Encore: Jason Isbell and Neko Case

photo by Scott Newton

This weekend ACL features two powerful singer-songwriters: Jason Isbell and Neko Case, each possessing a distinctive style and voice.

Hailed as “one of America’s thoroughbred songwriters” by The New York Times, Jason Isbell opens the episode, making his ACL debut. The Nashville-via-Mussel Shoals, Alabama singer/songwriter’s 2013 album Southeastern scored a Top 25 on the Billboard 200, and critical raves, including topping many critic’s year-end best lists. The New York Times Magazine declared, “the record is a breakthrough for Isbell—prickly with loss, forgiveness, newfound sobriety and second chances.” Rolling Stone calls it “one of the year’s best in any genre,” and Pitchfork raves “Southeastern is easily Isbell’s best solo album.” A former member of acclaimed Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, Isbell launched a solo career in 2007. Backed by his band the 400 Unit, including his wife, fiddler Amanda Shires, and with a rawness and honesty that’s rare in contemporary songwriting, Isbell gives a stunning must-see performance on the ACL stage.

You can see Isbell’s performance in its unedited entirety on the DVD Jason Isbell: Live at Austin City Limits. You can purchase a copy here.

“It doesn’t happen very often,” said executive producer Terry Lickona, “but when Jason sang ‘Elephant,’ it literally gave me chills. That’s the kind of writer he is, and that’s the kind of performer he is.”

photo by Scott Newton

Neko Case makes a thunderous return to ACL (she first appeared in 2003) performing songs from her acclaimed 2013 release The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, her sixth studio album.  Case emerges from a three-year period the artist describes as full of “grief and mourning,” in the wake of the deaths of not just both her parents, but several intimates as well. With her fearless songwriting and musical curiosity, Neko Case captures fans with “one of the most memorable and seductive voices in music” (NPR).  Pitchfork says The Worse Things Get… “is the most potent album of her career,” and Rolling Stone raves that Case is “one of America’s best and most ambitious songwriters.” Case performs a captivating set of songs from the new record, and a few gems from her recent releases.

“There’s something about that voice, but it’s also about the delivery – which makes this performance that much more special,” said Lickona. “Her television performances are few and far between, so this is one that’s not to be missed!”

Check out the episode page for more details. Don’t forget, you can click over to our Facebook, Twitter and newsletter pages for more ACL goodies. Next week: Portugal. The Man and Local Natives.

ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival 2015

Lee Ann Womack Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Austin City Limits heads to Nashville for a special broadcast featuring performance highlights from this year’s Americana Honors & Awards. ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival 2015 delivers sparkling performances that represent the genre’s diversity and excellence. The music-filled special features many of the night’s Lifetime Achievement Honorees, award-winners, next-generation stars and icons who helped define the genre; among them: Don Henley, Los Lobos, Ricky Skaggs, Lee Ann Womack, Shakey Graves, Keb’ Mo’, Jason Isbell, Rhiannon Giddens, Robert Randolph and John Hiatt.  

“The Americana Honors & Awards showcases one of the biggest and brightest lineups of talent seen all year,” raves NPR. Recorded live at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium in September, The Americana Music Association’s 14th Annual Honors & Awards ceremony is a best in show reflecting the spirit of Americana: American roots music that incorporates elements of country, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues.

Robert Randolph, The Fairfield Four, The McCrary Sisters Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Hosted by Americana kingpin Jim Lauderdale, the show opens with steel guitar sensation Robert Randolph joining with two legendary gospel groups, The Fairfield Four and the McCrary Sisters, for a rousing rendition of “Rock My Soul.” Highlights include show-stopping performances by the night’s Artist of the Year nominees: Rhiannon Giddens showcases her powerful vocals in a stunning performance of “Waterboy” from her Album of the Year-nominated Tomorrow Is My Turn. Acclaimed singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, who captured top honors at last year’s awards, offers the anthemic title track of his new album, Something More Than Free. Country queen Lee Ann Womack performs from her critically-acclaimed The Way I’m Livin’, also nominated for Album of the Year.  

Another of the night’s top nominees, Emerging Artist of the Year winner Shakey Graves, is joined by Esmé Patterson for a playful duet of his nominated single “Dearly Departed.” Duo/group nominees The Lone Bellow, an indie-folk trio, make their first appearance, singing their standout “Then Came the Morning.”  

Marc Ribot & Buddy Miller Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images

In true Americana style, the broadcast is loaded with musical moments and collaborations from the music’s forebears, including ovation-worthy turns from musical legend Don Henley, awarded a Lifetime Achievement Honor, performing from his acclaimed new album Cass County and veteran singer-songwriter and Song of the Year nominee John Hiatt. Bluegrass master Ricky Skaggs—the night’s Lifetime Achievement Honoree for Instrumentalist—performs with his wife and collaborator Sharon White alongside fellow legend Ry Cooder; and Americana icon Buddy Miller and celebrated guitarist and songwriter Marc Ribot present a stripped-down acoustic version of the Hank Williams classic “Cold, Cold Heart.”   

Blues titan Keb’ Mo’ pays a heartfelt tribute to the night’s President’s Award Honoree B.B. King, with a soulful interpretation of one of the late legend’s signature songs, “How Blue Can You Get,” (alongside King’s beloved guitar “Lucille”). The night’s Lifetime Achievement Award honorees for Performance, East L.A. stalwarts Los Lobos, validate their honor with a blistering, show-closing rendition of their classic “Will the Wolf Survive.”

Jim Lauderdale Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Throughout the broadcast, performers are backed by an all-star house band—led by Buddy Miller—and featuring legendary musicians: Dominic Davis, Chad Cromwell, Fats Kaplin, Ian Fitchuk, the McCrary Sisters and Little Feat founding member Bill Payne.

“This event is a musical celebration that brings together the finest musicians in the world, with legendary acts and the next generation of stars,” says Jed Hilly, Executive Director of the Americana Music Association, adding “it’s about great songs and the appreciation for the authentic sound of American roots music.”

The show was co-produced by High Five Entertainment and its President Martin Fischer and ACL Executive Producer Terry Lickona.

ACL 41 welcomes the legendary James Taylor

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits presents a Season 41 highlight: the first-ever appearance of legendary singer-songwriter James Taylor in a heartwarming, hourlong performance. The musical icon shines in a career-spanning set that features beloved classics and selections from his chart-topping, acclaimed new album Before This World, his first collection of original music in 13 years.  

As one of the best-selling singer-songwriters of all time, James Taylor’s warm baritone is among the most recognized voices in popular music. A masterful lyricist and celebrated performer, Taylor sings songs of love, family, recovery and everyday passions that resonate with listeners worldwide. “Finally on ACL — this is great,” says the personable musician, grinning throughout. He delights the ACL audience with a hit-laden 12-song set featuring vintage favorites such as his first #1 single, 1971’s “You’ve Got A Friend,” and new originals from Before This World, which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top 200.  

photo by Scott Newton

Taylor switches midset from acoustic to electric guitar for the slow-burn blues number “Steamroller” from his landmark 1970 album Sweet Baby James, giving his star-filled 10-piece band a chance to showcase their bona fides. He brings out Austin’s own Shawn Colvin for a beautiful duet version of “You Can Close Your Eyes” from his 1971 album Mudslide Slim. The ecstatic crowd is on its feet for the set-closing gems “Your Smiling Face,” and “How Sweet It Is,” with Taylor so energized he tips his trademark cap in response to the repeated ovations and powerful applause, singing “How sweet it is to be in Austin City tonight.”  

photo by Scott Newton

“Finally! How sweet it is indeed,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “There is nobody quite like James Taylor, and he is one of the most genuine persons and artists on the planet. He is universally loved and applauded, and it was inspiring to see fans from across the generations react so emotionally to his presence on the ACL stage.”
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 Americana Music Festival 2015.

TV On the Radio and The War On Drugs debut in ACL’s 41st season

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits showcases left of the dial faves TV On The Radio and The War On Drugs, splitting the bill in a brand new installment. Two of today’s most critically-acclaimed indie rock bands, both acts make powerful debuts in their first-ever appearance on the ACL stage.  

First up is TV On The Radio, formed in Brooklyn in 2001 and considered one of the most influential bands of the decade. The quartet showcase tracks from their latest and widely-acclaimed album Seeds. TVOTR’s originality and eclectic musical spirit—encompassing psychedelia, soul, electronica and urgent punk rock—is evident in their masterful five-song set, opening with the hard-driving “Lazerray” and grappling with pain and loss in the soulful, emotional closer “Trouble.” Witness an act that continues to make music boldly on their own terms, always pushing forward to become one of the best bands of its generation.

Philadelphia band The War On Drugs perform songs from their 2014 breakthrough Lost in the Dream, which earned widespread praise and landed the top spot on many critics’ album-of-the-year lists. Kicking off a gorgeous set with “Under the Pressure”, the song Spin declared record of the year, the rock outfit build momentum creating lush soundscapes filled with musical craft and intricate instrumentation. Bandleader Adam Granduciel’s Dylanesque vocals, cathartic lyrics and grand-scale guitar solos unfold to reveal expansive, dreamy atmospherics for a memorable debut.

photo by Scott Newton

“Indie music has been an important part of ACL’s musical legacy over the past two decades, but it’s a big umbrella that covers a vast musical landscape,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona.“ Both TV On The Radio and The War On Drugs stand out as virtuoso live musicians, but their songs and vocals are what caught my ear. They are personal yet accessible to anyone who is a fan of great music.”

Tune in this weekend for this episode, and, as always, check your local PBS listings for the broadcast time in your area. Click over to our FacebookTwitter and newsletter pages for more ACL info. Tune in next week for the ACL debut of the legendary James Taylor.

Gary Clark Jr. returns and Courtney Barnett debuts in ACL’s Season 41

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits showcases two of today’s most original and exciting live acts: Grammy-winning songwriter, vocalist and virtuoso guitarist Gary Clark Jr. in a triumphant return to the ACL stage, and singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett making her ACL debut. Two talked-about artists worthy of the buzz, both rising stars are gaining recognition around the globe for their dynamic live shows.  

Austin’s Gary Clark Jr. arrives on ACL’s stage at the top of his game for his second headline performance, this time showcasing songs from the acclaimed new top-10 album The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. The young Texan has had a whirlwind ascent from the Austin club scene to earning slots on festival stages, on the road with superstars Foo Fighters and his own sold-out headlining tour. The LA Times recently hailed him “the most exciting blues-based experimentalist since Jack White.” Clark writes another chapter to his story with this appearance, firmly establishing himself as a sonic force of nature in a confident, blazing five-song set filled with searing, soulful new songs.  The guitar phenom opens with a new album highlight “Grinder” and demonstrates his astonishing musical chops with scorching renditions of the deeply personal originals. Closing the thrilling set with the uplifting, gospel-infused anthem “The Healing,” Clark sings with newfound passion, owning the ACL stage and receiving a heartfelt standing ovation.

Australian singer/songwriter and guitarist Courtney Barnett released one of the most arresting music debuts in years, 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, and is receiving critical acclaim in spades: Rolling Stone hails Barnett “one of rock’s most beguiling young stars and deftest lyricists,” calling the album “2015’s sharpest debut.” Paste says she’s “one of the most charming, whipsmart performers currently touring the world,” and NPR raves “the new album will thrill any fan of smart, biting guitar driven rock,” calling her “the best lyricist in rock music today.”  Spin calls it “one of the most thrilling albums you’ll hear this year,” and hails the garage rocker a “goddamn rock star.”  Riding the wave of media acclaim, Barnett proves she has the talent to match in her standout ACL debut. The six-song set is a great introduction to her signature style: mixing straightforward, four-chord crunch with witty, often hilarious, occasionally heartbreaking observations with unflinching self-assessment. Aided by her tight band featuring bassist Bones Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie, she brings the ACL set to a crashing close with the crowd-favorite single “Pedestrian at Best,” proving she’s nothing of the sort, but one of the most distinctive and compelling new voices in modern rock.

photo by Scott Newton

“Gary Clark Jr. and Courtney Barnett are the rock stars of tomorrow, if not today, and they’re doing it the old-fashioned way – with their guitars,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona.  “They are both blazing different trails, but they are totally original, and that’s why this makes for such a great double bill!”

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 the ACL debuts of TV on the Radio and The War On Drugs.

Don Henley joins ACL Season 41

photo by Scott Newton

Capitol recording artist Don Henley makes his first-ever appearance on Austin City Limits showcasing Cass County, Henley’s first solo release in fifteen years and first No. 1 album of his 33-year solo career.  The iconic singer-songwriter and founding member of the Eagles performs a mix of solo hits and future classics in a special hour, joined by many of the all-star guest vocalists featured on this acclaimed record.   

Named for the East Texas region where Henley grew up, the country-leaning Cass County debuted at No. 1 on both Billboard’s top albums and country albums charts and features new originals written by the music superstar and longtime collaborators Stan Lynch and Steuart Smith.  Rolling Stone raves in a four-star review, “Henley has made an album of quietly defiant pure-country modernism…Everything in the music serves the sting and solace in the tales.”  USA Today notes, “the emotional but unsentimental album draws on the music and the land of Henley’s youth, but it doesn’t dwell there.”

Henley opens the masterful eleven-song ACL set with the radio classic “Dirty Laundry,” before taking viewers on a journey through Cass County, a musical return to his roots.  He shines in an immaculate performance filled with highlights and duet partners featuring a parade of special guests: breakout country star Ashley Monroe, chart-toppers Martina McBride and Trisha Yearwood, country rebel Jamey Johnson and sisters Emily Robison Strayer and Martie Maguire of Dixie Chicks and Court Yard Hounds fame.  Henley makes a few detours to perform select fan-favorites including “The Heart Of The Matter” before the entire cast returns to the ACL stage  for the powerfully evocative new ballad, “Praying for Rain”.  Familiar opening chords signal his smash “The Boys of Summer” as Henley and his band launch into the signature tune for a sublime set-closer.  

“Don Henley has been on my wish list for 40 years, and I always knew he would come when he was ready,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona.  “He’s one of the best songwriters of his generation, and these new songs are some of the best he’s ever written. He’s at the top of his game right now, and it’s an honor to have him showcase his new songs and classics on the ACL stage.
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 the return of Gary Clark Jr. and the ACL debut of Courtney Barnett.

Sturgill Simpson and Asleep at the Wheel keep ACL Season 41 twanging

photo by Scott Newton

Season 41 of Austin City Limits kicks into high gear with breakout country artist Sturgill Simpson sharing the bill with legendary Western swing institution Asleep at the Wheel.  Two acts steeped in old-school tradition but beamed through a contemporary prism, the must-see episode features rising star Simpson making his full set ACL debut while Texas swing veterans Asleep at the Wheel return for their 11th appearance. Asleep at the Wheel, newly-minted ACL Hall of Fame members, are joined by guest stars The Avett Brothers, Amos Lee and the Quebe Sisters in a special tribute to musical forebear Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing.   

Forty years after Willie Nelson made his iconic debut on ACL on October 14, 1974, country rebel Sturgill Simpson arrives at the top of his game in a standout ACL debut.  With his acclaimed breakthrough Metamodern Sounds In Country Music topping Best of 2014 Album lists and a stack of accolades to call his own—including a Grammy nomination, top honors at this year’s Americana Awards, slots at the year’s biggest music festivals, including Bonnaroo, Coachella and ACL Fest—ACL captures Simpson on the verge of full-blown stardom.  Playing an acoustic guitar, the Kentucky native and his ace four-piece band launch into a scorching seven-song set that makes a believer out of everyone.  He pays tribute to the outlaw country scene that inspired him, acknowledging his debt to Willie, and to Austin cosmic cowboy Steve Fromholz, with an impassioned rendition of “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” a Fromholz song Nelson made famous in the ‘70s, and a perfect showcase for Simpson’s rich baritone.  The full span of Simpson’s influences is evident with the inspired set-closer, a brilliant crossbreed of the Osborne Brothers’ bluegrass classic “Listening to the Rain” to glam-rock band T-Rex’s “The Motivator.”

A national as well as Texan treasure, the nine-time Grammy Award-winning Austin supergroup Asleep at the Wheel has kept the Western swing flame burning for forty-five years.  Still led by larger-than-life founder Ray Benson, AATW appeared in the first official episode of Austin City Limits in 1976, and returns for a remarkable eleventh appearance to perform selections from their recent Bob Wills tribute album Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, a salute to the great bandleader.  Wills’ music, born in the 1920s and ‘30s, continues to inspire younger generations, and AATW is joined on the ACL stage by some very special guests, including soul singer Amos Lee, fiddle trio the Quebe Sisters and Americana sensations The Avett Brothers, who put their own spin on Western swing classics.  A highlight of the set comes when two former Texas Playboys—singer Leon Rausch, 88, and 92-year old saxophonist Billy Briggs—take the stage.  The entire ensemble returns for a crowd sing-along of the signature “Texas Playboys Theme,” winding “Happy Trails” into the old chestnut for a perfect close. 

photo by Scott Newton

“This show goes back deep to the roots of where Austin City Limits began,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona.  “Sturgill would’ve fit perfectly into the Austin music scene of the ‘70s, and it speaks volumes that his own progressive country sound resonates so strongly and stands in contrast to much of the country pop today.  Asleep at the Wheel appeared on the very first episode of our very first season, and they’re still kicking it 41 years later – just like ACL!”

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 the ACL debut of Don Henley.

Cassandra Wilson salutes Lady Day on ACL’s 41st season

photo by Scott Newton

Acclaimed jazz star Cassandra Wilson makes her Austin City Limits debut celebrating the music of “Lady Day” by performing songs from Coming Forth by Day, a tribute to jazz and blues legend Billie Holiday for the centennial of her birth.

Hailing from Jackson, Mississippi, multiple Grammy-winning artist Cassandra Wilson has been named “America’s best singer” by Time Magazine. Coming Forth By Day, Wilson’s nineteenth studio album, was released in 2015 to wide acclaim, with the Associated Press calling the jazz innovator a “masterful interpreter of songs,” and The New Yorker writing, “Cassandra Wilson, jazz’s reigning diva, puts a post-modernist spin on classic Holiday performances.”

Joined by a six-piece band, and an eight-piece string section, Wilson digs into the Holiday songbook in her first-ever ACL appearance, taking viewers on a spellbinding journey through lush soundscapes that conjure the spirit of “Lady Day.” “The idea was to find her essence, the sacred center of her spirit and bring it through our treatment of her songs,” says Wilson. She chooses songs that span Holiday’s abbreviated career to probe beyond her personal tragedy and honor her beauty, genius and craft. Beginning with a traditional take on “The Way You Look Tonight,” the singer steps off the path for “Don’t Explain” and “You Go To My Head,” putting her distinctive spin on classic material. Wilson masterfully manipulates the dynamics of “Good Morning Heartache,” taking a seat as the band swirls around her in collective improvisation. A set highlight is “Last Song (for Lester),” an original tune penned by Wilson for Holiday’s musical soulmate, saxophonist Lester Young, imagining the song Holiday might have sung at his funeral had it been possible. It’s a beautiful tour de force, blending sadness at opportunities lost and joy for a special bond.

Wilson closes out the breathtaking set with a sardonic, defiant romp through “Billie’s Blues,” exiting the stage to rapturous applause. A tribal drum beat and the sound of chains hitting the ground signals her return for “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s bitter ballad about pre-civil rights era lynchings. The song’s already haunting atmosphere bristles with a new tension, a sudden surge of strings and a dramatic vocal from Wilson, capped by the singer’s feedback-drenched solo wrung from her shrieking Telecaster, channeling the howling ghosts of victims from beyond and invoking the struggles of today.

“I’ve been a fan of Cassandra’s magical vocal stylings since her first record, and I’ve always dreamed of the day when she would grace the ACL stage,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona.  “The fact that she chose to come honor Billie Holiday on our show made it that much more special – lending her own unique voice to Billie’s remarkable repertoire.”
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 the ACL debut of Sturgill Simpson and the return of Asleep at the Wheel.