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The War and Treaty lights up ’Austin City Limits’ with heart and soul

Peter Blackstock
Singer Tanya Blount-Trotter performs with the War and Treaty during a taping of "Austin City Limits" at ACL Live on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020.

Michael Trotter of Nashville-via-Michigan band the War and Treaty is a livewire of joy and passion onstage, as the group’s Tuesday taping of “Austin City Limits” attested. Feeding off the energy from his wife, singer Tanya Blount-Trotter, he continually worked the 10-piece ensemble into a frenzy from his piano bench, building up waves of emotion that crashed into cathartic release in a 90-minute tour-de-force performance.

So it comes as a surprise when Trotter lets down his guard. In a post-show interview with “ACL” executive producer Terry Lickona, Trotter and his wife recounted the story of how the song “Five More Minutes,” from their acclaimed 2020 album “Hearts Town,” was written about Trotter’s close brush with suicide a few years ago. “I remember my wife getting down on her knees and saying, ’I know you want to end this, but I just need you to give me five more minutes to love you, and I promise I’ll give you a reason to keep going,’” Trotter said.

Perhaps it’s both the highs and the lows that have led to the gloriously uplifting music the War and Treaty makes. A military veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq, Trotter makes no secret of his struggles with PTSD. But with the help of his wife, he’s found a way to rise above, and his mission is to lift up everyone around him in kind.

On Tuesday, that included a small but grateful audience of “Austin City Limits” benefactors, as the show continues to experiment with presenting performances during the coronavirus pandemic. Most tapings since the show resumed production of new episodes in September have been with no audience, but now that has changed to accommodate a limited crowd in the mezzanine and balcony.

That development was especially welcome for the War and Treaty, whose show is largely built upon an interactive experience. Their spirit carried through even to hundreds of viewers who livestreamed the taping from home via the program’s YouTube channel. (It will air on PBS in January.)

It helps, too, that Michael and Tanya had a relentlessly upbeat eight-piece crew onstage with them. Bassist and band director Max Brown was joined by horn players Joe Jordan and Chuck Mullican, backing vocalists Will Merrell and Piper Jones, drummer Jonathan “Bam” Holmes, guitarist Matt Laurence and organist/keyboardist Brett Sandler.

The set focused heavily on “Hearts Town,” which was released in September and follows the War and Treaty’s 2018 debut album “Healing Tide.” That record earned the duo two nominations at the 2019 Americana Music Awards. The band has developed strong ties within the Americana community, forging bonds with songwriters such as the late John Prine, about whom Trotter talked appreciatively for several minutes near the end of Tuesday’s show.

Before the pandemic hit, 2020 was shaping up to be a breakout year for the War and Treaty, which performed as part of the Grammy Awards ceremonies in January. Possible tour dates with John Legend loomed, as well as a trip to Australia. “I think losing it all goes to show you where the cracks are in your character sometimes,” Trotter said in the post-show interview. “But Tanya and I still believe that the American people are a resilient bunch.”

Two more “Austin City Limits” tapings for 2020 are expected to be announced shortly. An early-October taping by Austin’s Jackie Venson, paired with an archival half-hour featuring Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt, will premiere on this weekend on PBS stations nationwide. PBS Austin will air it at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 14.

Pianist Michael Trotter performs with the War and Treaty during a taping of "Austin City Limits" at ACL Live on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020.