"Most shows would end with something like that," emcee Andy Langer said as Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, Gary Clark Jr. and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes left the stage after blasting through the Fabulous Thunderbirds hit "Wrap It Up" to kick off Thursday’s "Austin City Limits" 40th anniversary special taping at ACL Live. "This one STARTED with it."
Indeed, that was just the beginning of a marathon that stretched just past four hours (counting a half-hour intermission) and amounted to a broad survey across the heart of Americana music. Varying combinations of country, blues, rock, soul, folk, funk and more pushed the evening’s horizons wide, encapsulating what "Austin City Limits" has become since the show began filming episodes for public television broadcast in 1974.
The sheer bulk of the endeavor made this event an endurance challenge for both the show’s crew and its audience. With two hosts – singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow and actor/musician Jeff Bridges – plus emcee bits from Langer and executive producer Terry Lickona, as well as short videos about ACL’s inductees into its new Hall of Fame, the show had a lot of moving parts. They had to be assembled right for much of the footage to be included on a PBS prime-time special about the show’s 40th anniversary set to air nationally Oct. 3.
Inevitably, there were stops and restarts, takes and retakes. This fall’s finished product – which will include footage from a Hall of Fame induction show taped in April at the original "Austin City Limits" Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus – no doubt will be assembled into a seamless tour de force. Indeed, the hard part for the ACL crew lies ahead: Now they have to edit many hours from those two nights into a single broadcast fitting a two-hour air slot during PBS’s Fall Arts Festival.
Will they leave that terrific, tone-setting all-star opener, but cut Raitt’s subsequent soulful rendition of the Lou Rawls hit "Your Good Thing (Is About to End")? Will they include her duet with Jimmie Vaughan on "The Pleasure’s All Mine" but leave out Vaughan’s terrific trio turn with Doyle Bramhall II and Gary Clark Jr. on "Early in the Morning"? Will they include just one of the two Stephen Bruton tunes Bridges performed with the ace house band assembled by steel guitar great Lloyd Maines? Decisions, decisions.
The couple thousand who packed ACL Live – the concert was a benefit for KLRU, which produces "Austin City Limits" – got to see it all, amid the frequent production breaks and stage resets. Sticking it out to the end at a show of this nature made one appreciate how smoothly ACL’s crew presents its typical tapings, which run almost like a normal concert with rare interruptions.
But you rarely get a chance for the cross-pollination opportunities that an event like this provided, and ACL took full advantage. Early, they had Crow and Kris Kristofferson dueting on the latter’s classic "Me and Bobby McGee"; late, Texas troubadour icons Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen shared the spotlight for a house-rocking romp through "The Road Goes On Forever," penned by Keen and covered definitively by Ely on record.
Attempts to represent the range of what ACL now presents – the show is much more diverse than when it focused on progressive country in its first few seasons – resulted in crowd-pleasing appearances by local Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma and the terrific young soul band Alabama Shakes. A video of rock band the Foo Fighters performing Roky Erickson’s "Two Headed Dog" at the original studio, taped in March, had less impact in this live setting, though it should work well as part of the TV presentation in October.
The closing numbers of the show’s two long sets both stood out. Clark set the air afire with a supercharged guitar solo in "Bright Lights" that, as Langer noted, young guitarists might study on video in years to come, just as Clark says he studied Stevie Ray Vaughan’s 1980s ACL appearances. And the whole gang assembled for the grand finale of Buddy Holly’s "Not Fade Away," with vocal turns by Ely, Bridges, Crow and Keen plus instrumental solos from Raitt, Vaughan, Bramhall, Clark, Howard and Maines (who was added to the ACL Hall of Fame’s inaugural induction class just before the finale).
A superb local backing crew provided support for Raitt, Kristofferson, and Bridges at the outset, and for Crow, Bramhall, Ely and Keen at the end. Helping to keep the "Austin" in "Austin City Limits" were guitarists David Grissom and Rich Brotherton, keyboardist Riley Osborn, bassist Glenn Fukunaga and drummer Tom Van Schaik.