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The War and Treaty bring messages of love and hope to ACL

We here at Austin City Limits were so blown away by the performance of The War And Treaty on ACL Presents: Americana 18th Annual Honors last year that we knew we had to feature them for a full set on the show. Basing the set around their acclaimed new LP Hearts Town, the Michigan-bred husband-and-wife duo of Michael and Tanya Trotter did not disappoint, hitting real heights with their earthy, rock-infused soul. 

Backed by an eight piece band and set up on stage so they could look at each other at any time, the Trotters kicked off the show with the jazzy groove of “Yearning,” as much a seduction as a plea. The tempo revved up for the rocking “Jealousy,” as the pair acknowledged the titular emotion, before kicking it out the door. The Trotters deftly altered the mood with “Liquid Lies,” which started as a sultry simmer before going into a full-tilt boil. “We’re here to sing to you, America,” stated Michael. “We’re here to sing not just to Austin, but we’re here as representation of what thriving and overcomers look like. So let’s give ourselves a hand.” Then they went into the dramatic “Beautiful,” a tune from Hearts Town recorded with Americana star and ACL two-timer Jason Isbell, subbed for here by W&T back-up singer Will Merrill during the song’s round robin vocals. The band then got funky with “Maryland,” a frisky tribute to the state from which Tanya hails with a round of solos from guitarist Matt Laurence, keyboardist Brett Sandler, trumpeter Joe Jordan and saxophonist Chuck Mullican. 

The party definitely needed a cool down after that performance, so the band reached back to its debut EP Down to the River for the ballad “Til the Morning.” Of course, “cool down” is a relative term for this group, as the fire definitely burned in the couple’s impassioned singing. Bassist Max Brown then picked up an acoustic guitar for the folky “Jubilee,” dedicated to Anne Wade, a high school-age singer/songwriter the Trotters are mentoring. The group shifted to old school R&B for “Hey Pretty Moon,” a gorgeous tune inspired by Ray Charles. After that powerhouse, it was time to raise the roof once again, which they did with the jazzy, New Orleans-flavored “Little Boy Blue,” as much a showcase for Mullican and Jordan as the singers. Michael then led the band into the clever pop of “Hustlin’,” “which is what we’re doing now.” TW&T then launched into the title track of their new album, the truly heartwarming “Hearts Town.” 

The band dipped into a Stax/Volt groove for “Five More Minutes,” a song inspired by the PTSD U.S. Army veteran Michael brought back from his two tours in Iraq that’s scoring radio play here in Austin, and no wonder: it’s a perfect blend of melody and groove. Michael then asked the audience, both in person and at home, for a moment of silence for everyone lost in 2020, due to the pandemic or otherwise. In particular, TW&T wanted to pay tribute to the late John Prine, a friend and mentor who showcased the band at his Grand Ole Opry appearance. It was the perfect lead-in to “Take Me In,” the band’s beautiful ballad of inclusion and unity. The band ended the song by leaning into their gospel side, running through “Amazing Grace” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” The show closed with the fiery “Need Someone to Love,” a sweeping climax that embraced the crowd, the crew, the streaming audience and the whole world with its message of love. It was a fantastic way to end the night, and we can’t wait for you to see it when The War And Treaty’s episode airs early next year as part of our Season 46 on your local PBS station. 

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Ruthie Foster gives ACL a glorious infusion of soul

It’s no surprise Austin singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster has an album in her catalog titled The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster. Anyone who’s heard her sing, listened to her songs, or watched her lead a band, has no doubt of the veracity of that title. We here at Austin City Limits have known how phenomenal she is since her 2003 debut on the show, so we were thrilled to welcome her back for her second knockout taping, which included new songs from an upcoming 2021 album and Foster classics. 

“I know we’ve been dealing with some tough times, so I wanted to start with this song,” Foster noted, opening with a new track, “Four a.m.,” a folky ode to late-night composition featuring keyboardist/mandolinist Scottie Miller on counterpoint vocals. Foster introduced viewers to “Pearl,” her minty green Gretsch guitar, and welcomed a powerhouse trio of backing vocalists to the stage, Sheree Smith, Tamara Mack and Torri Baker, for “Brand New Day,” a funky, gospel-flavored number that would shine a light in any dark world. Foster and company then shifted directly to gospel, specifically a joyful take on “Up Above My Head,” a classic from one of her early influences, the pioneering singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. “I really do believe there’s a heaven,” she sang, making a believer out of everyone. Foster continued demonstrating how to make a song her own with a surprising seventies soul ballad rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” She then put down Pearl and led the band into the empowerment anthem “Phenomenal Woman,” showcasing both her powerhouse vocal chops and her confident joy. 

After that showstopper, it was time to magnify the mood with “Singing the Blues,” a groovy R&B song co-written with Stax soul legend William Bell. “Feels like Freedom” followed, another anthem that Foster borrowed from the catalog of an unnamed singer/songwriter after first hearing it. The easygoing soul/pop tune “Love is the Answer” came from a source closer to home: her bassist Larry Fulcher, who revealed he wrote it in a dream. Foster and her ace four-piece band – which also included guitarist Haddon Sayers and famous Austin session drummer Brannen Temple – then dipped into the catalog of the mighty Staples Singers for “The Ghetto,” a gorgeous, piercing bit of social commentary. While that song brooded, however, “Healing Time” – co-composed by Foster, Sayers and Miller – celebrated, bringing an upbeat soul groove to its message of positivity and healing. “I feel that one,” smiled Foster. “Y’all feel that one?” 

“I want to send more healing vibes to you and your families,” Foster said, addressing everyone watching the live stream around the world. That meant the rousing  “Woke Up This Morning,” a socially conscious soul/gospel number that raised the roof with more good vibes that seemed to surprise Foster herself. “Somebody opened the door and let Hallelujah in the house!” She then asserted, “Let’s go down to Mississippi for a while,” bringing the blues into the house with the raw, earthy “Runaway Soul.” Miller and Sayers both contributed superlative solos, the backup singers took everyone to church, and Foster outdid herself with a vocal performance that would make the dead rise and give thanks. It was a magnificent end to a wonderful show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs next January as part of our Season 46 on your local PBS station. 

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Taping recap: Ray Wylie Hubbard

Forty-six years in the making, the long-awaited taping of the great Texas songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard was worth the wait. One of the original Texas outlaws, Hubbard is arguably best known for his early ‘70s composition, the much-recorded anthem “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” The Oklahoma native/longtime Lone Star resident relaunched his career in the nineties, and in one of music’s most remarkable second acts, has been prolifically recording critically-lauded work ever since. So we were thrilled to finally have the revered Texas troubadour on our stage for his first-ever headline appearance in a rousing performance that was livestreamed around the world. 

Hubbard and his ace four-piece band, which includes his son Lucas on guitar, drummer Kyle Schneider, Bukka Allen on keyboards and Gurf Morlix on bass, kicked things off with the bluesy “Rabbit,” on which he declares that, while he doesn’t know what “between the devil and the deep blue sea” mean, “maybe it means I’m funky and cool – maybe it means I’m on Austin City Limits!” “So that’s what a smattering of applause sounds like,” said the jovial raconteur, noting the lack of a live audience due to the pandemic. The songwriter drove his band even deeper into the swamp with “Snake Farm,” the title track to his 2006 album. After band intros, Hubbard launched into “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” a co-write with Hayes Carll the pair performed together during Carll’s ACL appearance in Season 36. Hubbard then turned his attention to Co-Starring, his acclaimed recent major label debut, featuring guest appearances from titans Joe Walsh, Ringo Starr, Chris Robinson and more. He showcased a trio of tracks from the record in a row, including the bluesy grind of “Bad Trick,” a song penned with his wife Judy. He donned a 12-string for “Rock Gods,” a heartfelt tribute to Tom Petty and his peers who’ve entered the Pearly Gates, and a meditation on how death comes to us all. After those sobering thoughts, Hubbard led the band into the funky rocker “Fast Left Hand,” highlighted by earthy solos from Allen’s Hammond organ and the younger Hubbard’s guitar.

“If this is the first time you’ve seen me on Austin City Limits, you might get the idea that I’m an acquired taste,” Hubbard remarked. “So this song should weed you out.” That bon mot dropped, the singer/songwriter pulled out the outlaw swamp rocker “Mother Blues” from 2012’s The Grifter’s Hymnal – the story of a stolen Les Paul Goldtop, two romances rooted in an afterhours gig, and the wisdom of keeping your gratitude higher than your expectations. He and the band launched into his 2017 classic “Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast I Can,” a “kind of rock & roll fable” that, as Hubbard explained with a wink in the intro “hopes God grades on a curve.” Longtime drummer Schneider then thumped out the rumbling groove of an anthem, “Wanna Rock and Roll,” the album closer from 1992’s Lost Train of Thought, a tune later recorded by the red dirt rockers Cross Canadian Ragweed that earned Hubbard enough royalties “to buy a fence. That’s very important where I live.” 

Hubbard ended the show with “Desperate Man,” a song he co-wrote with country superstar Eric Church (and the title track of Church’s 2018 LP) – a bluesy rocker that encapsulates as well as any his characters’ outlaw ethos. It was a great way to end a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year as part of our Season 46 on your local PBS station. 

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Jackie Venson’s stunning ACL debut

Austin City Limits began as a showcase in 1973 to highlight the fertile Austin, Texas regional music scene, and we returned to our origins last night, showcasing the debut of Austin standout Jackie Venson. The next-generation singer-songwriter-guitar ace has made major waves in her hometown and across the globe over the past few years and we were proud to host her first taping, live streamed around the world. 

Wearing a black dress designed by her sister bearing a multitude of names of Black victims of police violence, with the words “Say their names” written down her arm, Venson made a statement even before launching her magnetic set. Performing a number of songs from her upcoming new album Vintage Machine, Venson and her five-piece band opened with “Awake,” a slow-grooving thumper frosted with her delay-soaked Epiphone Les Paul. The staccato beats of “Home” paid tribute to her hometown, before bassist Nick Clark led the musicians into cranking up the groove for the title track “Vintage Machine,” which appropriately felt like a Princely throwback. Comments lit up on the livestream with one viewer raving, “​Never heard Jackie before, tuned in because I follow Austin City Limits, this is fantastic.” The perpetually grinning Venson turned to the subject of l’amour for “Keep On,” a reggae tune that still left plenty of room for her frisky axe work. That song crashed directly into the next, a grungy rocker called “Witchcraft,” which immediately blazed into the funky rocker “Next Life.” After shouting out ACL, Venson and the band went into her current single “Make Me Feel,” a slow burn ballad that accented its desire with its composer’s burning licks. 

As backup singers Akina Adderley and Kate Priestley left the stage, Venson donned an acoustic guitar and delivered a moving speech in support of Black Lives Matter – “Not the hashtag, not the slogan, not the organization – the people.” Then she played “Back to Earth,” a sophisticated pop song that kept to her words’ spirit, if not the details. Venson then put on a Stratocaster with the comment, “We’re gonna do you Texas style.” She welcomed “Austin’s empress of soul” Tameca Jones to the stage, and the pair dazzled on the blues classic “Texas Flood,” made famous by another Austinite, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who also performed the song on his own ACL debut back in 1984. “I think I would’ve been smited if I’d played that song on anything but a Strat,” she remarked. After replacing that guitar with her Les Paul, Venson cranked the funk back up for “Fight,” a socially conscious song featuring a jazzy solo from keyboardist Eddy Hozibal. Rock came back in a big way for “Transcends,” leading Venson to introduce her close-knit band. 

The band went back to its tasty blend of funk and rock for the bristling (and inaccurately titled) “LoFi,” before revisiting Venson’s pop side for “Surrender.” The guitar slinger headed into the home stretch with “Go My Way,” a positivity-infused tune that deftly blended R&B of the past and the present. Drummer Rodney Hyder then jumped into the funky backbeat of “Joy,” the show-closer that put all of Venson’s eggs – soulful grooves, pop melodies and powerhouse guitar – into one basket to bring it all home. It was a great debut, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs November 14 as part of our Season 46 on your local PBS station.  

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The Mavericks rock ACL En Espanol

Somehow, it’s been twenty years since country rock eclecticians the Mavericks last appeared on Austin City Limits. Fortunately, that’s changed with the band’s third taping, an audience-free taping due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This was a special show not only due to the combo’s long-overdue return, but also because the group showcased its daring, critically-acclaimed first-ever Spanish-language album En Español. There’s always been a Latin side to the Mavericks’ freewheeling musical personality, and this show allowed them to indulge in it more overtly, much to everyone’s delight. 

Taking the stage in a semi-circle, the expanded band (horns, accordion, percussion, plus backing vocalist Lisset Diaz from Cuban rock band Sweet Lizzy Project) began the show with “La Sitiera,” a ballad perfect for lead singer Raul Malo’s powerful, Roy Orbison-esque vocals. Malo switched from his Jazzmaster to a nylon-string guitar for the Latin-folk rocking “Recuerdos.” The band then went back to electric guitars and English vocals for “Back in Your Arms Again” and “Easy As It Seems,” danceable songs that clearly take some inspiration from the Tex-Mex rock & roll in the Lone Star State in the sixties. Malo’s big smile after concluding the latter helped make up for the lack of audience feedback. The group then went back to En Español for “Mujer,” a delightful Latin pop tune, before covering Mexican star Juan Gabriel’s frisky “No Vale La Pena,” highlighted by Michael Guerra’s rippling accordion. Malo switched back to English for the slinky fan favorite “Every Little Thing About You,” which was spiced by lead guitarist Eddie Perez’s fiery fretwork. 

The band then left the stage, leaving Malo alone to sing a song “so connected to this place” – the Willie Nelson classic “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” – a song tailor-made for Malo’s smooth croon. As was “Me Olvidé De Vivir,” an early Julio Iglesias tune (and favorite of Malo’s grandfather) made the Mavericks’ own in a folky arrangement. Diaz featured on heavenly harmony vocals for “Cuando Me Enamoro,” a lush number she co-wrote with Malo, and the hip-swaying “Come Unto Me,” a live favorite with dueling guitar and accordion solos from Perez, Malo and Guerra. The Mavericks closed the set with  the rollicking “As Long As There’s Loving Tonight,” frosted with rockabilly rhythms, Jerry Dale McFadden’s pumping piano, back-to-back-to-back horn solos, Guerra’s spicy squeezebox and Malo’s ever-boisterous singing. That high-energy closer earned a round of applause from our crew, as well as some off-camera wag’s cheeky comment, “OK, good rehearsal, guys!” It was a hell of a closer, and we can’t wait for you to see the hourlong broadcast airing November 21 as part of our upcoming Season 46 on your local PBS station. 

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Rufus Wainwright makes his long-awaited ACL debut

Sometimes you just have to say: it’s about damn time. It took a while, but singer, songwriter, and opera composer Rufus Wainwright finally made his long-awaited debut on Austin City Limits. Performing songs from his highly acclaimed tenth studio album Unfollow the Rules, and backed for this occasion by Denton, TX psych rock outfit Midlake (and their alter-ego the Texas Gentlemen), Wainwright delivered an incredible performance – a history-making, first-ever no-audience ACL taping in accordance with Covid-19 protocols. 

Son of fellow bards Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright remarked “My dad did this show twice,” after nailing set opener “Trouble in Paradise,” the sparkling, witty pop tune that opens Unfollow the Rules. “I am now officially an adult.” The newly minted (47-year-old) grown-up leaned into the new record’s Laurel Canyon influence with “Damsel in Distress,” a wonderfully melodic song inspired by his friend and neighbor Joni Mitchell. Then it was time for the self-described “deep end” of the album, in particular the title track, a dramatic ballad inspired by his young daughter Viva. That amazing performance was followed by the country funk of “You Ain’t Big,” a lively poke at Middle America. Wainwright then moved to the piano for an older tune – the pretty title track of his second album Poses.  

Strapping on a guitar  (“I’m gay, so guitars kind of scare me”), Wainwright performed a pair of folky tunes: “Peaceful Afternoon” (written for his husband) and “Only the People That Love.” He pulled out the stops while getting overtly political for “Sword of Damocles,” a lush ballad aimed at promoting responsible presidential leadership, before shifting gears completely with “My Little You,” a solo piano “little ditty” dedicated to his daughter. He stayed at the keyboard for the powerful “Early Morning Madness,” an anthemic tune that really showed off his vocal and piano skills. He followed with the Nilsson-esque rocker “Devils and Angels (Hatred)” which included a backing track featuring strings and vocals by his sister Martha Wainwright. 

“This one I really didn’t practice for,” Wainwright said at the piano, but you’d never know it from his beautiful take on Unfollow the Rules closer “Alone Time.” The band ended their portion of the show with “another uptempo number about how everything is so terrible,” the acerbic “Going To a Town,” from Wainwright’s 2007 album Release the Stars. The troubadour closed the performance alone at the piano with a gorgeous pair of tunes: the jaunty mash note “The Art Teacher” and a stunning rendition of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah.” It was a simply spectacular performance, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall as part of our upcoming Season 46 on your local PBS station.