About the time Jimmie Vaughan walked onstage to join Gary Clark Jr., who was already out there, the Foo Fighters’ nearly three-hour “Austin City Limits” taping pretty much went off the hook — and off the script, too.
A pumped-up packed house at ACL Live helped the TV show bring a rousing close to its 40th season, which continues airing on public television stations through the winter and spring. The two local blues guitar greats’ guest appearances midway through Thursday evening’s performance helped push the Foo Fighters to another level — one that included a lengthy detour through classic-rock covers before finally wrapping up with a one-two punch of the band’s own “Best of You” and “Everlong.”
Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl developed a special relationship over the past year with “Austin City Limits” executive producer Terry Lickona, who was interviewed for the recent Austin episode of HBO’s “Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways” series. Lickona also provided the band access to the show’s former home, KLRU Studio 6A, for their HBO filming. Thursday night, Grohl seemed bent on returning the favor.
The band opened with a blistering eight-song rampage, including older staples such as “Times Like These” and “My Hero” as well as the new album track “The Feast and the Famine,” that took up almost the first hour of the show. Grohl explained that they’d charged through the initial segment because they had a long night planned and wanted “to play until they kick us out. Are you cool with that?” You can guess the crowd’s answer.
Part of the occasion for the taping was the “Sonic Highways” series’ accompanying album, which came out earlier this month. “Congregation,” from the Nashville episode, seemed to rev up the band members at a midpoint where they otherwise might have started flagging; that led directly into “What Did I Do/God As My Witness,” the new album’s two-tiered standout that was recorded in Austin.
Clark played on the recorded version, so it was no surprise when the guitarist emerged from stage right and helped the band drive it home. On the album, the tune fades out as Clark’s solo rages on, but the live setting offered an opportunity to stretch it, and they took full advantage. Clark’s deeply rooted blues licks served as more of a collision with the Foos’ fevered rock attack than a blending of the two styles, but it was no less fascinating for the contrast.
The real fun began when Grohl insisted Clark stay onstage as they brought out Vaughan and launched into “Tuff Enuff,” the signature song of Vaughan’s Fabulous Thunderbirds. That turned out to be foreshadowing for a home stretch during which the band unraveled with covers that included Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and Tom Petty’s “Breakdown.”
Most entertaining was a take on the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” in which Grohl turned the lead vocals over to drummer Taylor Hawkins and strolled through the audience, taking a short break to watch the band from the sound board before finally returning and joining Hawkins behind the drum kit. Midway through the song, with most eyes fixed on Grohl’s theater-wandering, Clark snuck back out and chimed in on guitar.
If they didn’t get to Roky Erickson’s “Two Headed Dog” (which was on the set list), and missed an opportunity to finally have the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes on “Austin City Limits” (something Haynes had joked about during the “Sonic Highways” episode), well, you can’t do everything. Or maybe they’re just holding those cards for a return visit.