An extremely special "Austin City Limits" double taping on July 2 brought to Austin some of the best country and Americana artists alive — many of whom have roots in our fair state — for a night of heart, memories and family, both blood and chosen.
Austin-based musician Patty Griffin kicked off the evening with a moving, stripped-down set accompanied by two talented collaborators, guitarist David Pulkingham and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Conrad Choucroun. Griffin is an absolute veteran, and as she performed for what I was told was her sixth time on the "Austin City Limits" stage, dripping in a beautifully witchy Stevie Nicks-esque black fringe outfit with black floral knee-high boots, she seemed completely at home.
Griffin opened her set with a stripped-down rendition of her haunting song “Mama,” before diving into raucous new single “The Wheel.” Her voice remained powerful and firm as her lyrics demanded, “Who is weak and who is strong?” It’s a question many have wondered — perhaps more and more these days, given our country's political climate and what's happening along the border in our own state. Griffin brought that thought out explicitly as she introduced her song “Tralee,” which tells the story of her Irish ancestors’ emigration journey to the United States. She drew a straight line to what she frankly referred to as the humanitarian crisis at our border.
Other highlights of Griffin’s set included the bluesy wallop of “Standing”; her sharp, strong performance of “Truth #2,” a song of confrontation in the name of love; and the moving story about her hometown that served as introduction before another outstanding new track, “Where I Come From.”
Griffin and her backup musicians’ grounded warmth and reflective joy served as a perfect companion for the second taping of the evening: Steve Earle and the Dukes, playing a collection of covers of the songs of Earle’s mentor, the inimitable Guy Clark. He also played two songs from Earle’s own formidable catalog, “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road,” both of which have aged beautifully.
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Earle always has brimmed with personality, but playing with the Dukes brings that electric energy to a whole other level — they’re all clearly musicians who love and respect collaboration and the shared experience of performing for music lovers around the world. Among the Dukes: former Austinites Eleanor Whitmore on violin and vocals and Chris Masterson on guitar, both of whom were instrumental to the full sound Earle had onstage.
Through reverent, celebratory performances of Clark classics such as “Rita Balou,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and “Heartbroke,” as well as a particularly driving take on “LA Freeway,” Earle told stories in his smoky voice about his many encounters with Clark. In one memorable anecdote, equal parts heartwrenching and hilarious, Earle recalled that in the days before Clark succumbed to cancer in 2016, the iconic Texan musician barely had the energy to talk but still managed to scoff and spurt out a dismayed “Pork!” in reaction to what he deemed the inauthentic barbecue meat.
And in a truly fitting tribute to Clark, who always seemed to gather talented, full-hearted people around him, Earle brought up many beloved guests to share the stage throughout his set, including folks like Joe Ely, Rodney Crowell and Terry Allen. It was impossible not to tell that the artists all were deeply enjoying themselves, happy to be reliving memories and making new ones with important people in their lives.
Ultimately, that communal feeling brought one of the two most goosebump-raising moments of the evening: the closing performance of “Old Friends,” which had Earle, the Dukes and all of the night’s guests crowded around microphones singing and tapping their toes and honoring a true Texas great.
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The second moment, perhaps my favorite in the show, actually featured a solo Earle. He had just started in on one of Clark’s most layered, moving songs, “The Randall Knife,” before realizing he was not following his setlist, blurting “I messed that up” and jumping into “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.” Earle could really have done whatever he wanted; no one was going to wag a finger at it. But it was a sweet, tender moment that seemed to indicate the artist’s dedication to getting this tribute to Clark just right. “The Randall Knife” is a meaningful song about Clark’s relationship with his father, one Earle told Rolling Stone he was intimidated to cover at all. When he finally did perform it — solo, without the Dukes backing him up — the room was enraptured.