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Americana stars align in Austin for spectacular 'Austin City Limits' Hall of Fame show

The stars were strewn across the stage as the "Austin City Limits" Hall of Fame show reached its grand finale on Thursday night at ACL Live, enough to christen a new heavenly constellation called Americana.

Hey, there’s Jeff Tweedy and his band Wilco. Look, there’s Alejandro Escovedo and his niece Sheila E. Is that Rosanne Cash and Terry Allen? Wait, Jason Isbell and Margo Price? John Doe from X and Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band? Smog's Bill Callahan and Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner? Add an Austin all-star backing crew including bandleader Lloyd Maines and fiddler Warren Hood, and it was hard to comprehend just how special a moment we were witnessing.

Inductees and guests perform at the 2021 Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Induction & Celebration at the Moody Theater on Thursday October 28, 2021 (Robert Hein for American-Statesman)

They were singing “California Stars,” a set of Woody Guthrie lyrics that inductee Wilco put to music many years ago. Woody’s West Coast reverie had been transported to Texas instead, on a night that’ll go down as one of the best ever in the “Austin City Limits” TV show’s fabled 47-year history.

Executive producer Terry Lickona had pointedly called Wilco “the quintessential ‘Austin City Limits’ band” in a post-show interview at one of the group’s four previous appearances on the program. He doubled down on that assessment as he welcomed Cash onstage to deliver Wilco’s induction speech. Really, though, that assessment could be made of all three 2021 inductees, with hometown hero Escovedo and legendary songwriter Lucinda Williams also being honored.

Lucinda Williams, with Jason Isbell in the shadows, accepts her induction into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame at ACL Live on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.

Williams’ induction was the evening’s most poignant moment. The Grammy-winning former Austinite suffered a stroke almost a year ago and has gradually worked her way back into performing over the past year, appearing in August at ACL Live as Isbell’s opening act. She’s better but still seems to be recovering; Isbell, Cash and Price all graciously helped her walk onstage and offstage when she followed her induction with collaborative performances of her songs “Crescent City” and “Changed the Locks.”

“Austin has always embraced me as one of its own,” she said with sincere appreciation in accepting the award. Earlier, Isbell had given a beautiful induction speech, applying his trademark mix of humor and wisdom. “A lot of my songs wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t spent so much time trying to rip her off,” he cracked, before giving insightful examples of the way Williams uses detailed imagery to paint pictures with her lyrics.

Escovedo kicked off the night with a celebratory flair, ringleading more than a dozen musicians — including his niece, celebrated drummer Sheila E. — through three numbers that collectively illustrated the genre-defying, artistically adventurous range of his career. “Algo Azul” featured Alex Ruiz of Austin group Del Castillo singing Spanish lyrics; Doe took the lead vocal on the punk-fueled “Sally Was a Cop”; and Escovedo guitar-windmilled his way through the orchestral-rock anthem “Put You Down.”

Alejandro Escovedo, with his niece Sheila E. on drums, house band bassist Bill Whitbeck and singer Alex Ruiz, performs at the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame ceremony at ACL Live on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.

Kaye inducted him, recalling when the two met in Los Angeles in 1974 and how he witnessed Escovedo develop into “an artist who is able to shapeshift at will” across the ensuing decades. A highly respected writer as well as a guitarist, Kaye arguably delivered the most thoughtful words on a night that collectively featured the best induction speeches in the event’s seven-year run.

Escovedo, who turned 70 earlier this year, followed with a recap of how his beginnings in San Antonio — as one of 13 children born to a mother from San Marcos and a father from Saltillo, Mexico — led to teenage revelations in California, punk adventures in New York and finally his artistic coming-of-age in Austin with the bands Rank and File, True Believers and Buick MacKane. “There’s a support group for all the musicians who have played with me,” he joked.

MORE:Alejandro Escovedo talks about joining the 'Austin City Limits' Hall of Fame

After a half-hour intermission, attention turned to Wilco. Cash referred to the rootsy yet experimental band as “heartland laborers in the tower of song” and lauded them for being “subversive without being destructive” with music that “somehow breaks us and heals us at the same time.” With Wilco’s music, she summarized, “we don’t need certainty when we love the question.”

Wilco performs at the 2021 Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Induction & Celebration at the Moody Theater on Thursday October 28, 2021 (Robert Hein for American-Statesman)

Accepting the award with bandmates John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen, Tweedy thanked the city of Austin and admitted that “I didn’t anticipate being teary-eyed at this moment.” He also gave a shoutout to former members Ken Coomer, Max Johnston, Bob Egan, Leroy Bach and the late Jay Bennett, all of whom helped shaped the band’s music in its first decade.

A lively version of “A Shot in the Arm” from 1999’s “Summerteeth” followed, with Maines sitting in on pedal steel. Tweedy later noted that Maines, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame himself in 2014, played on Wilco’s 1995 debut album “A.M.” as well as 1993’s “Anodyne,” the swan song of Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy’s band with Jay Farrar. (Joining Maines in the house band that backed Escovedo and Williams were guitarist David Grissom, keyboardist Chris Gage, bassist Bill Whitbeck and drummer Tom Van Schaik.)

Wilco’s desire to reach beyond convention stood out on the subsequent songs. Lo-fi master Callahan, with Cline on lap steel, performed the title track to 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky.” Iconoclastic sculptor-songwriter Allen delivered a solo piano-and-vocal rendition of the epic “One Sunday Morning” from 2011’s “The Whole Love.” The band then returned, inviting Michelle Zauner of indie group Japanese Breakfast to sing lead on the lovely “Jesus, Etc.” from the group’s 2001 album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”

Then came the finale. “This is going to be SO worth it,” Tweedy half-joked as production crew members painstakingly distributed fresh microphones to the various finale singers per COVID-19 protocols. But indeed it was, with Sheila E. even going so far as to announce from the stage, “I just want to let you know that I’m moving to Austin.”

It was the kind of magic moment that has made these shows so special ever since Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan became the inaugural inductees seven years ago. Looking across the stage, one might imagine fascinating side-projects that could bloom from the massive collaboration. In the end, it’s really “Austin City Limits” itself that is quintessential.

(This story has been updated to correct the spelling of song "Algo Azul.")

Set list

Alejandro Escovedo (inducted by Lenny Kaye)

1. “Algo Azul” (with Alex Ruiz and Lenny Kaye)

2. “Sally Was a Cop” (with John Doe, Alex Ruiz and Lenny Kaye)

3. “Put You Down”

Lucinda Williams (inducted by Jason Isbell)

1. “I Envy the Wind” (performed by Jason Isbell)

2. “Crescent City” (with Rosanne Cash)

3. “Changed the Locks” (with Margo Price)

Wilco (inducted by Rosanne Cash)

1. “A Shot in the Arm”

2. “Sky Blue Sky” (performed by Bill Callahan)

3. “One Sunday Morning” (performed by Terry Allen)

4. “Jesus Etc.” (with Michelle Zauner)

5. “California Stars” (grand finale with almost all performers)