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Taping recap: Sylvan Esso

The combination of electropop mechanics and human soul has been a feature of rock and pop music for decades, but there are still few combos who just get it right. The Durham, NC duo of singer Amelia Meath and electronics guru Nick Sanborn, AKA Grammy-winning act Sylvan Esso, are definitely one of those, as they’ve proven for three albums of minimalist indie pop, hits like “Ferris Wheel,” and a great deal of acclaim. They proved it again for their debut appearance on the Austin City Limits stage. 

Surrounded by a circle of lights like one of the rings of Saturn, the pair opened with What If, the robotic ballad from the band’s Grammy-feted third LP Free Love. That was followed immediately by “Ferris Wheel,” the groovy pop song that’s reiterated their place on the map. “Give me a ticket to ride that train!” the distinctively-dressed Meath demanded next on “Train,” a tribute to the pop that inspires them, filtered through their own twenty-first century sensibilities, followed immediately by the epic “Dress.” The electronics burbled in the background as Meath greeted the crowd, before upping the rhythm component for “Die Young,” a showcase for the singer’s emotionally raw singing and undulating moves. The angular “Sunburn” was as much a showcase for partner Sanborn’s animated manipulation of his electronics setup, triggering beats and sounds live as he also fingered his synthesizer. “That’s the first time we ever played that song to anybody,” Meath enthusiastically noted. 

The shimmering “Frequency” returned SE to its latest record, before they returned to the land of new tunes with “Look At Me,” probably the most overtly poppy tune so far, even as it ends with Sanborn live remixing his partner’s vocal excursions. Surrounded by her own ethereal voices, Meath led the synths into “Rooftop Dancing,” the contemplative song that’s a highlight of Free Love and a clear crowd favorite. The band dipped into their self-titled debut for “Hey Mami” before leaping into What Now’s sizzling “Radio,” the ever-escalating energy of which drove the audience wild. After that dynamic performance, the pair set the beats aside for “Free,” a heart-on-sleeve ballad that may have been quiet, but didn’t stint on intensity. The synths drifted into the air before being brought back down by the throbbing bass pule of “Coffee,” another audience favorite that found them singing the Tommy James & the Shandells lyric Meath borrows, “My baby does the hanky panky,” back to her. Meath then got down to some dancing of her own with “Numb,” her energetic moves giving the crowd a buzz. 

Sanborn thanked the crowd and the show, before the rhythms once again kicked in for “Echo Party,” another new song. The band ended the main set with the debut’s “Play It Right,” a vigorous clap-along that earned Esso hearty huzzahs and demands for more. Which the audience got, as the duo retook the stage with a “Gee whiz,” before launching into “H.S.K.T.,” a clever recasting of the children’s rhyme about “head, shoulders, knees and toes” into a pulsating dance tune. The band’s love of melody came back strong for “Rewind,” garnering prolonged cheering and Meath thumping her hand over her heart. Sylvan Esso ended the show with Free Love’s “Make It Easy,” a gentle ushering back into that good night. It was a thrilling show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station as part of our Season 48. 

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Featured News Taping Recap

Taping recap: Cimafunk

One of the hottest artists in Latin music, Cimafunk – Erik Alejandro Iglesias Rodríguez to his mother – became a major star in his native Cuba with his sizzling blend of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music with American funk and hip-hop sounds as found on acclaimed albums Terapia and El Alimento. It was inevitable that he and his stellar band would translate their rock stardom Northward, with successful tours, critical acclaim, collaborations with George Clinton, Lupe Fiasco and Cee-Lo Green, and an appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts. So we were thrilled when he accepted our invitation to make his Austin City Limits debut, and what an amazing performance it was as he turned the Moody Theater into a full-on dance floor. 

Looking sharp in sunglasses and star-covered shirt, Cimafunk and his eight-piece band the Tribe took to the stage and began with the piano-led power ballad “Salvaje,” keyboardist Arthurito El “Wao” framing the leader’s soulful powerhouse of a voice, and serving as a clearing of the air before the rhythmfest to come. Pump thus primed, the band leapt into the irresistibly funky “Rómpelo,” bringing the heat. The group leaned more directly into its Cuban heritage with the fiery rhumba “Te Quema La Bemba,” getting the Cuban motion going for all of the dancers. Just to make sure all settings were on boil, Cimafunk followed with “Caramelo,” which took the best of Cuban rhythms and American funk and distilled it down to its inescapably danceable essence. There was no time for any breathcatching, though, as the groove-soaked “La Papa” kept the hot streak, well, hot, with a perfect blend of Afro-Cuban and American funks, a spotlight on horn women Hilaria and Kay Cacao, and Cima’s rapid-fire vocals adding their own spice to the percolating breakdown. 

The heat continued sizzling from there. The funky mambo of “Cocinarte,” with its rap bridge, call-and-response backing vocals, and instrumental firepower, turned up the flame, while the spirited, tongue-twisting Latin funk of “ El Regalao Se Acabó” felt the burn and shared it with the crowd. The band incorporated hip-hop influences more overtly in the single “Beat Con Flow,” with Cima bringing most of the musicians to center stage, the Cacaos once again up front, dominating with sharp riffs and lively dance moves. Without a pause, the band dug straight down into bassist’s Caramelo’s dirty funk riff for “Apretado,” a ravishing groove topped off with Bejuco’s muscular guitar solo. Cimafunk and crew then exploded into a spectacular James Brown rhythm for the monstrously funky “Relajao,” a blazer taking in dance showcases for percussionists Big Happy and Machete, a finger-busting bass solo, more love for/from the horns, and an absolutely merciless groove from drummer Dr. Zapa. 

Driving the already frenzied crowd even further off the rails, Cimafunk concluded the set with a feverish “Me Voy,” his star-making Cuban hit. Cima chose members of the audience to join the band onstage and shake their groove things. How the band (or the audience!) had anything left after that is a mystery, but they did, as everyone returned to the stage for the groove-approved “Funk Aspirin,” the opening cut on El Alimentio featuring (on record, at least) legendary funk wizard George Clinton – he wasn’t here, but the funky-ass tune didn’t suffer in his absence. “Put your hands up!” Cimafunk and Big Happy insisted, and how could anyone resist? “Never forget,” Cimafunk noted at the end, “Shake that booty!” We can’t wait for you to see this monster performance when it airs this fall on your local PBS station as part of our Season 48. 

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Featured News Taping Recap

Taping recap: Robert Earl Keen

It may be a “say it ain’t so” moment for Austin City Limits fans, but it’s true: Robert Earl Keen’s seventh time on our storied stage will apparently be his last. We first welcomed him in Season 14, thirty-four years ago, and have been diehard fans ever since. While the Houston native won’t be retiring from live performances until September, he still threw himself and his legions of fans a hell of a goodbye party with an epic set traversing his entire career. 

As the sparkly-jacketed Keen took a seat centerstage, he noted that ACL has been a big part of his career arc, in part due to meeting his wife at a Nanci Griffith taping back in 1983. Then, backed by his five-piece band – stalwart rhythm section Bill Whitbeck (with Keen for 27 years) and Tom Van Schaik (25), guitarists Brian Beken and Noah Jeffries, and his longtime friend and ACL Hall of Famer Lloyd Maines on the pedal steel – Keen opened with a one-two punch of classic tunes: “Feeling Good Again,” from 1998’s Walking Distance, and “Gringo Honeymoon,” from the 1994 album of the same name. Keen then introduced the band, before going into the warm folk rocker “For Love I Did It,” from 2005’s What I Really Mean. Due to a technical snafu, we had to run “Gringo Honeymoon” again – the amiable Keen offered the audience the option to redo it right then, or “cram us all in your mini-van and do it then.” The redo got even bigger applause than the first take, especially when the audience got to sing “We ain’t never comin’ back!” themselves. “We might just double down on the whole set,” Keen grinned. 

The songwriter noted that the next song was the unofficial theme song for his popular Americana Podcast—the appropriately melody-rich “Let the Music Play.” After paying tribute to a genre, Keen honed in on a specific musician, telling the story of visiting the late Levon Helm’s combination venue/studio/residence the Ramble in upstate NY, which inspired his fan favorite “The Man Behind the Drums.” He then switched from stories of great musicians to tales of the criminal element with “Shades of Gray,” a hidden gem from 1997’s major label bow Picnic. Contrary to its title, “Dreadful Selfish Crime” didn’t continue the theme, but instead addressed the sin of wasting one’s life – despite its sobering message, the crowd responded to it with wild applause. Keen then revisited one of his certified classics, giving “Corpus Christi Bay” a rocked-up arrangement, garnering another round of hurrahs. 

Keen talked about his early days as a songwriter, first moving to Austin in 1980, then trying his luck in Nashville at the urging of friend Steve Earle, before returning and settling in Bandera, Texas. There he met a co-worker named Mariano, who lent his name to the eponymous minor-key song found on Keen’s second LP, 1989’s West Textures, and given an earnest reading here. Speaking of earnestness, he followed that up with “I’ll Be There For You,” from the 1998 LP Walking Distance, and as heartfelt a ballad as he’s likely ever written.  He then leapt forward thirteen years to 2011’s Ready For Confetti, his most recent studio album of original material, for “Black Baldy Stallion,” a tribute of sorts to a horse he once owned, telling a story about playing that song for the late Guy Clark, whose only response was to roll a cigarette, blow a plume of smoke and note, “Too many fuckin’ words.” “I cried all the way home,” Keen said, only half joking. 

He led the band and crowd into the home stretch with “Sinnerman,” a tune he hasn’t yet recorded himself, but was recorded by the Stryker Brothers. After that he lightly strummed some chords before singing “Sherry was a waitress at the only joint in town,” to which the audience responded with a cheer. It was, of course, “The Road Goes On Forever,” Keen’s signature anthem from early-career breakout West Textures, and one on which the crowd sang along, sometimes louder than its writer. Needless to say, band and audience went wild, taking a minute to settle down enough for the next song. Keen reiterated his retirement, adding that he was sitting in the chair “to practice a little bit,” logically preceding Gringo Honeymoon’s  “I’m Comin’ Home,” a sentiment that evolved into a full audience singalong. Fittingly, Keen ended the show with the jaunty “I Gotta Go,” because, well, he did. “You can take this one with ya,” he told the fans. They did as he stood up center stage, raised his guitar, and poignantly took a bow, letting the band play him offstage. 

But it wasn’t quite over, as Keen almost immediately came back. “Somebody backstage told me he’d missed one of our Christmas shows,” he explained, “and he gave me five bucks, so what am I gonna do?” That, obviously, meant “Merry Christmas From the Family,” his Christmas classic eight months early. It became another singalong, of course, as well it should have. It was a truly special performance from an ACL favorite, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station as part of our Season 48. 

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Taping recap: Japanese Breakfast

Listening to the music of Japanese Breakfast is like a masterclass in how to take the personal and make it universal. Bandleader Michelle Zauner is an expert at drawing inspiration from her life without creating insular art – see her bestselling memoir Crying in H Mart, which resonated with millions of readers worldwide. Her music does the same, as she proved while bringing her full band to the ACL stage, following her solo guest appearance at last year’s ACL Hall of Fame ceremony. 

The eight-piece band took the stage to enthusiastic applause, opening with fan-favorite “Paprika,” one of the catchiest of the catchy tunes that adorn the 2022 Grammy-nominated act’s breakthrough third LP Jubilee. A gong decorated with lights became the centerpiece as Zauner thrilled the crowd punctuating the chorus of the banger with each hit. That was followed by the album’s synth-driven, perfectly crafted pop confection “Be Sweet,” which Zauner sang with a big smile. She donned her guitar for “In Heaven,” a melodic rocker from her first album Psychopomp, supported by Adam Schatz’ sensual saxophone and seguing smoothly into “Woman That Loves You,” from the same LP. Zauner admitted that when she appeared at the ACL Hall of Fame last fall to perform in tribute to Wilco, she never imagined she’d be back with her own band so soon. The group then dialed back its normally sunshine-bright sound for Jubilee’s moody midtempo charmer “Kokomo, IN,” driven by Peter Bradley’s slide guitar. Zauner visited JB’s second album Soft Sounds From Another Planet for the nostalgic “Boyish,” which earned cheers the moment it began. The band stuck with that album for the pretty indie rocker “The Body is a Blade,” ending the trip (for now) with the ambiguous, unsettling “Road Head,” which also garnered cheers as soon as the opening chords rang. 

Things took a turn back to the upbeat with Jubilee’s “Savage Good Boy,” which ended on harmony guitar riffs from Zauner and Bradley. Drummer Craig Hendrix’s counterpoint vocals and Zauner’s playfully naughty lyrics highlighted Psychopomp’s “Everybody Wants to Love You,” after which Zauner introduced the musicians. The airy, horns-spiked pop of “Slide Tackle” came next, its chorus of “Be good to me/We’ve always had a good time” sung directly to Bradley, who’s also Zauner’s husband. Ironically, that was followed by the romantic yearning of “Posing in Bondage,” which turned from melancholy to joyful by tune’s end. Bradley’s keyboard and Christabel Lin’s violin dominated the dreamy “Glider,” composed for the video game Sable

Seated at the keyboard, Zauner noted the day was a special one, as it also marked the first anniversary of the 2021 release of Crying in H Mart, her powerful memoir about growing up Korean American and dealing with the grief of losing her mother. She explained the book paved the way for Jubilee, an album about giving yourself permission to welcome joy back into your life after experiencing tragedy. That led to “Tactics,” a song about moving forward from sadness, as difficult as it might be. The band quit the stage, leaving Zauner solo with her guitar for “Posing For Cars,” a song that builds in intensity, a tactic emphasized by the musicians returning one by one, until the whole thing culminated, appropriately, in her epic guitar solo. Japanese Breakfast wasted no time in going into the final song, the widescreen Soft Sounds rocker “Diving Woman,” on which everyone cut loose before Bradley and Zauner brought the song to a ringing, jangling close. It was a great show and a great debut performance, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall as part of our upcoming 48th season on your local PBS station. 

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Taping recap: Arlo Parks

One of the coolest experiences we can have at Austin City Limits is to open a brand new season with new talent. The 21-year-old from West London, singer/songwriter Arlo Parks, took her own country by storm with her album Collapsed in Sunbeams, which earned her two 2022 Grammy nominations in the States and won the Mercury Prize at home for Best British Album of 2021. With major dates opening for Harry Styles and Billie Eilish, and a stateside tour with Clairo under her belt, the singer of radio hits “Hurt” and “Softly” capped the first half of 2022 off with her debut taping for Austin City Limits

Parks’ eight-piece band came out first, singers and horn players on either side of the usual guitar/bass/drums/keys lineup, and started a warmly funky groove. Arriving in shorts, lime-green sneakers and a Dizzy Gillespie T-shirt, Park went immediately into the smooth R&B of “Green Eyes” to great applause. After introducing herself to the audience, Parks and the band kept the soulful vibe going with “Portra 400,” a gem from Collapsed in Sunbeams that began in her bedroom home studio. She followed with the moodier, more atmospheric “Caroline,” encouraging the crowd to sing along to the chorus, before going into “Cola,” her very first single from her attention-getting EP Super Sad Generation, made while she was in high school. She then announced “Eugene,” which she called “my favorite” – a sentiment to which her fans apparently agreed, as they cheered the soul-pop take on unrequited love before it even began. 

Parks then did something that’s never happened on the ACL stage before: she read an original poem. Besides giving her a chance to catch her breath, it also took the audience back to her beginnings, when she wrote poetry and fiction before incorporating music. She followed that ACL milestone with the lovely ballad “Angel’s Song,” which truly sounded like an extension of her roots in written verse. The song has barely finished before a cymbal wash and electric piano chords heralded “Romantic Garbage,” an emotional but witty ballad from Super Sad Generation that was the song which led her manager to her and started her career. “I love playing that song,” she noted. Parks shifted the mood for the next song, the darker “Black Dog,” though it was less dwelling on depression than insisting it can be overcome. Then the groove pumped back up, the horns started to soar, and Parks led the band in “Hurt,” another song determined to pull its main character from the brink. 

Parks took a break to introduce the band, before launching into the soul tune “Too Good,” dismissing an emotionally detached ex with hooks and a groove and proving to be an immediate crowd favorite. She followed with “Softy,” a catchy electropop tune released as a single only a couple of months ago and destined for greatness, if the audience hand-waving is any indication. “It’s been very magical,” proclaimed Parks as the last song of the set loomed. “Sophie” ended the main set on a slinky, luscious soul groove and an epic guitar solo. Of course, Parks and her band returned for one more song, accepting flowers from an audience member before sending the crowd home with the affirmational, gospel-tinged “Hope.” “You’re not alone!” Parks declared, and everyone was with her as she left the stage. It was a strong showing by a relative newcomer, and we can’t wait for you to see Parks and her band when her episode airs this fall on your local PBS station as part of our Season 48.

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Taping recap: Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band

A charter member of the Lubbock Mafia (Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, etc.), Terry Allen helped give rise to a substantial chunk of Lone Star musical style. Of course, Allen was long gone, off to his still-thriving career as a visual artist, by the time Ely and company made their names. But Texans take Texas with them wherever they go, and Allen’s unique take on the songwriting tradition he co-founded has continued to turn heads and blaze trails, including on his 2020 landmark thirteenth album Just Like Moby Dick, an album the Washington Post raves finds “new ways to marry his personal memories to more universal concerns about looming catastrophe and societal decay.” Returning to headline his own show for the first time since 1998, Allen and his all-star Panhandle Mystery Band showcased the album, and conducted a survey of his career to date, in a magnificent concert that we live streamed around the world. 

Allen and the PMB (guitarists Charlie Sexton and Lloyd Maines, fiddler Richard Bowden, accordionist/keyboardist Bukka Allen, bassist Glen Fukunaga, drummer Davis McLarty, cellist Brian Standerfer, percussionist Bale Allen and singer Shannon McNally) took the stage to wild applause from the crowd. Allen dedicated the show to his longtime friend and supporter Dave Hickey, who passed away three weeks ago, and went into the two-stepping “Amarillo Highway,” his signature tune from his classic 1979 album Lubbock (on everything). The round robin solos from Sexton (on a day off from Bob Dylan’s band), Bukka Allen, Bowden and Maines made clear what an amazing group Allen assembled for the show. He followed with one of his other Lubbock classics – the sardonic seduction waltz “The Beautiful Waitress,” before shifting from tentative love to definite destruction on the rocking “The Lubbock Tornado,” documenting a real-life storm from Allen’s childhood. “Disaster is fun,” he noted wryly. 

Next up were songs from the acclaimed Moby Dick, starting off with “Houdini Didn’t Like the Spiritualists,” a true life narrative documenting exactly that sentiment, as well as featuring a soulful McNally solo vocal. That was followed by “Death of the Last Stripper,” a tune co-penned by Dave Alvin and Allen’s wife Jo Harvey that acknowledged its title with the wistfully sad line “We’re the only ones who even know that she died.” McNally took the lead vocal for the ballad “All These Blues Go Walkin’ By,” which she, Jo Harvey, Sexton and Bukka Allen all had a hand in co-writing with Terry. The family affair continued with “City of the Vampires,” a song co-written by Allen’s nine-year-old grandson Kru that, once again, concerned exactly what the title promised. 

Allen introduced the PMB, before performing a suite of songs going all the way back to his first album, 1975’s Juarez, starting with the folky waltz “The Juarez Device (AKA Texican Badman).” The audience barely had time to clap before the group eased into the moody minor key narrative “What of Alicia,” which itself nearly crashed into the fan favorite rocker “There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California.” Allen reached even further back for the next song: “Red Bird,” the first song he ever wrote, first performed on the TV show Shindig! in 1965. Moving forward a few decades, Allen said “This is for Jo Harvey” by way of introduction to the frisky “Flatland Boogie.” 

Then it was time to rock & roll once again, with the rollicking, Indian-flavored Allen standard “New Delhi Freight Train,” a song covered by Little Feat two years before Allen recorded it himself on Lubbock (on everything). He returned to Moby Dick for “Sailin’ On Through,” a mordant farewell that ruminates on the inevitable passing of, well, everything. But he and the band weren’t quite done. “We’ll end with a religious number,” Allen said, which meant one thing: “Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy,” one of his most popular and hilarious songs, and a perfect way to close out this special show. A grinning Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band took a bow to enthusiastic, well-deserved applause.  It was an excellent show and a great way to wrap our 47th season, and we can’t wait for you all to see it when it broadcasts early next year on your local PBS station.