Liz Phair brings joy and buoyancy to sold-out Mohawk show

By Kayleigh Hughes, special to the American-Statesman

Early on in her set at the Mohawk on Thursday night, Liz Phair took a moment to grin at the audience and observe, “I think I see the first Liz Phair mosh pit out there.”

Liz Phair at the Mohawk. Kyser Lough for American-Statesman

It was a perfect way of summing up the energy that the lovestruck audience sent Phair and her band from the moments the lights dimmed until the last raucous cymbal clash of their encore. The sold-out Sept. 27 show was packed with Phair die-hards, young and old, who knew all the lyrics to every song and vibrated with energy.

Phair and her band more than gave that energy back. After an intimate, limited-date tour earlier in the year in which Phair and sole guitar accompanist Connor Sullivan played groundbreaking songs from the early demo tapes she recorded as Girly Sound, the rock ’n’ roll queen is now midway through a string of dates with a full band that brings her sharp songwriting to life in a totally different way.

PHOTOS: Liz Phair and Speedy Ortiz at the Mohawk

In a savvy move to differentiate the rock-show tone of the current tour from the more stripped-down summer anniversary shows, Phair kicked off her set with the propulsive track “Supernova” from “Whip-Smart,” the follow-up to her iconic debut, “Exile in Guyville.” In fact, Phair and her band blasted thrillingly through five songs from various eras of her career (and three guitars) before giving the crowd a track from “Guyville,” a driving, heavy version of “Never Said.” The run of tracks was a welcome reminder in the midst of the “Guyville” anniversary conversations that Phair has been pushing her sound forward and mixing rock and pop subgenres for the past 25 years, while always retaining her wit, intellect and curiosity as a songwriter.

Throughout the night, she hit on all the favorites, from swooning pop hit “Why Can’t I” to ferocious anthems such as “6’1”” and “Polyester Bride” to the beloved encore necessity “Divorce Song.” She gave them all rich, full arrangements, resulting in a set that felt cohesive and served as a reminder that Phair is a veteran, an expert and a true one-of-a-kind artist. (At a certain point, I gave up counting the number of perfectly timed guitar changes. Phair has a collection that makes my heart flutter.)

During the show, Phair also made a point of acknowledging the killer set by opening act Speedy Ortiz, shining a well-deserved light on the feminist indie-grunge-rock band, who delivered an incredibly tight, vibrant, righteously furious performance earlier in the evening. Between the shredding and the hooks, lead singer Sadie Dupuis urged the audience to vote multiple times and allowed sexual assault victims like herself and anyone feeling particularly enraged with the news cycle a chance to take a giant, cathartic scream with her.

Phair brought her own sense of catharsis to the rest of the night, but in a different way: through joy and buoyancy. So much of her music serves as searing indictments of patriarchy and raw explorations of womanhood, and she and her band managed to channel that into an almost blissful musical energy, allowing the pleasure of performing together and connecting with an adoring audience to be its own hard-won and enjoyed victory.

Trombone Shorty brings the fire, and a Neville, to ‘Austin City Limits’ taping

Trombone Shorty (left) and his Orleans Avenue bandmates perform for “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live on Wednesday, September 26, 2018. Scott Newton/KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits

It’s not like Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his 10-piece Orleans Avenue backing crew needed any help in their second “Austin City Limits” taping. The New Orleans funk shooting stars had lit up ACL Live for more than an hour with blasts of horns, guitars, vocals and percussion when they brought out a special guest on two songs. But Cyril Neville definitely took them to another level.

Building the bridge between this modern-day juggernaut and the historical legacy of the Neville Brothers was a natural move, but it underscores how smart Andrews is, and how aware he is of the roots of his music. Cyril will turn 70 in a few weeks, but that was hard to imagine watching him perform “No More Okedoke” and “Fiyo on the Bayou” with Andrews and his crew, singing loud and moving proud like he hadn’t yet turned 30.

Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty, performs at an “Austin City Limits” taping at ACL Live on Wednesday, September 26, 2018. Scott Newton/KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits

The surprise cameo put a cap on a blockbuster night. Among the tapings I’ve attended over the past five years, very few have bottled up this much raw energy. Foo Fighters, probably. The Tedeschi Trucks band, likely. Add Shorty to that short list.

A lot of the credit goes to his bandmates. Saxophonists Dane Oestreicher and BK Jackson share the front line with Andrews, blasting out brass bursts and often dancing in step with bassist Mike Bass-Bailey. Add guitarists Joshua Connelly and Pete Murano, drummers Alvin Ford Jr. and Joey Peebles, percussionist Weedie Braimah, and backing vocalists Tracci Lee and Chrishira Perrier, and the stage was constantly alive with a maelstrom of activity.

The 12-song set drew from a range of the Trombone Shorty catalog, including “Where It At?” and “Here Come the Girls” from last year’s “Parking Lot Symphony,” “Long Weekend” from 2013’s “Say That to Say This,” the instrumental show-opener “Buckjump” from 2011’s “For True,” and “Something Beautiful” from 2010’s “Backatown.” As a whole, though, the show felt more like it coalesced into one giant suite of glorious noise.

During the encore tune “Do to Me,” Andrews finally took that energy right into the crowd, which had responded to his band’s spirit with their own boisterous support all night. Weaving his way into the middle of a pogo-ing throng on the floor, he briefly brought everything down — both musically and physically, coaching the crowd members to crouch along with him as the band laid back for about a minute. Then, right on cue with his “one-two-three-four” countoff, the band and the crowd exploded, leaping into action again for a glorious finale that, fittingly, included an excerpt of “The Saints Go Marching In.” By end of the night, everyone wanted to be in that number, indeed.

Fall Out Boy pairs sonic blasts with sensational visuals at Erwin Center concert

Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy performs at the Erwin Center on September 23, 2018. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

When you buy a concert ticket in the upper deck of the Erwin Center on the far end of the arena, it’s a given that you’ll be a long way from the action. Just being in the room is good enough if you really love the band, but you’re prepared for the performers to look pretty small from way back there.

So fans of Fall Out Boy who were in those seats must have been delighted when the Chicago rockers introduced an ingenious gimmick midway through their Sunday night show. First, drummer Andy Hurley and guitarist Joe Trohman set up on a platform at the end of a long runway that extended from the stage. Then suddenly singer Patrick Stump and bassist Pete Wentz appeared on another platform even further out, all the way at the other end of the arena.

As the band launched into their 2005 hit “Dance, Dance,” those faraway fans suddenly found themselves with quite a close-up view. Then the platforms gradually rose from suspended cables. By the time the band segued into “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)” from their new album “Mania,” Stump and Wentz’s stage had elevated all the way up to mezzanine level. Those nosebleed-seat purchases now seemed like a steal.

That was the high point (literally and figuratively) of a stage production that sometimes seemed to be the star of the show. With seven albums and a slew of hit singles across a two-decade career, Fall Out Boy has been one of America’s most prominent rock bands of the 2000s. Even so, at times their musical performance almost seemed to be the canvas upon which some incredibly creative production designers created a spectacle of pop entertainment.

RELATED: More concert reviews on Austin360

Consider the video component. Behind the band, a huge screen displayed ever-changing thematic visuals for each song. A giant squid thrashed about in footage that accompanied “The Phoenix,” followed by majestic mountain scenes for “Irresistible.” Pixar-quality animation told a story behind “Immortals,” giving way to amusing scenes of giant muppet-like animal creatures playing instruments in a make-believe ensemble called the Rockafire Explosion as the band blasted through the opening track on its new album.

Then there was the song with zillions of emojis twirling in the background. Plus those action bits from the viral video game “Fortnite” for the early fave “Grand Theft Autumn/Where Is Your Boy.” And, naturally, scenes from various Uma Thurman films when they played their song titled “Uma Thurman.” Plenty more examples could be cited — the Princess Diana historical footage when they played “Champion,” anyone? — but you get the idea.

Oh, and the pyrotechnics: Lots of showering sparks and bomb-like blasts, plus bursts of fire including one stream that shot out from the headstock of Wentz’s bass on a couple of songs. Lest we forget the two dudes dressed in giant llama-like costumes who came out to toss T-shirts into the crowd while the band was making its way back to the main stage from the platforms.

The irony is that behind the razzle-dazzle, musically Fall Out Boy remains a pretty basic, straight-ahead four-piece guitar-drums-bass rock band. Stump is a powerful and tuneful singer, a perfect delivery vehicle for Wentz’s often angst-ridden lyrics. Shirtless and heavily tattooed Hurley attracts attention behind the drum kit; Trohman is less flashy but carries a lot of the musical weight on his shoulders with his guitar leads.

Their fans are hard-core devotees. Though the Erwin Center was a bit short of full for this show, maybe 75 percent of capacity for its south-stage setup, almost all in the house stood for the entire 90-minute set, and many sang along loudly throughout the evening. Fall Out Boy hadn’t played Austin in more than three years, and their last Erwin Center appearance was more than a decade ago. For their faithful followers, clearly it was worth the wait.

RELATED: Photos from Fall Out Boy at Austin360 Amphitheater in 2015

Machine Gun Kelly performs at the Erwin Center on September 23, 2018. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Two opening acts made for a longer-than-usual concert evening. In the middle slot, Machine Gun Kelly was somewhat hit-and-miss, trying hard to rev up the crowd with his energetic performance but never really getting the entire arena fully engaged. His music’s pretty different from the headliner, drawing heavily on rap music. A late-set highlight had a local connection: Kelly’s recent hit “Bad Things” cribs its catchy chorus from “Out of My Head,” a 1999 top-20 hit for Austin band Fastball. (Expect to hear it again at ACL Fest from Camila Cabello, whose supporting vocal was delivered via prerecorded track during Kelly’s performance.)

Opening act Nothing, Nowhere was different yet again, a heavily dramatic emo band from New England that has released three records since 2015. Leader Joe Mulherin charged through dark songs such as “Hopes Up” (as in, “I don’t want to get my hopes up”) and “Nevermore,” advising the crowd that “If you struggle with mental illness, keep fighting and stay positive.” Music seems to have been the right outlet for his own battle. His band may never reach mass-headliner status, but as an opener on a three-band bill, they held their own.

Joe Mulherin of Nothing, Nowhere performs at the Erwin Center on September 23, 2018. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Blues legend Buddy Guy revels in the moment at ‘Austin City Limits’ taping

Legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy tapes “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live on Monday, September 17, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

“Whatever you see tonight, I didn’t rehearse it,” Buddy Guy told the crowd toward the end of Monday’s “Austin City Limits” taping at ACL Live. That wasn’t just a line. Usually, artists who play the iconic TV show make sure their performance is fine-tuned with an afternoon run-through that carefully adheres to the set list. But Buddy didn’t even HAVE a set list.

Once he takes the stage, you can see why. At 82, the legendary blues guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has been doing this for long enough to know better than anyone what works best for him, and that’s mostly living in the moment. Sure, he’s got habits he’ll work into most every show — rubbing the guitar against his backside to make a squeal/scrape sound with the strings, or wandering out into the crowd to play close-up for some lucky fans. But mostly he’s just following his instincts, and feeding off the energy of the audience.

PHOTOS: Buddy Guy taping “Austin City Limits”

There was plenty of energy in the crowd on this night, as Guy heartily acknowledged early on. “We don’t get this kind of response everywhere we go — that’s why I like coming here,” he said as he wound down a 20-minute version of the Willie Dixon classic “Hoochie Coochie Man.” He teased the audience on occasion for not answering his call-and-response vocal cues loudly enough, but it always had the desired effect: By the time he got to the end of the roof-raising title track to his Grammy-winning 1994 album “Slippin’ In,” he had everyone in the room shouting along to its chorus.

Guy worked in newer material alongside the old favorites, delighting the crowd with the lively “Cognac” — pronounced “coe-nee-ack” in his charmingly drawn-out drawl — from this year’s album “The Blues Is Alive and Well.” He gave credit to drummer Tom Hambridge, the song’s co-writer, noting that Hambridge has also produced his last several albums. Props also went out to guitarist Ric Hall, keyboardist Marty Sammon and bassist Orlando Wright, who were the perfect backing crew all night long. They held back to a near whisper when called for, thundered forth when the moment arrived, and stayed right in the groove throughout.

Buddy Guy tapes “Austin City Limits” with keyboardist Marty Sammon, drummer Tom Hambridge, bassist Orlando Wright and guitarist Ric Hall at ACL Live on September 17, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

Guy’s ties to Austin run deep. He has a long history with Antone’s nightlcub, he’s used Austin players such as Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton and David Grissom on his records, and he’s previously appeared on “Austin City Limits” four times, all at the old KLRU Studio 6A location — most recently for 2014’s inaugural Austin City Limits Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where he jammed for the first time ever with Willie Nelson in helping to induct his late friend Stevie Ray Vaughan.

RELATED: More news and reviews from the “Austin City Limits” TV show

When Guy played ACL Live in 2015, he brought out Chicago transplant James Cotton, the legendary blues harmonica ace who moved to Austin in his final years, to join him onstage. Cotton died last year, but Guy also loves to share the spotlight with younger players, and so near the end of Monday’s show he brought out 19-year-old guitarist Quinn Sullivan (the opening act on that 2015 show) for a sweet but hot and soulful take on John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain.”

Sullivan stayed aboard for the rest of the ride, getting some spotlight solos and engaging in hot six-string duels with Guy as they roamed through licks that nodded to the influence of guitar greats such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. The finale was a bit abrupt — unrehearsed, naturally — as Guy set down his guitar while the band played on, wandered back out into the crowd to toss a few guitar picks to fortunate fans, and finally ambled off with a big smile and a wave, leaving his mates to finish it off with a closing jam.

Buddy Guy taping “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live on Monday, September 17, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

 

Margo Price, Hayes Carll light up ACL Live to benefit Hill Country Conservancy

Margo Price performs at the Hill Country Conservancy’s 12th Annual Hill Country Nights at ACL Live on September 7, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

“Maybe songs aren’t about Arkansas aren’t appropriate tonight,” Hayes Carll wisecracked after playing his early hit “Little Rock” for the crowd at ACL Live that gathered Friday night to raise a Texas-sized bounty for the Hill Country Conservancy.

Carll and headliner Margo Price sent patrons home with plenty of good songs in their hearts, capping a long evening that included a pre-concert dinner and live auction which raised $430,935 for the organization. The nonprofit land trust works to protect natural outdoor spaces in Central Texas as well as the area’s working farms and ranches.

Carll is, like Bob Schneider, the rare Austin act who can play regularly at the intimate Saxon Pub while also occasionally stepping up for special shows at the city’s marquee concert hall. He’s played here before for other major fundraisers, and to tape the “Austin City Limits” TV show.

RELATED: Our 2016 interview with Hayes Carll

On this night, backed by a four-piece crew that included ringer Emily Gimble on piano, Carll ran through a set of his best material, supplementing songs from 2016’s “Lovers and Leavers” with older favorites such as “I Got a Gig,” the Ray Wylie Hubbard co-write “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and the set-closing “KMAG YOYO.” Gimble handled the female duet vocal part on “Another Like You,” the quasi-political love song Carll prefaced by suggesting that “there’s nothing we can’t overcome with a little bit of physical attraction and a whole lot of alcohol.”

Hayes Carll and band perform at the Hill Country benefit at ACL Live on September 7, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

Price has played Austin a few times this year, including a tour-de-force performance at Emo’s back in January plus gigs with Willie Nelson at the Luck Reunion event during South by Southwest and his annual Fourth of July Picnic at Circuit of the Americas. Each time through, she seems to win over new fans; her steady rise has been a sharp study in the triumph of natural talent when combined with a lot of hard work.

READ MORE: Our 2018 interview with Margo Price

Of particular note on this night were a couple of new songs, most notably “Long Live the King,” delivered early in the set. A show-stopping number that puts Price’s powerhouse vocals way out front, its three verses address a trio of 20th-century icons: first Elvis Presley, then Martin Luther King Jr. and finally John Lennon.

The nature of the fundraising event meant Price’s set was a little shorter than her usual headlining show, so we missed a couple of her finest numbers: the sweeping “Hands of Time” from her 2016 breakthrough album “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” and the emotional title track to last year’s “All American Made” that she often plays solo on piano.

One highlight still intact from her Emo’s set earlier this year, though, was the auxiliary drum kit set up next to her drummer Dillon Napier, placed there so Price could go back and hammer away at the end of “Cocaine Cowboys” (and later, “Paper Cowboy”). The crowd loved it: “That was awesome!”, shouted out one attendee at the end of “Cocaine Cowboys.”

A couple of choice covers illuminated where Price draws some of her songwriting and performance inspiration. Guy Clark’s “New Cut Road” was a hot-pickin’ mid-set highlight, and she closed the show with a rousing version of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” (When Price performed it with Brandi Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival earlier this summer, Parton’s complimentary tweet about their version “made my day/week/year/life!”, Price beamed on Twitter.)

Still, the best elements of Price’s repertoire are her own songs. Standouts on this night included the blazing indictment “Four Years of Chances,” the swinging groove of “A Little Pain” and especially “Weakness,” a rocking honky-tonker in which Price confesses, “Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me.” That’s no doubt true for her, and all of us. But judging from her impressive career ascendance in the past few years, Price is winning that battle by a good country mile.

RELATED: Hill Country Conservancy helps to preserve Hays County ranch land

Leon Bridges plays a steamy set at ACL Live (And Austin is here for it)

Back in the spring, tickets to Leon Bridges’ first night at ACL Live sold out the moment they dropped. Consequently, the club was packed, and excitement hung heavy in the air. When the house went dark sometime around 9:15 p.m., a hysterical scream went through the crowd.

Leon Bridges and special guest Masego perform at ACL-Live at The Moody Theater on September 1, 2018 in Austin, Texas. Scott Moore for the American-Statesman

Bridges set the tone for the show as he exploded onto a stage bathed in blue light, “Live from the funk/It’s hotter than Texas/Right from the jump,” he crooned, seducing the audience with “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)”.

Don’t be scared of me tonight I want to see you dance,” he coaxed the crowd. They happily obliged.

Bridges is dancing more these days too. With a seven-piece band at his back, the stage was set with a wide circle where Bridges could prowl, shimmy and slide around.   

RELATED: Smooth Sailing and sweet soul with Leon Bridges at ACL Fest

His new album “Good Thing” is a dramatic evolution from his 2015 debut, “Coming Home.” That golden voice has always been his super power, but on the new release he moves beyond sepia-toned songwriting with simple melodies carrying vivid imagery. He pushes into new territory, shaking off the Sam Cooke comparisons with clubbier soul jams and insistently steamy bedroom numbers.

Can I get sexy tonight, Austin?” he asked, to a resounding affirmative swoon. He played a sultry version of “Coming Home,” allowing the audience to quite capably handle a verse, before seguing into “Beyond,” the greatest wedding song of the year. 

If you’re with your forever raise your hand,” he said before starting the latter and thereby confirming the obvious: this was a stellar date night concert. Couples, in general, and, if we’re being honest, white couples, specifically made up a huge portion of the crowd. Much has been said about how Bridges’ crowds skew white. How he struggles to find a “Brown Skin Girl” in his crowds when he sings that song. The bottom line is Bridges creates sentimental baby-making music that resonates exceptionally well with white people (the white people who program adult contemporary radio stations, in particular).

Leon Bridges and special guest Masego perform at ACL-Live at The Moody Theater on September 1, 2018 in Austin, Texas. Scott Moore for the American-Statesman

But onstage, Bridges seems unburdened by any of these issues. He’s grown, both musically and a performer. The show had jazzy interludes with an extended stand up bass solo intro-ing the mournful lament “Georgia to Texas.” It also had ample dance breakdowns, like when he played the legitimate club banger “You Don’t Know.”

He took the set out with a ballistic version of his early track “Flowers.” Then, after a full five minutes of enthusiastic cheering, he returned for a sublime acoustic performance of “River” followed by a shack-shaking, rafter-rattling full band exit with “Mississippi Kisses.”

 “Your boy done graduated from C-Boys,” Bridges said under his breath, near the end of the set. He was referencing his first shows in Austin in 2015, when he packed the tiny South Austin club, right before his stratospheric rise. And he’s absolutely right. Back then, he was raw talent finding his voice. Now he’s a seasoned performer with an easy knack for working a crowd. 

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit begin 3-night run at Bass Concert Hall with grace and grit

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit performing at Bass Concert Hall on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Peak musical magic in Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s first of three nights at Bass Concert Hall on Friday came in the exact middle of the set — somewhat surprisingly on a song that wasn’t an uproarious rocker but rather a gentle acoustic number.

When Isbell said he was about to play a tune that’ll appear on a live album due out in October, his fans probably expected something like the blistering “Super 8” from his 2013 breakthrough disc “Southeastern,” or maybe the Drive-By Truckers-era burner “Never Gonna Change.” Instead, he graced the crowd with “Last of My Kind,” the subtle yet deeply affecting first track on last year’s Grammy-winning album “The Nashville Sound.”

The recorded version runs four and a half minutes, but onstage Isbell and his four 400 Unit bandmates stretched it out quite a bit longer — not with pointless or meandering jams, but by exquisitely supporting and extending the song’s beautiful melody. As Isbell backed away from the microphone in the middle of the last line of the chorus, he handed off to his crew, letting Derry deBorja’s rich keyboard accents, Sadler Vaden’s tasteful slide guitar and the steady rhythms of bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble swing low to carry it home.

If you noticed one key name missing from that lineup, the band’s fans certainly missed her on this night too. Isbell’s wife, fiddler and singer Amanda Shires, is in the Pacific Northwest this weekend, touring behind her own acclaimed new album “To the Sunset.”

RELATED: Austin360’s Jake Harris talks to Amanda Shires about “To the Sunset”

The 400 Unit can carry the show without her — Vaden’s slide work and backing vocals help to cover for her fiddle parts and harmonies — but there’s a spark that’s clearly missing without her presence. It may or may not be a good idea to add a fill-in fiddler/singer when Shires is otherwise occupied, but it’s intriguing to think of how they’d sound with, say, longtime Alejandro Escovedo cohort Susan Voelz stepping in as a ringer of a sub.

Isbell prides himself on presenting a live show that bends from full-throttle rock ’n’ roll to more contemplative country-folk with a sonic clarity that always serves his lyrics. That balance worked well at Bass Concert Hall as he supplemented highlights from “The Nashville Sound” (playing more than half the album) with tunes from four of his five previous records plus two standouts from his Drive-By Truckers days.

Bass was less ideal of an environment for serving the varied concert-experience preferences of Isbell’s audience. His multi-night stands at ACL Live in recent years more easily accommodated the mix of older and younger fans with that venue’s standing-room floor and seated balcony options. It’s all seats at Bass, and while the crowd was polite throughout, the energy in the room felt a little flat for most of the night. It wasn’t until the finale and encore — when the aforementioned rockers “Never Gonna Change” and “Super 8” finally got their due — that the majority of the crowd rose to their feet and let loose.

RELATED: Our interview with Jason Isbell

Thanking his fans at the end of the night, Isbell welcomed them back for more on Saturday and Sunday. Many of his most fervent followers no doubt did buy tickets for multiple nights, and he promised that there’d be some changes in the set for those who returned. Expect such obvious highlights as “Hope the High Road,” “24 Frames,” “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires” (which closed the show Friday on a beautifully tender note much like that grand mid-set “Last of My Kind” moment) to be repeated. But there’s plenty of room to work in standouts such as “Traveling Alone,” “Speed Trap Town” and “Outfit” that didn’t make it into the first night’s set list.

Isbell also extended a sincere thanks to opening act Marie/Lepanto, which featured Austin-based indie singer-songwriter Will Johnson on guitar. A partnership between Johnson and Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster of Arkansas (who mostly played bass on this night), the group was joined for the occasion by drummer Matt Pence, who previously teamed with Johnson in the long-running Denton band Centro-Matic. Isbell’s 2015 song “To a Band That I Loved” was written for Centro-Matic, so it’s clear that having Marie/Lepanto on the bill meant a lot to him.

Their 40-minute set seamlessly blurred the line between melodic country-folk and atmospheric noise-rock. In brief and kind comments to the crowd, Johnson acknowledged his local bona fides. “I live about 10 blocks from here,” he said. “I take the 5 bus to the concert.”

Marie/Lepanto also opens Saturday’s show. Sunday’s opening act will be Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Moreland.

READ MORE: Jason Isbell speaks out about his guiding values and principles

Set list:
1. Hope the High Road
2. 24 Frames
3. White Man’s World
4. Decoration Day
5. Molotov
6. Something More Than Free
7. Alabama Pines
8. Last of My Kind
9. Tour of Duty
10. Dress Blues
11. Cumberland Gap
12. Tupelo
13. Hudson Commodore
14. Stockholm
15. Flying Over Water
16. Cover Me Up
17. Never Gonna Change
Encore:
18. Super 8
19. If We Were Vampires

Sam Smith has the voice and the songs, but his stage has serious stage presence

Sam Smith performs at the Erwin Center on Saturday, July 21, 2018. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

Judging from the occasional waves of euphoric screaming as well as the frequent singing along throughout Sam Smith’s concert Saturday night at the Erwin Center, it was clear that his fans love the English singer’s voice, his songs and his stage presence. What they may not have expected is how wowed they’d be by the stage itself.

PHOTOS: Austin360 A-List gallery of Sam Smith at the Erwin Center

It’s not often that the floor plan for a concert almost steals the show. But the positioning and shape of the stage — a long, runway-styled thin triangle that jutted out to a point in front and tapered toward a towering pyramid shape in the back — was stunningly creative. Sections of the stage elevated and descended on various occasions during the night, adding to the theatrical effect.

Smith took full advantage from the very start. Rising as if from nowhere on a square midstage platform, he first revealed himself to the crowd seated on a chair, singing the opening lines of “Burning” from his 2017 sophomore album “The Thrill of It All.” We heard but didn’t see the band at first, until they suddenly emerged on a three-tiered riser at the rear of the stage. Quite the dramatic entrance.

RELATED: Review of Sam Smith at Austin City Limits Music Fest 2014

Sam Smith performs at the Erwin Center on Saturday, July 21, 2018. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

An extraordinary singer who sails from a high tenor to a soaring falsetto with ease and grace, Smith captured everyone’s attention with his breakthrough smash “Stay With Me,” which carried him to a near-sweep of the 2015 Grammys (including Record and Song of the Year). He added an Oscar in 2016 as co-author of “Writing on the Wall” from the James Bond flick “Spectre,” and last fall he released his much-anticipated sophomore album, “The Thrill of It All.”

Saturday’s show focused heavily on that new record, containing nine of its 10 songs. Smith played about half of 2014’s “In the Lonely Hour” as well, filling out the rest of the nearly two-hour set with non-album material including “Omen” and “Latch,” from the collaborations with electronica duo Disclosure that first brought Smith to wide attention.

Throughout the evening, Smith and his nine bandmates used the striking stage arrangement to enhance the visual appeal of their performance. Often, he strutted the full length of the stage while his four backup singers flanked him on either side with in-the-groove dance moves. Mid-show, he briefly departed while the band played an instrumental interlude, then rose again from that mid-stage elevated platform to deliver the James Bond number. (“How [expletive] dramatic was that?”, he boasted as the song ended.)

RELATED: Review of Sam Smith’s 2015 Erwin Center concert

Things got even more elaborate in the encore, when the walls of the tall pyramid at the rear of the stage fell away to reveal a spiral staircase, which Smith ascended to sing the new album’s “Palace.” Beneath him, almost like a gender-reversed “Romeo and Juliet” musical balcony scene, backup singer Lucy Jules duetted with Smith, nearly outshining him with the impressive power of her voice.

“Stay With Me” followed, its simple but memorable chorus eliciting the loudest of many sing-along moments during the night. During the final number, “Pray,” Smith took time to profusely thank the audience for responding so passionately, one of several occasions during the night when he gave a nod of appreciation for their support. At the end, he returned to that same midstage chair he’d emerged from at the start, taking a seat and slowly descending out of sight. Quite the dramatic exit, too.

Earlier, Smith had noted that the Austin show was the finale of the first U.S. tour leg. There’s actually one more show here on Monday, when Smith will tape the TV show “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live. Tickets for that performance already have been distributed, though die-hard fans willing to weather 100-degree heat in the standby line might get lucky.

RELATED: All our news and reviews of “Austin City Limits” TV events

Country singer Cam opens for Sam Smith at the Erwin Center on Friday, July 21, 2018. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

California pop-country singer Camaron Ochs, who performs under the name Cam, opened the show with a short but sweet six-song set that showcased her powerful voice and unflinching positive attitude. On this tour largely because she co-wrote “Palace” from Smith’s new album, Cam revealed that she’ll be back in town on Oct. 20; the venue has not yet been announced.

Set list:
1. Burning
2. One Last Song
3. Not the Only One
4. Lay Me Down / His Eye Is On The Sparrow
5. Omen
6. Nirvana / I’ve Told You Now
7. (Instrumental interlude)
8. Writing’s on the Wall
9. Latch
10. Money on My Mind
11. Like I Can
12. Restart
13. Baby, You Make Me Crazy
14. Say It First
15. One Day at a Time
16. Midnight Train
17. Him
18. Too Good at Goodbyes
Encore:
19. Palace
20. Stay With Me
21. Pray

The rain, O’Rourke and other things: Beto sparks up a wet Willie Picnic in Austin

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There it was at the end, a crazy only-at-Willie’s-Picnic moment you had to see to believe: Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic Texas congressman seeking to oust Ted Cruz from the Senate this fall, was playing guitar with Willie Nelson onstage at Circuit of the Americas.

Alongside him, Willie and his Family band, joined on this night by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, churned out their traditional closing medley of gospel favorites “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.” Margo Price came out to sing along. So did members of the Head and the Heart, Ryan Bingham’s band, Folk Uke and others who’d had their moment in the sun — and rain — during this long Independence Day’s journey into night.

Willie Nelson performs during his Fourth of July Picnic at Circuit of the Americas on July 4, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

MORE PHOTOS: A-List gallery from Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic

Beto’s cameo served as a fitting finale to a 13-hour bash that was anything but your standard Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. The plot line kept changing throughout the course of the day. First, why had 11:30 a.m. opener David Allan Coe not shown up? (Never did get an answer for that.) Next, boy is it hot out here: Early-afternoon temperatures were in the low-90s, but stifling humidity made it feel about 30 degrees beyond that.

Yellow Feather, featuring Casey Kristofferson (daughter of longtime Picnic participant Kris), kicked things off on the Plaza Stage, using Coe’s no-show as an opportunity to play a slightly longer set. Then it was straight into the Nelson family stretch, with granddaughter Raelyn Nelson followed by Folk Uke, featuring daughter Amy, and then Particle Kid, featuring youngest son Micah. All braved the heat with entertaining short sets well-received by the early, smallish and sweltering crowd.

Then came the game-changer. Forecasts had called for midafternoon rain, and at about 2:30 p.m., the call went out across the grounds: Performances were suspended, storms were imminent, everyone take shelter in their cars. The couple thousand early-arriving Picnic-heads departed to wait out the rain in the parking lot.

The warning-call came just early enough to allow for an orderly evacuation. By 3 p.m. or so, Circuit of the Americas was socked-in with gray on all sides, thunder echoing and lightning occasionally flashing as rain came down in sheets. The weather was never particularly dangerous, but you sure didn’t want to be out in it.

After 4 p.m., things slowed to more of a drizzle, and soon came word via the venue’s Twitter page that music would resume at 5:25 p.m. with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real on the Amphitheater Stage. The bad news: Sets from Gene Watson, Johnny Bush, Jamestown Revival, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Wild Feathers, Billy Joe Shaver and Asleep at the Wheel were all washed away by the three-hour delay.

That was a tough blow for Picnic traditionalism, as four of those seven acts — Bush, Hubbard, Shaver, the Wheel — play the event almost every year. Still, sets from seven more acts remained in place, including the biggest names on the bill as the evening wore on toward a 10:15 p.m. fireworks display.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real perform during Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic at Circuit of the Americas on July 4, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

As fate would have it, music resumed right where it had left off, in Nelson-family mid-stream. This was a big week for Lukas Nelson, the most promising musical talent among Willie’s kids: He and his band taped “Austin City Limits” for the first time on Monday. They touched on some of the same highlights in Wednesday’s abbreviated set, including the location-perfect ballad “Just Outside of Austin” and the epic “Forget About Georgia” plus a splendid cover of Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”

What followed was a six-pack of headliners that mixed acts right in the strike zone of the Picnic demographic with a couple of curveballs that mostly fared well. Of the latter, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ set was marvelous and long-overdue. Aside from a brief appearance at last fall’s Erwin Center benefit for Hurricane Harvey relief, the hitmaking Texas band hadn’t played Austin in almost two decades.

Yes, they played “What I Am” and “Circle,” the two best-known songs on their 1988 breakthrough album; but the revelation was how good all the newer stuff sounded. A fresh record may be out before the end of the year, and it’s pretty much a local affair: Though Brickell lives in the New York area with husband Paul Simon, most of the New Bohemians now call Austin home, and the album was made here at Arlyn Studios.

The other wild-card was indie-folk group the Head and the Heart, closing out a run of several shows with Nelson. They seemed genuinely thrilled to be making their Picnic debut, even if die-hards who attend for Texas-steeped roots-country-rock might not have related to the Pacific Northwesterners’ vibe. But they clearly had fans in the crowd, and they may have won some more when they brought out Mickey Raphael, Willie’s harmonica ace, to join them for “10,000 Weight in Gold.”

Margo Price performs during Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic at Circuit of the Americas on July 4, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

Right down the middle of the plate, playing just before Brickell’s band, was Margo Price, whose 30-minute set lived up to and exceeded expectations. Price is the most promising new face in country music today, with the possible exception of Jason Isbell. A fireball singer with a strong backing crew, she’s become a favorite of Nelson since her 2016 Picnic debut. A blazing cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” kicked things up a notch mid-set, before a one-two-punch closer of originals: “Four Years of Chances,” a highlight from her debut album, and the moving title track to last year’s “All American Made.”

READ MORE: Our interview with Margo Price

Troubadour Ryan Bingham also is a fine fit for the Picnic, though he hadn’t played the event since its Fort Worth run many years back. Boasting a band that included not only guitar hero Jesse Dayton but powerhouse fiddler Richard Bowden, Bingham delivered arguably the finest set of the night. A class act, he brought out members of Nashville band Wild Feathers, whose set got canceled by the rain, to sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” with him.

And he leveled the crowd with a brand new song, perfectly fitted for the occasion, apparently titled “America.” It began: “America, America, where have we gone/ Can’t we see what we’ve become,” before proceeding to a verse about gun violence and, finally, a requiem for the American dream: “It was a dream you gave us once/ Is it not for everyone?”

Not long thereafter, the backstage was abuzz with Beto, who sat for a brief interview with Jeremy Tepper and Dallas Wayne of SiriusXM, which broadcast all of the post-rain-delay sets on its Willie’s Roadhouse channel. After the Head and the Heart’s set came the fireworks, which were given a rousing introduction by O’Rourke. The last bang of skyward pyrotechnics coincided with the first blast of guitar from Sturgill Simpson, whose hard-rockin’ outlaw-country style — plus a voice eerily reminiscent of Waylon Jennings — provided a perfect lead-in to the long-awaited Willie finale.

A couple hundred lucky fans had been treated to an intimate, invite-only Willie show the night before at downtown nightclub 3Ten, with Lukas and Micah opening. Wednesday’s set proceeded in similar fashion, with the usual opening volley of “Whiskey River” and “Still Is Still Moving” but a left-turn away from the Willie-classics medley (“Night Life,” “Crazy,” etc.) in favor of a Hank Williams montage that segued from “Jambalaya” to ” Hey Good Lookin'” to “Move It on Over.”

Inviting Ray Benson to play guitar was a nice touch given that Asleep at the Wheel’s set got rained out, and he contributed some fine solos, trading off with Bobbie Nelson’s piano runs, Raphael’s harmonica turns and more guitar leads from Willie and Lukas, who got his own vocal spotlight on the blues classic “Texas Flood.” A mid-set stretch featured some of Nelson’s finest and best-known songs, including “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “On the Road Again.”

Soon enough it was time for the weed-themed double-shot of “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “It’s All Going to Pot.” Suddenly, there was Beto, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing along as Willie led the crowd through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Can O’Rourke beat Cruz in November? Time will tell, but on July Fourth, Willie made his choice clear.

Kacey Musgraves revels in ‘Golden Hour’ of another ‘Austin City Limits’ taping

Kacey Musgraves performing on “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Scott Newton/courtesy of KLRU-TV

Rising up at a time when mainstream country radio sadly overemphasized uninspiring bro-country, Kacey Musgraves blew in like a breath of fresh air with her 2013 breakthrough single “Follow Your Arrow.” Gifted with an angelic soprano voice and willing to write lyrics that challenged preconceptions of country audiences, Musgraves was a star right out of the gate.

On this year’s “Golden Hour,” her third album, Musgraves continues to push the boundaries of country, to the point where she might actually best be considered a pop artist. Dipping into dance grooves at times and consistently stressing a strong melody over any obligatory twang, she seems more akin to singer-songwriters such as Brandi Carlile or Shawn Colvin at this point. And that’s very much to her credit.

RELATED: More news and reviews about “Austin City Limits”

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t really matter what you call it. The fans who packed out her second “Austin City Limits” taping at ACL Live on Wednesday night simply know that they like it. Focusing on material from “Golden Hour” — 10 of the show’s 16 songs came from the new album, including the first six she played — Musgraves charmed the crowd with her radiant singing and an easygoing personality.

Kacey Musgraves performing on “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Scott Newton/courtesy of KLRU-TV

That personality is how she still connects most directly with country audiences. Musgraves talked about growing up in small-town East Texas, then zeroed in on the Austin folks when she spoke of living here for a short time a decade ago before moving to Nashville. She recalled residing on the north side near MoPac and 183, paying her dues working for a local booking agency. “I had to do the whole back end of the thing,” she said, “and now I’m on the other side of the curtain.”

It’s pretty clear Musgraves loves this side of the curtain, given how she plays up her image as a performer. A silver-sequin saddle gleamed and twirled slowly high above the stage, and she joked about the way she’d prepped for the cameras: “I don’t know if you noticed, but I put my hair up extra high for y’all.” Mid-set, as her band played a brief instrumental prelude to “High Time” (from 2015’s “Pageant Material”), she even had a couple of handlers come onstage to give her a makeup and hairspray touch-up.

RELATED: Review of Kacey Musgraves at ACL Fest 2016

None of it would work without the music, though, and Musgraves consistently delivers. Backed by six excellent musicians who fleshed out guitar-bass-drums basics with banjo, pedal steel, cello and keyboards, she made new songs such as “Slow Burn,” “Lonely Weekend” and “Golden Hour” sparkle and shine. Reaching back to her first album, she let the crowd sing the final verse of “Follow Your Arrow,” and opened her encore with a moving solo rendition of “Merry Go Round.” A cover of Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon” followed and didn’t quite hit the mark, but she closed strong with “High Horse,” the most upbeat number on the new album and one that gave her a chance to break out some sweet dance moves at the end.

This is TV, and artists who tape “Austin City Limits” always have the option of redoing songs they weren’t quite sure about the first time around, though it doesn’t happen very often. (I’d say about 15 percent of the time, judging from events I’ve attended.) Musgraves felt a need to revisit three numbers, which may pay off on the broadcast when it airs. It felt somewhat anticlimactic in-person, partly because “High Horse” had been such a great closing moment. Some folks left after that, and they didn’t miss much; retakes of “Love Is a Wild Thing,” “Family Is Family” and “High Horse” did not sound noticeably better the second time around, from my vantage point.

Set list:
1. Slow Burn
2. Butterflies
3. Love Is a Wild Thing
4. Velvet Elvis
5. Golden Hour
6. Happy and Sad
7. Keep It to Yourself
8. Lonely Weekend
9. High Time
10. Family Is Family
11. Follow Your Arrow
12. Space Cowboy
13. Rainbow
Encore:
14. Merry Go Round
15. Neon Moon
16. High Horse
Retakes:
Love Is a Wild Thing
Family
High Horse

RELATED: A beginner’s guide to Willie Nelson and Kacey Musgraves’ friendship