Tune in Saturday to the last show of "Austin City Limits" Season 36, the final turn in the historic studio where the series began, and you'll see a familiar big-nosed, square-jawed guy in a spiffy suit singing "Closing Time" with nearly 40 other people.
He's followed on TV by another act, Bob Schneider, who looks nothing like Lyle Lovett and represents a different style of Texas music.
Lovett has planted his boots on the brown-painted stage boards of Studio 6A a dozen times (more than anyone else, counting songwriter group specials). The choice of the "ACL" friend and fan for the final taping at the KLRU studio on the University of Texas campus became a sentimental one.
Executive producer Terry Lickona ceded an expected booking of Willie Nelson, whose 1974 pilot debuted the concept that has endured as the longest-running music series on television, to an imposing new concert venue on West Second Street. Nelson will help christen the dual-use Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater with two February performances.
The crowded stage for "Closing Time" completed a hiccup-free taping Nov. 8, the high point of an emotional day. So many music greats, some gone now like Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, played this stage.
Lovett's Large Band swelled with nearly the entire "ACL" staff joining in for the song about closing up a bar for the night. "Unplug them people and send them home," they sang as Lovett added, "Here's to another 36 years, 36 seasons of 'Austin City Limits.'u2009"
"Abandon your posts," Lickona had commanded his staff as Lovett began the song. Of course, he had made sure some camera operators would stay on duty and a visiting pro would cover in the control room for director Gary Menotti. A few eyes welled with tears, but big smiles of pride dominated in the studio designated last year as a historic landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
It was time to bid goodbye to the unadorned, black room with tables of free cups of beer outside and an outdated city lights cutout behind the stage. When Season 37 begins taping several weeks from now in the new building, everything will be different — and very much the same.
By design, PBS viewers like you at home won't notice many changes in "Austin City Limits," which has earned respect for its performers-rule, no-host-gab simplicity. Lickona and his staff saw no need to fix a formula that isn't broken.
The move downtown is a complex transition for the small staff of "ACL." But on the air tonight, the final Studio 6A show will look like a blip in the program's history. Lickona opens with a few lines about the old and new studio. Then it is on to five songs by Lovett: The "Closing Time" finale follows Townes Van Zandt's "White Freight Liner Blues," the chorus workout of "I Will Rise Up," the new "Natural Forces" and the lively "Up in Indiana."
On Nov. 8, the taping rehearsal proceeded like most others, though the mixed feelings about the studio departure were evident as current staffers and visiting "ACL" alums reminisced. "It just dawned on me that I'll have to move my locker," said veteran still photographer Scott Newton.
Lovett's afternoon rehearsal finished, the musician talked about how "I'm sure in the new studio the spirit of the show will be the same. It's never about a physical space. They could do 'ACL' out in the middle of the street, and I'm sure it would be the same. It's all about the spirit and soul."
He said that before his first record he watched tapings as a guest in the bleachers and in the control room, observing how the "TV aspect of the show doesn't get in the way here. They either get it live, or they don't. They don't stop things in the middle for technical reasons like other shows. Terry and Gary have found a way not to do that, and it makes for a more genuine performance."
For himself and other acts, Lovett said, "Getting to do 'ACL' is a big deal. You want to live up to the show."
His easy rapport with the staff was obvious during rehearsal as he started the Nelson staple "Funny How Time Slips Away." "I don't think we've ever done this on the show. Please check, Gary." And later, "I don't want to repeat myself. Terry, can you get us a list of all the songs we've ever done — not just here but ever?"
Far more songs were rehearsed than could ever make the final cut of a half-hour. Lickona squeezed in a dinner break amid interviews and catching up with former staffers such as Allan Muir, an early director of the show visiting from L.A. who would stand in for Menotti in the control room during "Closing Time."
Lickona said he was more tired than nervous as the 8 p.m. Monday taping approached. He said he had spent much of the weekend standing at Fun Fun Fun Fest in Waterloo Park. Always in running shoes and always scouting acts, the wiry Lickona would scurry the next day to Las Vegas to oversee production of the Latin Grammy awards show. He's held executive roles for several years with both the mainstream and Latin Grammy academies, employing his television experience.
"Frankly, it's opened my eyes and ears to possibilities of incorporating other music into 'Austin City Limits,' like our first hip hop show (Mos Def and K'Naan a year ago) and other kinds of music," such as Juanes and Café Tacuba a few years earlier, Lickona said. He also sees a future with perhaps a Latin music series or even comedy shows. Those likely would run on networks other than PBS, where about 96 percent of the stations now carry "ACL" free of charge, giving wide exposure to underwriters such as Dell and Budweiser.
He also hopes the ACL Live branding and greater public exposure in the new concert space might lead to more "ACL" shows each year than the long-standing 13 episodes. "I would love to do more than the 13 because there's so much talent out there worth taping that we just can't get to." The question mark is the future economic climate and whether underwriters would kick in the money to produce more shows.
Lickona said he's confident he and his staff will be able to work well with ACL Live general manager Tim Neece and the other ACL Live staffers in the new hall. "The spirit of cooperation is there. They get what we do."
At 7 p.m., the doors downstairs opened to guests. Just before 8, Lickona took the stage to introduce Bill Arhos, creator of the "ACL" show in the 1970s, and Ray Benson, who played the first show of Season 1. They led a beer-cups-raised toast to the series' past and future. "Bring on the dogs and ponies," Benson said.
After Lovett sampled his extensive repertoire for an hour and 47 minutes, the audience filed out, picking up special chocolate-guitar treats from a table in the studio. The last words on the old wooden stage that will remain in its historic location came from Lickona:
"To be continued."
Here's how Saturday's show for "ACL," the last of Season 36 and the last in Studio 6A, came together on Nov. 8. The schedule was typical.
8:30 a.m.: LOAD-IN/SET UP.Dozens of instrument cases and sound equipment trunks for Lyle Lovett and the Large Band brought up on freight elevator to sixth-floor studio.
1 p.m.: SOUND CHECK. Staffers cluster on the floor as the 14 band members plug in. Longtime lighting director Walter Olden says it's a "bittersweet day" as he sits with his computer in a corner to program the night's lighting needs. He doesn't yet have Lovett's set list but says he prepares for solo turns through YouTube videos from the current tour.
2 p.m.: CAMERA REHEARSAL. Director Gary Menotti and two assistants sit directly in front of the stage to assess the necessary camera work, but Lovett himself hasn't arrived yet. Also out front to take notes on their laptops are staffers Emily Joyce and Leslie Nichols, who will blog and tweet during the night's performance. About 15 minutes later Lovett arrives with fiancée/tour manager April Kimble and quickly assumes his role of principal singer and conductor.
6:45 p.m.: MAKEUP CALL. Lovett and band change into dark suits and get their faces powdered.
7 p.m.: DOORS OPEN. Those lucky enough to score audience tickets stream into the studio via the two small elevators. Most stop for beer and quickly take their seats. Downstairs, they received free commemorative shirts. A few hundred more who couldn't get tickets are in Hogg Auditorium nearby for a special live video feed.
7:50 p.m.: SPEECHES, TOAST FROM STAGE. Executive producer Terry Lickona thanks sponsors as usual. He brings up "ACL" founder Bill Arhos and musician Ray Benson to mark the show's beginnings with a toast.
8 p.m.: SHOWTIME. As Lovett begins his performance with "Whooping Crane," Menotti bobs and weaves in the dark control room, pointing to camera views and commanding the camera operators by name or number through their headphones – "tighter ... wider ... tilt up ... stay there ... cut to audience." Several screens show technicians the angles being recorded, and the two online chroniclers type away as they watch.
10 p.m.: INTERVIEW. Lickona conducts brief interview with Lovett in small mirrored dressing room that will be included at end of the televised segment. Lovett will take home a rough-cut DVD of the night's show and help edit that down to half an hour over the next couple weeks.