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Review: Sarah Jarosz returns home for enchanting 'Austin City Limits' performance

Standing onstage at ACL Live in front of the “Austin City Limits” camera crew on Wednesday, Sarah Jarosz knew how special this moment was for an artist raised in nearby Wimberley.

Jarosz has taped the iconic TV show twice before, but never coming out of a pandemic. She was scheduled to do the show late last year, but winter spikes in COVID-19 cases caused a delay.

Now that the moment was finally here, Jarosz embraced it with almost surreal wonder. “It’s SO good to be home,” she said with clear joy in her voice. “I would say this is a good way to re-emerge into the world after the last year.”

Much of the limited-capacity audience on June 2 likely felt the same way. “Austin City Limits” tapings are one of the city’s great musical treasures, free-admission events for those fortunate enough to score tickets through online drawings. Having them back this summer, even without a fully packed room, feels like a significant reclamation. (KLRU donors and sponsors also get some tickets.)

Singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz and her band tape the "Austin City Limits" TV show June 2 at ACL Live.

After experimenting with a few no-audience tapings last fall, the program began its 47th season with a limited crowd for last week’s Dayglow taping. At Jarosz's taping, seats looked a little over half-occupied in the mezzanine and balcony. Floor capacity was significantly reduced, with a few small tables and chairs replacing the usual bleachers-and-standing-room setup.

READ MORE:Sarah Jarosz finds her ’World on the Ground’ with songs about growing up in Wimberley

Early in her 15-song set, Jarosz explained to the crowd that this night was so special to her partly because her latest album, “World on the Ground,” was inspired by her formative years in Wimberley and Austin. Renowned musician John Leventhal, who produced the album, joined her for this show, marveling at one point that he’s now done “Austin City Limits” tapings in five different decades.

Singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz and her band tape the "Austin City Limits" TV show June 2 at ACL Live.

Leventhal also chimed in with a significant detail about “World on the Ground” that Jarosz hadn’t mentioned. “You’re too modest to tell them,” he said with a smile, “but I don’t mind bragging a little bit: We won a Grammy for it!”

Jarosz played all 10 of the album’s songs on Wednesday, underscoring how much the record means to her. Especially effective in a live setting were “Johnny,” a midtempo folk-rocker that takes intriguing minor-key melodic turns; “Orange and Blue,” an intimate number co-written with Leventhal for which he moved to piano; and “What Do I Do,” with Robinson’s masterful pedal steel tones underpinning Jarosz’s hypnotically cyclical lyrics in the chorus: “What do I do, what do I do this for, what do I do this for, I do this for you.”

Early in the evening, she added two tracks from 2016’s “Undercurrent,” for which she won her first Grammy Awards. Rounding out the set were three intriguing covers. Her ace backing crew — Leventhal, guitarist/pedal steel player Mike Robinson, bassist Jeff Picker and drummer John Fatum — departed for the first, a sparkling solo rendition of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” that was the highlight of a YouTube covers series Jarosz recorded during the pandemic.

The next two covers came at the end of the show and served as hat-tips to two of Jarosz’s greatest songwriting influences. James McMurtry’s “Childish Things” proved a perfect way to turn up the tempo to end the main set, with sharp electric riffs from Leventhal. It was especially apropos to hear a McMurtry song on Wednesday night, which typically would find the local troubadour holding forth at the Continental Club pre-pandemic. (The club reopened last weekend after more than a year of closure, but McMurtry is waiting a little longer to return.)

Even more revelatory was her encore choice, Nanci Griffith’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Drawn from the native Austinite’s second album, 1982’s “Poet in My Window,” the song fit perfectly into the hometown reflections that define Jarosz’s new album. “I only come here to remember my dreams,” she sang with a sweet clarity in her voice that echoed the exquisite beauty of Griffith’s original.

Sarah Jarosz's "Austin City Limits" setlist

  1. "Eve"
  2. "Pay It No Mind"
  3. "House of Mercy"
  4. "Orange and Blue"
  5. "Green Lights"
  6. "Hometown"
  7. "Johnny"
  8. "Maggie"
  9. "What Do I Do"
  10. "I’ll Be Gone"
  11. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (U2 cover, solo)
  12. "Little Satchel"
  13. "Empty Square"
  14. "Childish Things" (James McMurtry cover)
  15. Encore: "You Can't Go Home Again" (Nanci Griffith cover)
Singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz and her band tape the "Austin City Limits" TV show June 2 at ACL Live.