What was the biggest highlight of Thursday's fifth annual Austin City Limits Hall of Fame induction and concert at ACL Live?
Was it Marcia Ball beaming like a beacon on "Shine Bright," the title track to her new album, proving that her 50-year career in music is nowhere near its end?
Was it Ruthie Foster, bringing everyone to their feet with a soul-powerhouse rendition of "Georgia on My Mind" as part of a three-artist tribute to posthumous inductee Ray Charles?
Or was it Los Lobos bringing almost all hands on deck for the obvious yet glorious "La Bamba" finale, with everyone from show host Chris Isaak to movie director Robert Rodriguez taking part?
We're going to go with Foster, but the fact that it's a tough call indicates that this year's Hall of Fame show found a balance that bodes well for the future of the marquee ACL event, which producers Terry Lickona said now feels like a tradition at the five-year mark. Aside from a few technical glitches during Los Lobos' show-closing performance, the evening ran smoothly and remarkably on time, wrapping at exactly three hours. (Previous iterations had sometimes pushed the four-hour mark).
After a spectacular debut in 2014 that produced highlights such as Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy jamming together for the first time ever during a Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute finale, the Hall of Fame show hit a few bumps along the way in recent years. There was that 2015 incident when Guy Clark consumed a loaded brownie backstage and had to go to the hospital just as he was being called up to accept his award. The 2016 show suffered from the comedy-bomb dual-host team of Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman, actors clearly miscast in the role. The note-perfect Chris Isaak came to the rescue as host last year, but a Neville Brothers finale that ended up including zero of the original Neville Brothers felt like a denouement.
The equilibrium of Thursday's event was a welcome steadying of the ship. All three induction segments went well, preceded by short videos that featured clips of the acts' memorable "Austin City Limits" TV performances over the years as well as testimonials from those dear to them. Locals Kimmie Rhodes, Bobby Earl Smith and Eve Monsees spoke eloquently of Ball's many contributions to the Austin community; blues/gospel singer and longtime Raelettes backing vocalist Mable John gave an emotional account of how Charles helped bring the joy of music back into her life; and Texas greats Alejandro Escovedo, Flaco Jimenez and others spoke endearingly about their love for Los Lobos.
Ball brought out close compadres Irma Thomas, Tracy Nelson, Lou Ann Barton, Shelley King and Carolyn Wonderland to sing with her on tunes that drew from classic albums such as "Dreams Come True" and "Sing It" as well as her new disc "Shine Bright." The Charles segment began gracefully with Norah Jones' sterling rendition of "Seven Spanish Angels" and included host Isaak's moment in the spotlight for the lovely country number "I Can't Stop Loving You" before Foster and, finally, Gary Clark Jr. brought the first half of the show to a rousing finish with "Georgia" and "Night Time Is the Right Time," respectively. Austin organ player James Polk, who spent 10 years on the road with Charles, was a perfect addition to the house band led once again this year by renowned Austin producer Lloyd Maines.
Los Lobos mostly chose well for their five-song mini-set, starting with the tuneful country-rock of "Will the Wolf Survive" from their 1984 breakthrough album and nodding to their traditional Mexican acoustic roots with the title track to 1988's "La Pistola y El Corazon." Guest steel player Robert Randolph's incendiary licks were an ideal complement to guitarist Cesar Rosas' vocal spotlight "Don't Worry Baby." Only "Hearts of Stone" with guest Boz Scaggs, who'd performed in town the night before and was a late add to the Hall of Fame show, felt out of place; the title track to the group's ground-breaking 1992 album "Kiko" might have been a more ideal inclusion. And the aforementioned technical glitches stalled momentum a bit, requiring a couple of tunes to be halted and re-started.
Missed opportunities? It seemed almost odd to have a Ray Charles segment without including his good friend Willie Nelson. But Nelson took part in the Hall of Fame shows in 2014 (when he was the first inductee) and 2016, and it wouldn't be realistic to rely on him every year. Plus, Lickona hinted just after intermission that the show has a Nov. 1 announcement planned for a major taping of the show coming up in November. Given that Nelson, who has appeared on "Austin City Limits" more than a dozen times, hasn't made a non-Hall of Fame appearance on the show in almost a decade, we'd feel pretty good about a wager on Willie.