Last night we were thrilled to induct three giants of American music into the third annual Austin City Limits Hall of Fame: B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt and Kris Kristofferson. The evening featured one-of- a-kind music performances and tributes from Willie Nelson, Billy Gibbons, Mavis Staples, Rodney Crowell, Gary Clark Jr., Taj Mahal, B.B. King’s Blues Band and Eve Monsees.
Bill Stotesbery, KLRU-TV, Austin PBS CEO and Terry Lickona, Executive Producer of Austin City Limits welcomed to the crowd to the special evening.
Comedy supercouple Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally hosted the celebratory evening which will air on New Year’s Eve on PBS. The entertaining duo kicked things off with a playful attempt to claim the Hall of Fame inductions for themselves, before introducing the night’s first inductee: legendary songwriter Kris Kristofferson. Singer/songwriter and Austin City Limits veteran Rodney Crowell took the stage to pay tribute to one of his heroes and greatest influences. Clad all in black, Kristofferson accepted his award saying, “This is as good as it can get!” Crowell then moved center stage to lead the house band in a rollicking rendition of Kristofferson’s “Chase the Feeling” and an expressive version of his classic ballad “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” The man himself then arrived for another pair of ballads, specifically the hits “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” and the oft-recorded “For the Good Times,” his voice craggy with experience. Kristofferson then welcomed fellow Austin City Limits Hall of Famer and longtime friend Willie Nelson to the stage, who plugged in Trigger and led everybody in a shuffling take on Kristofferson’s signature tune “Me and Bobby McGee,” to a huge smile from its writer.
Offerman and Mullally returned to introduce the induction of Bonnie Raitt, and gospel soul great Mavis Staples took the stage (to a standing ovation) in order to induct her longtime friend with a touching and hilarious speech. Raitt accepted her award with excitement and humility, then joined Staples onstage for a romp through the swampy Bob Dylan/Danny O’Keefe co-write “Well Well Well.” Staples then quit the stage to be replaced by eclectic bluesologist Taj Mahal for the rocking “Gnawin’ On It,” with Raitt, house band guitarist David Grissom and Mahal (on harp) trading solos around. Willie Nelson joined Raitt onstage to reprise their duet on Stephen Bruton’s (her former guitarist) lovely “Getting Over You,” recorded by the pair on Nelson’s landmark LP Across the Borderline twenty years before. One standing ovation later, Raitt thanked the hardworking Austin City Limits crew and welcomed Staples and Mahal back to the stage for “Thing Called Love.” The trio enhanced the John Hiatt song that’s become one of Raitt’s signature tunes with electric ukulele and sanctified tamborine for a kick-ass performance.
Mullally and Offerman delivered a shout-out to house bandleader Lloyd Maines, introducing the night’s ace band before intermission. The second act began with KLRU-TV CEO Bill Stotesbery returning to the stage to induct Dick Peterson, who worked for KLRU from 1984-2008. A TV veteran with decades in the business, the Austin native took over as Austin City Limits executive producer after co-creator Bill Arhos retired in 2000, and received his award for his decades-long work behind the scenes. The night’s hosts returned to introduce the evening’s final inductee: great blues titan B.B. King. Rock legend and blues scholar Billy F. Gibbons from ZZ Top took to the stage to induct one of his greatest inspirations. King’s award was accepted by Myron Johnson, the bluesman’s longtime personal assistant and tour manager. Offerman and Mullally returned to inform the audience that the trophy would reside in the B.B. King Museum and to introduce the B.B. King Blues Band – not only the band that backed King on the road for many years, but in the case of some of them, musicians who appeared with the King of the Blues on his 1983 debut ACL appearance. Fronted by guitarist/singer Jesse Robinson in King’s absence, the band rolled into a faithful take on his classic “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss.” Gibbons then came back, fronting a trio with King drummer Herman Jackson, Austin organist Mike Flanigin and, of course, himself on guitar. The threesome reached back to the 60s for the 12-bar “The Jungle,” with Gibbons and Flanigin trading blistering solos. The band segued immediately into “You Upset Me Baby,” King’s lascivious #1 R&B single from 1954.
The King band re-took the stage, joined by previous inductee Raitt and guitar great and Austin native Gary Clark Jr. The pair launched into “The Thrill is Gone,” probably King’s most famous song, filling it with scintillating singing and sizzling solos. Raitt exited and Clark took the spotlight for a faithful “Three O’Clock Blues,” the Lowell Fulsom song that was King’s first hit in 1952. Clark then brought on his friend and Austin blues standout Eve Monsees. The pair, who learned the blues together while still in high school, romped through King’s 1953 single “Woke Up This Morning.”Willie Nelson returned to the stage to join Clark Jr. for a relaxed but blues-soaked version of “Night Life,” the Nelson original that became a staple of King’s setlist. Nelson’s distinctive picking proved itself as adept at the blues as the country for which he’s known.
Offerman and Mullally came back and brought the entire cast with them for a memorable grand finale- the inductees, the guests and both the house band and the King band. The all-star line-up went into “Everyday I Have the Blues,” another indelible King hit that helped define not only his career, but the genre itself. Both band and audience had a great time, the latter on its feet for the entire song. The celebratory evening came to a close with the entire cast singing a serendipitous version of “Auld Lang Syne” to mark the event’s New Year’s Eve broadcast, with a take so bluesy King’s spirit was surely smiling. For the crowd it might as well have been the real thing, considering the kissing, hugging and celebration going on. Mullally and Offerman thanked everyone for coming and it was over. It was quite a night, the best Hall of Fame ceremony yet, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this Dec. 31 on your local PBS station.