“Maybe songs aren’t about Arkansas aren’t appropriate tonight,” Hayes Carll wisecracked after playing his early hit “Little Rock” for the crowd at ACL Live that gathered Friday night to raise a Texas-sized bounty for the Hill Country Conservancy.
Carll and headliner Margo Price sent patrons home with plenty of good songs in their hearts, capping a long evening that included a pre-concert dinner and live auction which raised $430,935 for the organization. The nonprofit land trust works to protect natural outdoor spaces in Central Texas as well as the area’s working farms and ranches.
Carll is, like Bob Schneider, the rare Austin act who can play regularly at the intimate Saxon Pub while also occasionally stepping up for special shows at the city’s marquee concert hall. He’s played here before for other major fundraisers, and to tape the “Austin City Limits” TV show.
RELATED: Our 2016 interview with Hayes Carll
On this night, backed by a four-piece crew that included ringer Emily Gimble on piano, Carll ran through a set of his best material, supplementing songs from 2016’s “Lovers and Leavers” with older favorites such as “I Got a Gig,” the Ray Wylie Hubbard co-write “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and the set-closing “KMAG YOYO.” Gimble handled the female duet vocal part on “Another Like You,” the quasi-political love song Carll prefaced by suggesting that “there’s nothing we can’t overcome with a little bit of physical attraction and a whole lot of alcohol.”
Price has played Austin a few times this year, including a tour-de-force performance at Emo’s back in January plus gigs with Willie Nelson at the Luck Reunion event during South by Southwest and his annual Fourth of July Picnic at Circuit of the Americas. Each time through, she seems to win over new fans; her steady rise has been a sharp study in the triumph of natural talent when combined with a lot of hard work.
READ MORE: Our 2018 interview with Margo Price
Of particular note on this night were a couple of new songs, most notably “Long Live the King,” delivered early in the set. A show-stopping number that puts Price’s powerhouse vocals way out front, its three verses address a trio of 20th-century icons: first Elvis Presley, then Martin Luther King Jr. and finally John Lennon.
The nature of the fundraising event meant Price’s set was a little shorter than her usual headlining show, so we missed a couple of her finest numbers: the sweeping “Hands of Time” from her 2016 breakthrough album “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” and the emotional title track to last year’s “All American Made” that she often plays solo on piano.
One highlight still intact from her Emo’s set earlier this year, though, was the auxiliary drum kit set up next to her drummer Dillon Napier, placed there so Price could go back and hammer away at the end of “Cocaine Cowboys” (and later, “Paper Cowboy”). The crowd loved it: “That was awesome!”, shouted out one attendee at the end of “Cocaine Cowboys.”
A couple of choice covers illuminated where Price draws some of her songwriting and performance inspiration. Guy Clark’s “New Cut Road” was a hot-pickin’ mid-set highlight, and she closed the show with a rousing version of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” (When Price performed it with Brandi Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival earlier this summer, Parton’s complimentary tweet about their version “made my day/week/year/life!”, Price beamed on Twitter.)
Still, the best elements of Price’s repertoire are her own songs. Standouts on this night included the blazing indictment “Four Years of Chances,” the swinging groove of “A Little Pain” and especially “Weakness,” a rocking honky-tonker in which Price confesses, “Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me.” That’s no doubt true for her, and all of us. But judging from her impressive career ascendance in the past few years, Price is winning that battle by a good country mile.
RELATED: Hill Country Conservancy helps to preserve Hays County ranch land