"This would not be a good show to do some stage diving into a mosh pit," Rufus Wainwright joked a few songs into the first-ever no-audience taping of "Austin City Limits" on Thursday evening at ACL Live. After spending half a year on the sidelines waiting to see how the coronavirus pandemic would play out, the iconic music television program is now forging ahead without a crowd for several fall tapings.
Wainwright’s gorgeously mellifluous voice and dramatic, often outspoken songs established him two decades ago as an envelope-pushing artist, so his choice as the first performer to do the show in an empty room seemed fitting. Backed by members of North Texas bands Midlake and the Texas Gentlemen, Wainwright delivered a 15-song set that included almost all of the songs from his new album "Unfollow the Rules."
Austinites had seen Wainwright fairly recently; he came through last November for a splendid show at the Paramount Theatre, during which he previewed about half the new album’s material. "Unfollow the Rules" initially was scheduled for release in April but was pushed back to July because of the pandemic.
Wainwright noted Thursday that the delay felt somewhat fitting in retrospect, as the title track’s theme seemed to dovetail with the wave of civic protests and unrest that swept the nation during the summer months. "People started to question the structure of this world we live in," he said, "and now if feels appropriate again to unfollow the rules."
Several songs from the new album took a deep dive into the darkness of our times, from the haunting minor-key vignette "Early Morning Madness" to the apocalyptic "Devils & Angels (Hatred)." Wainwright leavened the proceedings with a couple of love songs from the new record, one written for his husband ("Peaceful Afternoon") and one for his daughter ("My Little You").
Taping ACL for the first time ever — his father, Loudon Wainwright III, has done the show twice, "so I am now officially an adult," Rufus cracked early on — he also revisited a couple of older favorites. "The Art Teacher," from 2004, was rendered solo on piano near the end of the set, while the title track from his 2001 album "Poses" proved to be one of Wainwright’s most enduring and engaging tunes.
He also touched on his 2007 album "Release the Stars" for the increasingly relevant sociopolitical tune "Going to a Town," in which he wearily confesses, "I’m so tired of America." Even more topical was the midset standout "Sword of Damocles," released just before the 2018 midterm elections as a pointed rebuke of President Donald Trump.
Introducing the song on Thursday, he mentioned that he’d been told this episode of the PBS program would air sometime next month, shortly before the November election. "So come on, people," he said, encouraging viewers to vote, then adding: "Hopefully everybody will have come to their senses and we’ll have a responsible adult running the country."
Part of what made this taping possible for Wainwright was that he’d recently developed a working relationship with the Texas musicians who backed him at last year’s Paramount concert. Guitarist and bandleader Eric Pulido teamed with his Midlake bandmates McKenzie Smith on drums and Joey McClellan on guitar, plus Austinite Daniel "Dancey Jenkins" Creamer on piano and Scott Lee on bass (both from the Texas Gentlemen).
Wainwright thanked them near the end of the show for "risking their lives to be here," an acknowledgment that even an audience-less "Austin City Limits" taping still carried shadows of the pandemic’s dangers. The musicians performed without masks, and "ACL" executive producer Terry Lickona was maskless when he introduced the band. But crew members apparently were wearing them, judging from the one who appeared briefly onstage to deal with a minor technical issue.
Indeed, the program’s way of dealing with what Lickona termed a "show must go on" philosophy stands in stark contrast to another iconic Austin experience. "Austin City Limits" went sans audience in the same week that the University of Texas has opted to admit nearly 20,000 football fans to its Saturday game with the University of Texas at El Paso.
The "ACL" approach seems far more in touch with the reality of the pandemic. That point was driven home when Wainwright closed with his majestic rendition of the Leonard Cohen classic "Hallelujah," performing solo at the piano. When the TV cameras caught Wainwright from behind, the vision of the dark and empty theater in front of him seemed poetic.
The show’s staff had debated for months about how to proceed in 2020, resulting in a half-year pause before the decision to do tapings without crowds. (Two more will follow soon: the Mavericks on Sept. 22 and Austin’s own Jackie Venson on Oct. 1.) Ultimately, they realized that the show needed to move forward and let the absence of an audience help tell the story of our times. Thursday’s taping did just that.