends coming home from long musical journeys to show us what they’ve learned.”

Tune in this weekend for this episode, and, as always, check your local PBS listings for the broadcast time in your area. Go to the episode page for more info, and don’t forget to click over to our Facebook, Twitter and newsletter pages for more ACL info. Tune in next week for an ACL Presents special, featuring the Americana Music Festival 2016.

Parker Millsap sets ACL on fire

Singer and songwriter Parker Millsap tears it up on our upcoming ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival 2016 special, airing November 19th, and that standout performance was enough for us to ask him to come do his own appearance on our show. The young Oklahoma native has set the Americana world on fire with his songs, his voice and his live show, and this taping – which we streamed live – showed exactly why.

Taking the stage with his backing trio, Millsap mentioned how he used to watch ACL with his father on Thursday nights on OETA in Oklahoma. He then launched into the title track of his latest album The Very Last Day, a jumpy tune about nuclear annihilation. The rocking, Steve Earle-esque “Hands Up” chronicled a gas station stick up, starring a robber more desperate than diabolical. Following band introductions, Millsap introduced the bluesy “Palisade,” the title tune from his 2012 debut and a showcase for Daniel Foulks’ gypsy fiddle. The quartet then dug into the repertoire of old-time banjoist Charlie Poole for a blues-soaked take on the classic “Hesitation Blues,” a great showcase of Millsap’s gritty howl. He followed with the Bo Diddley-beat of “Pining,” another tune from The Very Last Day. Then it was time for a show-stopper: the NPR favorite “Heaven Sent,” a heart-wrenching ballad about a young gay man in Oklahoma struggling for his Christian father’s acceptance.  The audience justifiably applauded wildly.

Millsap and company followed that heavy tune with “Truck Stop Gospel,” a frisky rocker that garnered cheers as soon as he announced it. His band then quit the stage as Millsap donned an acoustic guitar for “A Little Fire,” a folk ballad that showed off his fingerpicking skills. Another guitar switch and the return of his backup musicians led into “Your Water,” a new country-pop song he wrote with Wimberly native and ACL two-timer Sarah Jarosz. Millsap then gave us another brand new song, the midtempo 70s-style pop/rock tune “Other Arrangements.” which pushed his voice into a winsome falsetto. “Morning Blues” followed a similar, if bluesier, tack. “Quite Contrary,” however, added a shuffling rock beat as Millsap subverted nursery rhymes in telling the stories of Oklahoma meth addicts. Foulks then switched out his fiddle for a guitar on “Wherever You Are,” a bluesy folk rocker. Millsap and band ended the main set with a cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move,” the classic blues song that served as another showcase for both Foulks’ ragged lyricism and Millsap’s remarkable voice. That one-two punch brought the house down.

But of course it wasn’t over. Millsap and the trio returned to the stage for “Hades Pleads,” a choogling rocker in which Death tries to get laid via Millsap’s Plantesque wail. After that triumph, the band took its bows to well-deserved applause. It was a breakout performance by a young artist deserving of all the kudos coming his way, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year as part of our Season 42 on your local PBS station.

ACL Season 42 brings Latin grooves with Natalia Lafourcade and Grupo Fantasma

Austin City Limits presents the contemporary Latin sounds of two of music’s best in show, Natalia Lafourcade and Grupo Fantasma. Mexican superstar Lafourcade performs songs from her Grammy-winning album Hasta la Raíz and powerhouse Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma deliver show-stopping grooves.  

As one of Mexico’s biggest music stars, Natalia Lafourcade’s infectious mix of pop, rock, folk and bossa nova has earned the singer-songwriter multiple international chart-topping albums.  In her Austin City Limits debut, Lafourcade and her backing quintet perform selections from her sixth studio album, the acclaimed Hasta La Raíz, which won universal accolades, culminating in four 2015 Latin Grammys, including top honors of song and record of the year for the title track, and a 2016 Grammy Award (her first) for Best Latin Rock album.  Opening with the title track, an intimate, melodic anthem about holding on to one’s roots, the set showcases her sweet, airy vocals.  Lafourcade reaches back to the catchy “En El 2000,” her 2003 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.”  She closes out the captivating set with the pretty, bossa nova-influenced gem “Para Qué Sufrir,” a clear fan favorite.   

“I was hooked as a fan when I saw Natalia Lafourcade perform at the Latin Grammys,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona.  “She may seem an unlikely Latin superstar, but her sweet voice and personal songs have a way of connecting with her fans and the world around her.”

Austin originals Grupo Fantasma deliver a white-hot, delirious blend of big-band samba, merengue and Latin jams in a powerhouse five-song set.  Formed in 2000, the 9-piece funk outfit first-appeared on ACL in Season 33.  The Grammy-winning funksters continue their decade and a half of magic with danceable, irresistible songs from their new, acclaimed album Problemas, produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin.  Opening with the slow-burning cumbia “Nada,” the crowd is on its feet.  The band is joined by special guests Steve Berlin and renowned saxophonist Karl Denson for “Cayuco,” a sultry mambo torn from the horns and heat of Cuban dance halls.  The group welcomes Los Texmaniacs accordionist Josh Baca and former Grupo founding member Adrian Quesada for the conjunto-flavored “Esa Negra.”  Performing the title track of Problemas, Grupo’s charismatic bandleader Jose Galeano gives dance instructions to the front row.  For the final song, a tribute to the band’s late friend and champion Prince, the 9-piece orchestra swells to 17-pieces. Galeano, at a momentary loss for words, simply remarks “There’s not much we can say.  We’re just gonna play.”  And so they do, 17-strong across the stage, lighting the room aflame with the Purple One’s disco-fied early hit “Controversy.”

photo by Scott Newton

“Kick-ass Latin funk might not be a music genre, but it defines what Grupo Fantasma does,” says Lickona.  “There were 20 musicians blasting and riffing their way through the night, shaking the stage if not the balcony high above! Austin is not usually known for its Latin grooves, but Grupo could change that!”

Tune in this weekend for this episode, and, as always, check your local PBS listings for the broadcast time in your area. Go to the episode page for more info, and don’t forget to click over to our Facebook, Twitter and newsletter pages for more ACL info. Tune in next week for another brand new episode featuring the return of longtime ACL friends My Morning Jacket and Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals.

Giveaway: Parker Millsap 11/9

UPDATE: Giveaway is now over

Austin City Limits will be taping a performance by Parker Millsap on Wednesday, Nov. 9th, at 8 pm at ACL Live at The Moody Theater (310 W. 2nd Street, Willie Nelson Blvd). We will be giving away a limited number of space available passes to this taping. Enter your name and email address on the below form by 9 am on Monday, Nov. 7th.

Winners will be chosen at random and a photo ID will be required to pickup tickets. Winners will be notified by email. Passes are not transferable and cannot be sold. Standing may be required.  No photography, recording or cell phone use in the studio. No cameras or recording devices allowed in venue.

ACL livestreams Parker Millsap taping 11/9

Austin City Limits will livestream the highly-anticipated ACL debut of Americana sensation Parker Millsap on November 9.  The taping will be livestreamed in its entirety directly from the Austin City Limits stage, powered by Dell.  Fans everywhere can watch the concert on November 9 at 8pm CT/9 pm ET on ACLTV’s YouTube channel as it happens.  

With a triumphant appearance on our upcoming Americana Music Festival special, singer/songwriter Parker Millsap makes his full-set Austin City Limits debut in support of his widely-acclaimed third album The Very Last Day.  The 23-year-old grew up doing congregational singing in church and listening to old blues albums in his room, not realizing that howling like a Delta blues ghost readying the world for rock & roll isn’t how a skinny white boy from Purcell, Oklahoma usually sounds.  Nominated for the top honor of Album of the Year at this year’s Americana Music Awards, The Very Last Day proves an ideal vehicle for Millsap’s message, delivered via gospel-tinged rock & roll poetry. In the midst of a world fond of condemnation as entertainment, Millsap offers open-armed love of people and their stories. Whether he’s singing about the experience of a gay friend, longing for his evangelical father’s acceptance, or as the King of the Underworld wild with passion, his character-driven songs mine deep wells of joy and despair to create gut-punching narratives that are sometimes hellish, sometimes heavenly, and always human. We’re happy to welcome Parker Millsap to his first Austin City Limits taping.

Please join us November 9 on our ACLTV YouTube channel as we welcome Parker Millsap. The broadcast version will air early next year as part of our current Season 42 on PBS.