'Most amazing shows I've ever seen on this stage': Jon Batiste makes 'Austin City Limits' debut
Across the decades, "Austin City Limits" has had some clear standout shows among the hundreds of episodes the program has aired. Tom Waits in 1979. Leonard Cohen in 1989. The Townes Van Zandt tribute in 1998. Dixie Chicks in 2001. Allen Toussaint in 2009. Kendrick Lamar in 2015.
Add Sunday night's taping by New York-via-New Orleans dynamo Jon Batiste to the short list. The show's executive producer, Terry Lickona, echoed what we already knew at the end of a nearly two-hour set by Batiste and his 18-piece band: "That was one of the most amazing shows I've ever seen on this stage."
Perhaps most widely known as the bandleader for late-night TV host Stephen Colbert, Batiste has been preparing for this supernova musical moment his whole life. Raised in a prominent New Orleans musical family, he attended New York's prestigious Juilliard School, releasing his first album while still in his teens.
An impressive career spiked with marquee collaborations unfolded across the past decade, culminating in Batiste sharing an Oscar with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross earlier this year for their work on the 2020 Disney film "Soul."
Batiste's new record, "We Are," released in March, was the focus of Sunday's taping. Ten band members took the stage before Batiste, setting a groove for their leader's grand entrance on the album's title track. Decked out in a red suit and cowboy hat, Batiste grooved and strutted as he belted out the tune, whipping the crowd and his band into a frenzy.
Batiste moved to the piano at stage left to start the rhythmic second tune "I Need You," but soon enough, he was on his feet again, grabbing a saxophone midway through for a lively solo. "Oh, my lordy lord!" he exclaimed as the song ended, and everyone in the crowd was right there with him.
Then the band doubled in size. Lickona had hinted in his introduction that a New Orleans-style second-line processional would take place at one point, with "ACL" volunteers passing out white handkerchiefs to those on the standing-room floor for the occasion. Suddenly the Hot 8 Brass Band was parading among them, taking the already celebratory affair to another level.
Soon enough, Batiste was out in the crowd himself (playing a melodica), one of two times during the show that he took a stroll into the audience to get up close and personal with concertgoers. On the pre-show set list, from which Batiste deviated or expanded frequently, that section was noted as a "Love Riot Moment," which describes it pretty well. (Other drawn-out passages later in the show were listed as "Jam Moment" and "Jazz Moment.")
Batiste turned toward a hip-hop groove with the rapid-fire lyrics of "Whatchutalkinbout," one of the liveliest tracks on the new album. Mid-song, guitarists Brandon Niederauer and Ari O'Neal stepped out front for a gloriously theatrical six-string duel, one of many occasions where Batiste ceded the spotlight to his impressive bandmates.
All the energy built up to the soul-stirring anthem "Tell the Truth," the mid-show focal point punctuated by a mission statement from Batiste. "I really believe in this," he declared. "This is not a concert for me. This is a spiritual practice."
The second half of the performance followed a different path. First, Batiste departed to allow his core band a chance to shine, with bandleading bassist Thad Tribbett, drummers Joe Saylor and Lunar Rae, percussionist Nêgah Santos and keyboardist David Grant stretching out on solos.
Eventually everyone else returned — first backing singers Tamara Jade, Desiree DesZ Washington and Susan Carol, then finally Batiste, who headed to the piano for a fascinating medley. Playfully working in bits of everything from classical to ragtime to "Chopsticks," Batiste demonstrated the breadth of his range and interests as a pianist, making it clear that he acknowledged no walls at all between musical genres.
Batiste hit deeper tones with "St. James Infirmary Blues," a Grammy-nominated track from his 2018 album "Hollywood Africans," and excerpts from the "Soul" film before delivering one more grand slam. Austin guitar great Gary Clark Jr. emerged from the wings, getting a warm embrace from Batiste before settling in with the band on "Cry" from the new album and stepping out for a stinging mid-song solo.
"Freedom," another track from "We Are," proved a fitting finale with the full band before Batiste emerged for a solo-piano encore. The tender "Don't Stop," which closes his 2018 album, was like a benediction to everything that came before. "There's a reason that you're here," he sang with passion to a suddenly hushed crowd. "You ain't got nothing to fear, so don't stop."
A somewhat anticlimactic passage followed after the concert had finished. Lickona re-emerged to explain that a malfunctioning smoke-machine at the start of the show had marred Batiste's entrance, though those of us in the crowd likely would never have known. The band ran through the first two songs again, but some of the crowd had left, and it was impossible to re-bottle that same energy (both for the audience members who stayed and the musicians onstage). Here's hoping they stick with the original take for the TV broadcast.
Batiste has rarely played Austin; his last appearance here was in 2014 at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. He's playing ACL Fest this year, a weekend-two-only appearance on Sunday, Oct. 10. With his performance at the taping, that final day of this year's fest deserves to be considered the hottest ticket of the whole run.