John Prine’s return to ‘Austin City Limits’ features new songs and old sing-alongs

John Prine taping “Austin City Limits” on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Scott Newton/courtesy of KLRU-TV

Folks may have noticed by now that John Prine has a way with words. At 71, he’s become an elder statesman of American songwriting, a role he accepts and even appreciates, as he noted in a Monday afternoon discussion with KUTX’s Elizabeth McQueen at Waterloo Records. Tuesday night, he followed with a master class of sorts at ACL Live, taping “Austin City Limits” for the eighth time in his storied career.

“I guess I’m just going to keep on doing it till I get it right,” he said of those multiple appearances on the long-running TV show, giving us that Prine wit right out of the gate. “It’s a damn good place to come to, and it’s hard to leave.”

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

The motivation for this latest taping, his first in more than a decade, is “The Tree of Forgiveness,” released in April and somehow the first Prine album ever to reach the top-10 of the Billboard album charts. Nine of the 16 songs he played on this night were from that album; the only track left out was “God Only Knows” (not the Beach Boys classic but a song Prine started writing with legendary producer Phil Spector decades ago and recently finished).

John Prine taping “Austin City Limits” on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Scott Newton/courtesy of KLRU-TV

Prine seemed like an old soul even when he was a young man writing songs destined to be classics such as “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery,” the latter of which he played early in Tuesday’s show to set up the new material. It’s no surprise, then, that his writing has been so strong in his later years. Most legacy artists would be pushing it to play a set so dominated by their newest material, but Prine can pull it off because what he’s doing now is as good as, maybe better than, anything he’s ever done.

Even the stories that prefaced the songs were golden. “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” has the kind of crazy title that almost requires an explanation. The audience broke out in laughter when Prine related a friend’s tale from youth about farmers who brought their eggs to town, dropping off their daughters at the roller rink where the local teenagers would take notice.

Even better was the prelude to “Lonesome Friends of Science,” a tune Prine cooked up after getting peeved that astronomers had suddenly declassified Pluto as a planet, then clarified it was a dwarf planet. “That was like kicking a guy while he was down,” Prine cracked, before launching into the jaunty tune about how Pluto “got uninvited to the interplanetary dance.”

He touched on the Trump era with “Caravan of Fools,” a darker number written with his longtime cohort Pat McLaughlin and Black Keys leader Dan Auerbach. Noting that the song is “about impending doom,” he said he hesitated to call it a political number, but noted that it “has more verses than there are original members in the cabinet of the present administration.”

A solo section toward the end of the 75-minute set gave Prine a window to reach back for a couple more favorites from his past. He chose “Everything Is Cool” from 1991’s Grammy-winning “The Missing Years” and “Illegal Smile,” the very first track on his 1971 debut album. The latter tune turned ACL Live into a hootenanny for the final verse, the crowd gleefully singing along, “Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone, no I’m just trying to have me some fun.”

He also used the solo section to introduce Tyler Childers, a rising star from Kentucky who joined Prine on “Please Don’t Bury Me” and then got his own moment in the spotlight for “Lady May,” the closing track on his 2017 album “Purgatory.” Childers knew how fortunate he was to have the opportunity, saying simply, “Well this is awesome.”

Prine’s terrific band — multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, guitarist Jason Wilber, bassist Dave Jacques and drummer Kenneth Blevins — returned for the final three songs. The brackets were older favorites “Lake Marie” and “Paradise,” but the linchpin was “When I Get to Heaven,” the last tune on “The Tree of Forgiveness.” Bouncing back and forth between spoken recitation and joyful singing, it’s the most uplifting song about leaving this world you could ever hope to hear. When Prine gets to heaven, he tells us, “I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock ’n’ roll band, check into a swell hotel, ain’t the afterlife grand?”

Prine returns to Austin on June 30 for a ticketed performance at Bass Concert Hall.

Set list:
1. Six O’Clock News
2. Angel From Montgomery
3. Knockin’ on Your Screen Door
4. Caravan of Fools
5. Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)
6. Boundless Love
7. Summer’s End
8. I Have Met My Love Today
9. Lonesome Friends of Science
10. Everything Is Cool
11. Illegal Smile
12. No Ordinary Blue
13. Please Don’t Bury Me (with Tyler Childers)
14. Lady May (Tyler Childers solo)
15. Lake Marie
16. When I Get to Heaven
17. Paradise

Farewell, Paul Simon? Parting is such sweet sorrow at the Erwin Center

Paul Simon performs at the Erwin Center on Monday, June 4, 2018. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

“I like the idea of not knowing what I’ll do when this stops,” Paul Simon told the Erwin Center crowd a few songs into his Monday concert, by way of addressing the “farewell tour” designation of his current trek across America. Now 76, Simon is leaving the road at what’s probably an appropriate time. But his fans will surely miss him.

Playing 25 songs across two and a half hours, the New York musician reminded us why he became one of the great songwriters of the 20th century. From the formative folk-rock standards of his 1960s Simon & Garfunkel days to the street-smart poetic grooves of his 1970s solo departure to the rhythmic world-pop that marked his middle-age 1980s explorations, Simon has been a constant creative force, ever shifting but almost always interesting.

PHOTOS: Paul Simon says farewell to Austin, touring at Erwin Center

It hadn’t been that long since we’d seen Paul Simon in this building. He was among the major names who took part in a Hurricane Harvey benefit here in September, alongside Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Leon Bridges and others. And he played twice in Austin in 2016, taping “Austin City Limits” for the first time ever and performing two nights at Bass Concert Hall.

Those relatively recent appearances might have accounted for the show not being near a sellout. Lots of upper-deck seats went unfilled, and compared to the previous evening’s George Strait concert at the same venue, the concourses were uncrowded and easy to navigate before the show. It’s possible the venue’s theater-style setup that uses just half the available space would have sufficed on this night.

RELATED: George Strait feels the love from sold-out crowd at the Erwin Center

Paul Simon performs at the Erwin Center on Monday, June 4, 2018. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

If sales were slightly disappointing, though, the performance was not. Simon spares nothing when it comes to assembling a support crew. More than a dozen musicians accompanied him, from string players to woodwinds and horns to drums and percussion to African bass and guitar virtuosos. Austin got in on the act, too: On accordion was Joel Guzman, renowned for his work with Los Super Seven, Los Aztex, Joe Ely and more.

Simon touched on plenty of hits, opening with the Simon & Garfunkel gem “America” before hitting 1970s highlights such as “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.” His 1986 landmark “Graceland” and 1990’s “Rhythm of the Saints” both got plenty of attention; the set included nine songs from those two records, including “You Can Call Me Al” and “The Obvious Child.” He also reached ahead for some of his more recent material, touching on three songs from 2011’s “So Beautiful or So What” as well as the whimsical “Wristband” from 2016’s “Stranger to Stranger.”

Some of the best moments were when Simon turned down roads less traveled. The six members of yMusic, a pop-classical outfit from New York that are part of the band on this tour, formed a chamber-music core during a brief but splendid mid-set stretch that included the exquisitely impressionistic “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” from Simon’s 1983 album “Hearts and Bones.” And “Questions for the Angels,” dedicated to environmentalist and biodiversity specialist E.O. Wilson, featured lyrics that rank with the best Simon has ever written: “If an empty train in a railway station/ Calls you to its destination/ Can you choose another track?”

RELATED: New Paul Simon biography coincides with farewell tour

A two-part encore included many of the songs the audience was most eager to hear, including “Homeward Bound,” “The Boxer” and finally “The Sound of Silence,” delivered solo acoustic to close the show. The inevitable hard part: Simon has been far too prolific across 50-plus years to include all the high points. If you’d always wanted to hear him play “I Am a Rock” or “Mrs. Robinson” or “My Little Town,” you may never get that chance.

But is it really goodbye? One need only remember that Sunday’s George Strait concert came four years after his own “farewell tour” stopped here to figure that Simon might return someday. He even admitted as much early in the show, saying that “I’ll write some music, and I’ll play again.”

Whether it’ll happen in Austin is more iffy, perhaps, but Simon has some solid connections to our town. Most members of his wife Edie Brickell’s band, New Bohemians, live here. In recent years, Brickell and at least one of the couple’s musically inclined children have recorded at Arlyn Studios just south of downtown. And Guzman’s presence doesn’t hurt, either. Odds are, we’ll see and hear Simon here again.

Set list:
1. America
2. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
3. The Boy in the Bubble
4. Dazzling Blue
5. That Was Your Mother
6. Rewrite
7. Mother and Child Reunion
8. Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard
9. Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War
10. Can’t Run But
11. Wristband
12. Spirit Voices
13. The Obvious Child
14. Questions for the Angels
15. The Cool, Cool River
16. Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
17. You Can Call Me Al
First encore:
18. Graceland
19. Still Crazy After All These Years
20. Late in the Evening
Second encore:
21. Homeward Bound
22. Kodachrome
23. The Boxer
24. American Tune
25. The Sound of Silence

George Strait feels the love from sold-out crowd at the Erwin Center

George Strait performs at the Erwin Center’s 40th Anniversary Celebration on Sunday, June 3, 2018. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

OK, so the cowboy didn’t quite ride away after all.

Four years and change after the Austin date of his 2014 farewell tour, George Strait was back in the saddle again at the Erwin Center on Sunday night, helping the city’s biggest indoor concert venue celebrate its 40th anniversary. He’s not on tour, exactly, though he did play two shows in Tulsa this weekend, and a festival in New Orleans the weekend before. That follows about a dozen Las Vegas dates he’s done over the past year or so.

PHOTOS: A-list gallery from George Strait at the Erwin Center

If that makes his 2014 “The Cowboy Rides Away” tour seem a little less climactic than it did at the time, you won’t find his Austin fans complaining. Sunday’s show had been sold out for months, and the Strait faithful voiced their approval with thunderous applause for the 66-year-old country icon, singing along to many songs throughout his two-hour show.

One reason Strait’s semi-return to live performing is welcome, even if it’s just an occasional thing, is that the guy has far too many hits to fit into a single show. Signature tunes such as “Amarillo By Morning” and “All My Exes Live in Texas” will always be there, of course, but it’s rather impressive that nearly 50 percent Sunday’s concert featured songs he didn’t play when he was here in 2014.

RELATED: Our review of George Strait’s 2014 Erwin Center concert

That was partly to accommodate new songs, such as the title track to his 2015 album “Cold Beer Conversation” and a recent co-write with Jamey Johnson titled “Kicked Outta Country” calling out mainstream country radio for constantly leaving its living legends behind. He also paid tribute a departed legend, playing the late Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and “Are the Good Times Really Over.” (Haggard was still with us when Strait last played the Erwin Center.)

George Strait at the Erwin Center’s 40th Anniversary Celebration on Sunday, June 3, 2018. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

But a lot of the differences from 2014 simply testified to the vastness of Strait’s repertoire. “Write This Down,” a 1999 chart-topper he skipped last time, was strong enough to open the show and had much of the crowd singing along from the start. Better still was “Wrapped,” a favorite with Austin audiences because its writer, Bruce Robison, lives here (and Robison’s wife, country singer Kelly Willis, has recorded the song too).

READ MORE: Bruce Robison looks to the future with ‘The Next Waltz’

Performing, as he typically does, on a diamond-shaped stage in the middle of the Erwin Center’s floor, Strait made the rounds about a half-dozen times across two hours, playing one or two songs from each corner before sauntering on to the next one. It’s a brilliant strategy for energizing the crowd, as each corner wants to be the one cheering the loudest for him. At times, the roars reached decibel levels commonly associated with rock heroes such as Springsteen or even the Beatles. That’s how much Strait means to his fans.

His 11-member Ace in the Hole Band, which includes Austinites Gene Elders on fiddle and Terry Hale on bass, remains one of the finest backing ensembles in any genre. Getting good sound in an arena environment can be a challenge, but Strait and his crew made it seem like old hat. Instruments meshed harmoniously, solos stood out when called for, and the focus always remained squarely on Strait’s still-strong vocal delivery.

One aspect of Sunday’s concert was a welcome upgrade from 2014. Nashville faux-country star Jason Aldean opened that show, but this time we got a perfect hometown touch with western swing masters Asleep at the Wheel. Leader Ray Benson alluded to a night 40 years ago when a young Strait opened for the Wheel at Gruene Hall; thus began a friendship that allowed for such special moments as Strait playing Benson’s 65th birthday party during South By Southwest two years ago.

RELATED: Our 2014 interview with Ray Benson

When you see the Wheel, you know you’re going to get “Miles and Miles of Texas,” “Route 66” and Bob Wills standards that always sound good in the eight-piece band’s hands. But the revelations come when the group turns to more adventurous songwriters. On Sunday, that meant some refreshingly inventive guitar work from Benson on Guy Clark’s memorable “Dublin Blues,” with its home-cooked line about drinking margaritas at the Chili Parlor Bar (just a few blocks west of the Erwin Center). Benson mentioned the song will be on a new Wheel album due out in September.

George Strait set list:
1. Write This Down
2. Ocean Front Property
3. Cold Beer Conversation
4. Wrapped
5. Baby Blue
6. Run
7. She’ll Leave You With a Smile
8. Old Violin
9. Kicked Outta Country
10. I Cross My Heart
11. Arkansas Dave
12. The Man in Love With You
13. Check Yes or No
14. Sing Me Back Home
15. Are the Good Times Really Over
16. Here For a Good Time
17. Take Me to Texas
18. Give It All We Got Tonight
19. Give It Away
20. You Look So Good in Love
21. It Just Comes Natural
22. I Can Still Make Cheyenne
23. Amarillo By Morning
24. The Chair
25. Troubadour
26. Unwound
27. The Fireman
28. All My Exes Live in Texas
29. I Saw God Today
30. The Cowboy Rides Away

Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit-opening concert brings the 1970s-era music to life

The Country Music Hall of Fame commissioned new artwork for its Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit including this Sam Yeates piece depicting Willie Nelson’s early-1970s move to Austin after a fire at his Nashville-area farm. Contributed/Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

NASHVILLE — The relatively new CMA Theater attached to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a fairly ideal place for showcase events such as “Country’s Roaring ’70s,” Friday’s concert to mark the opening of the museum’s new Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit. Built as part of a massive add-on to the original Hall along with a hotel and several shops and restaurants, It’s an intimate (800 capacity) yet grand room with first-rate sound and a circular construction reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

With a lineup that ranged from present-day chart-topper Jason Isbell to Nashville living legend Bobby Bare to Austin honky-tonk lifer Gary P. Nunn, the show sold out well in advance. At the helm were ace producer Dave Cobb (Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price) and musician Shooter Jennings, whose father Waylon and mother Jessi Colter — also a performer on this night — are featured significantly in the museum’s impressive new exhibit.

RELATED: Outlaws & Armadillos puts spotlight on Austin

More than two dozen featured performers and backing musicians delivered 24 songs in two sets, all focusing on the golden decade that marked Austin’s rise as a haven for country artists who longed to work outside of Nashville industry norms. As is often the case with such all-star undertakings, the results were uneven, but the high points reached pretty darn high.

Many of them came in the first half-hour. Jennings, playing piano for most of the night, set the tone by leading the house band through a ragged, rowdy version of “T for Texas, T for Tennessee,” practically the theme song for the new exhibit. Bare’s 1974 classic “Marie Laveau,” his only No. 1 hit, featured key backing vocals from fiddler Amanda Shires. “It just dawned on my backstage that of this huge group, I’m the oldest guy here,” mused Bare, 83, sounding simultaneously blessed and shocked at that realization. His presence was important and greatly appreciated by the crowd, in that much of the evening focused on the music of legends who are no longer with us.

PHOTOS: A gallery of highlights from the Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit

Billy Joe Shaver might have been next-oldest on the bill, so it was fitting that he followed with two of his best-known numbers, “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “Georgia on a Fast Train.” Shires, who’d accompanied Shaver on his his two songs, then explained that she’d moved to Nashville from Texas after touring extensively with Shaver, and paid tribute to her old boss with an a cappella delivery of his heart-stopping ballad “Star in My Heart.” That highlight, in turn, proved a perfect setup for the single best musical performance of the night as Shires’s husband, Jason Isbell, joined for a glorious rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty.”

From there, things were a bit up and down. Canada’s Colter Wall visually fit the part of singing “Red Headed Stranger,” but his voice is such a ringer for Waylon’s that it was somewhat surprising he didn’t do a Jennings tune. Jack Ingram’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” was a fitting tribute to Guy Clark, but the second-set inclusion of Clark’s “She Ain’t Going Nowhere” by the more pedestrian Jason Boland seemed unnecessary. Tanya Tucker seemed a somewhat out-of-place inclusion, in that her 1970s rise as a teen country star was more of a coinciding parallel to the music presented in the exhibit than a part of it.

Still, some great moments continued to pop up throughout the second set. Most people in the crowd probably weren’t familiar with Austin’s Bobby Earl Smith, but the former Freda & the Firedogs linchpin sounded great with Kimmie Rhodes on “Contrabandistas,” a song he wrote with Rhodes’ late husband, the longtime Austin DJ and producer Joe Gracey. Joe Ely, who’d served up the best musical moment at Thursday night’s preview reception, stood out once again with his own “I Had My Hopes Up High” and Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Dallas.”

Jamey Johnson, arguably the best singer on the bill, then stepped up with an impromptu solo reading of Shaver’s “Just Because You Asked Me To” after noting that Shaver had asked him backstage, “When are you going to do a whole record of my songs?” To which Johnson said he answered, “Tomorrow.” (That would be a welcome development, as it’s been nearly a decade since Johnson last released an album.) He followed with a rollicking take on the Waylon & Willie classic “Good Hearted Woman” that brought out the best in the night’s solid-as-a-rock backing band: directors Jennings and Cobb on piano and acoustic guitar, respectively, plus guitarists Chris Shiflett and Charlie Worsham (with Isbell occasionally joining them), Shires on fiddle, pedal steel guitarist Robby Turner, bassist Brian Allen, drummer Chris Powell, bacing singers Maureen Murphy and Kristen Rogers, and Chris Hennessee on harmonica.

Things got a little comical at the end when Jennings, caught up in wishing his mother a happy birthday, almost skipped over her signature song. Fortunately the band reminded him in time to turn the spotlight on her for a sterling rendition of “I’m Not Lisa” featuring just piano and steel guitar. Elizabeth Cook joined in for the house-rocking finale of Mickey Newbury’s “Why You Been Gone So Long,” sadly not credited to the monumental songwriter.

Perhaps the most revealing moment came near the end of the first set, when Nunn played his signature tune “London Homesick Blues” and encouraged the crowd to sing along on its well-known “Home With the Armadillo” chorus. At the end, there was a rousing standing ovation, but only from a minority segment of the crowd. That’s when you know exactly who the Texans in the audience were — a perfect visual cue for that Austin-Nashville push-pull that the museum’s exhibit portrays. (Nunn’s original handwritten lyric sheet for the song is in the exhibit.)

The exhibit’s opening-weekend festivities continue Saturday and Sunday with afternoon musical sessions involving Ely, Smith and Rhodes, plus a panel discussion about the Armadillo World Headquarters and an excerpt from Austin filmmaker Eric Geadelmann’s in-progress documentary series “They Called Us Outlaws.”

Emmylou Harris takes the long view of a storied career in first of two Paramount nights

Emmylou Harris performed at the Paramount on Saturday, May 19, and will return for a second show on Sunday, May 20. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Midway through her concert Saturday at the Paramount Theatre, Emmylou Harris made a reference to bucket lists but acknowledged hers is basically nonexistent. There’s a good reason for that, as she explained a little later: “Because I’ve been doing what I love for nigh on these 50 years.”

At 71, and refreshingly proud to acknowledge her age from the stage, Harris has indeed lived a lifetime of music that must sometimes seem like a dream. Across 22 songs on the first of two nights at the historic downtown venue, she gave a sold-out crowd some sense of that journey.

There were tunes she sang with Gram Parsons nearly a half-decade ago, plus highlights from the 1970s solo albums that found Emmylou coming into her own. She gave a nod to Texas with songs by Townes Van Zandt (“Pancho & Lefty”) and Billy Joe Shaver (“Old Five and Dimers Like Me”), plus the beautiful “Love and Happiness” co-written with Austin’s Kimmie Rhodes. And she turned frequently to the significant catalog she’s amassed as a songwriter in her later years with albums such as “Red Dirt Girl,” “Stumble Into Grace” and “Hard Bargain.”

The wide-career overview also allowed for an appreciation of the many sounds and styles Harris has brought into her own identity as a musician. Those early country-rock explorations with Parsons were readily apparent on “Luxury Liner” and “Wheels,” but Harris never allowed herself to be typecast or tied to any one genre. The more mystical work with Daniel Lanois and Malcolm Burn a couple of decades ago got plenty of play, from her rendition of Anna McGarrigle’s “Goin’ Back to Harlan” to her own mesmerizing “Michelangelo.” And a sterling solo performance of the exquisite “Prayer in Open D,” from her 1993 album “Cowgirl’s Prayer,” showed how moving Harris’s music can be when it’s reduced to just her voice and an acoustic guitar.

When she spoke between songs, the spirit was conversational. Harris treated the audience like old friends, even specifically saying as much when she asked for forgiveness after halting the bluegrass burner “Get Up John” mid-intro because she’d forgotten to play “Wheels.” She prefaced her moving tribute “My Name Is Emmett Till” (from 2011’s “Hard Bargain”) by noting it had been inspired by an NPR report about the black teen lynched in 1955 Mississippi — making clear her sociopolitical standards by championing “that bastion of liberal bias called the truth.”

You can’t make music for half a century and not leave out some highlights. We’d have loved to hear the other Van Zandt song Harris is famous for, “If I Needed You,” in part because her duet partner on that 1981 hit, the late Don Williams, had played this theater several times in recent years. And it’s hard not to miss “Two More Bottles of Wine,” the tune by another Texan (Delbert McClinton) that became Harris’s first chart-topping single in 1978.

It’s possible those songs or others might get played on Sunday, as examinations of recent Harris set lists suggests she mixes things up with regularity. (To wit: Saturday’s set featured only four songs in common with her last full Austin concert, a June 2013 appearance at ACL Live.)

RELATED: Review of “Austin City Limits” 2014 Hall of Fame ceremony with Emmylou Harris, others

Harris gratefully acknowledged the support of her band with a mid-set introduction: mandolinist/fiddler Eamon McLoughlin (a former Austinite during his tenure with the Greencards), electric guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboardist/accordionist Phil Madeira, bassist Chris Donohue and drummer Bryan Owings. Quoting Willie Nelson’s famous line about “making music with my friends,” she gave thanks for the opportunity to lead this life she’s loved. Soon she’ll be on the road again, but Sunday she’ll be back at the Paramount, for one more night in Austin.

Set list:
1. Here I Am
2. Orphan Girl
3. Love and Happiness
4. Red Dirt Girl
5. Making Believe
6. Big Black Dog
7. O Evangeline
8. Born to Run
9. My Name Is Emmett Till
10. Raise the Dead
11. Luxury Liner
12. Prayer in Open D
13. Pancho & Lefty
14. Michelangelo
15. Goin’ Back to Harlan
16. Old Five and Dimers Like Me
17. Wheels
18. Get Up John
19. Shores of White Sand
20. The Pearl
21. Bright Morning Stars
22. Boulder to Birmingham

READ MORE: Our full guide to live music in Austin this summer

Emmylou Harris and band taking a bow at the end of their concert at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, May 20, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

On a star-studded iHeartCountry Fest night, the pre-teen wonder steals the show

Maren Morris performs with Keith Urban during the iHeartCountry Festival at the Erwin Center on Saturday, May 5, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

Yes, the iHeartCountry Festival offers a smorgasbord of radio-friendly singers that listeners to their nationwide network of mainstream country stations get to hear as part of one five-hour marathon concert. And yeah, an Erwin Center full of die-hard fans danced and sang along to their songs gleefully, from early Saturday evening till the edge of midnight.

PHOTOS: A-List Gallery from the iHeartCountry Festival

But then there was 11-year-old Mason Ramsey, a last-minute addition to the bill who took the stage with a sole accompanist, an acoustic guitar and a cowboy hat almost as big as he is. Ramsey played just one song, but “Famous” — the single that’s exploded on the country charts in recent weeks — pretty much made the whole night, judging from the crowd’s joyful response to his vocal flights and playful gestures.

Ramsey’s cameo brought a smile to everyone’s faces, even if they’d come to hear the major names and rising stars. One by one the hitmakers paraded across the stage playing four or five songs each, starting just past 7 p.m. with Dustin Lynch and continuing in rapid succession with Brett Young, Jon Pardi, Dan + Shay, Sugar Land, Cole Swindell, Maren Morris, Luke Combs, Billy Currington, Luke Bryan, and finally Keith Urban.

Most of them played four songs and no one played more than six as a rotating stage allowed for quick set-changes from one act to the next. Even with that prompt pacing, the show still ran till 11:55 p.m., unavoidably: If you count Ramsey and the night’s other single-song surprise performer, 2011 “American Idol” winner Scotty McCreery, the lineup included more than a dozen acts.

McCreery’s “Five More Minutes,” which earlier this year became his first chart-topping country hit, was another high point of Saturday’s show. In many respects, it’s those unexpected moments that make the iHeartCountry Fest special. The crowd cheered enthusiastically when Arlington native Morris (who’d played a well-received set of her own earlier) joined headliner Urban for a duet at the end of the night. They loved it when Luke Bryan snuck out quickly before his own set began to sing with Billy Currington at the end of his last song. And the crowd was thrilled when Houston’s Danielle Bradbery, the 2013 winner of “The Voice,” walked onstage midsong as the duo Dan + Shay were performing and pushed their hit “How Not To” up to another level.

Bradbery, who’d played the Daytime Village stage earlier in the Erwin Center’s north box office plaza, might well have deserved her own full slot at night, judging from the crowd’s positive reaction to her cameo. It also could have helped further address the reputation of the fest, and of iHeartCountry in general, as being too much of a boys’ club. Morris and Sugar Land, the duo featuring Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, kept this year’s lineup from being all men. But it was clear that the network is starting to understand the need to address the perception, given the mid-show airing of a short video addressing the question: “How important is the next generation of female artists to the genre?”

Of the guys, then, who fared best? Urban was a solid closer, even as his music is probably the most rock/pop and least country of the bunch. Bryan’s set was probably the most anticipated by those in attendance, judging from the crowd reaction, but his music has always been unoriginal, overly reliant on worn-out beer-and-truck cliches. Pardi made a strong connection early on, in part because he followed too-slick openers Lynch and Young with honky-tonk-based songs that placed fiddle and pedal steel prominently in the mix.

And burly, big-voiced Luke Combs — who’d also played the Daytime Village stage earlier — left a strong impression with straightforward songs that succeeded because of his outgoing personality. His only drawback was that he had to play right after young Ramsey’s performance had lit up the arena. Really, who wants to follow THAT kid?

READ MORE: Our review of the first iHeartCountry Fest in 2014


J. Cole schools mumble rappers and trap stars alike at Jmblya

This weekend marks the sixth year of Jmblya, the hip-hop festival launched by local promoter Scoremore that visits Dallas, Austin and Houston over three days. Last year, the festival graduated from the Statesman’s parking lot to the Circuit of the Americas parking lot, expanding to two stages and welcoming top-dollar headliners like Chance the Rapper, Migos and Gucci Mane. This year’s outing corrected some of last year’s growing pains, such as a perilous lack of water, but it still had its hiccups.

J. Cole performs Saturday, May 5, at Jmblya at Circuit of the Americas. Robert Hein/For American-Statesman

Young Thug was a last-minute sub for a pregnant Cardi B, which stings a little extra because her fall itinerary opening for Bruno Mars doesn’t include Austin. (Mars will perform alongside Britney Spears at Formula 1 weekend in October.) But Thugger proved a worthy alternative, whipping the crowd into a fine frenzy despite his nearly inaudible microphone and a disconcerting craaaaack that emanated from the stage’s speakers during every bass drop. The crowd erupted nonetheless, hurling food and drinks into the air and literally blotting out the stage with smoke from various apparatuses.

Thug also proved a much better fit than Jmblya’s other last-minute replacement: T.I., who took Kevin Gates’ late afternoon slot with a day’s notice. (Gates’ name still appeared on the lineup cards handed out to attendees.) To his credit, the 37-year-old trap progenitor barreled through his slew of hits, including “Bring Em Out” and “Whatever You Like,” with verve and precision. Still, there was no ignoring the fact that he hasn’t had a proper hit in almost a decade (or since half the audience was in elementary school), and attendees seemed to be saving their energy for the new-school trap kings, Migos.

RELATED: Scoremore’s Jmblya taps into youth movement 

Migos perform Saturday, May 5, at Jmblya at Circuit of the Americas. Robert Hein/For American-Statesman

Lucky for fans, the superstar Atlanta trio delivered big-time during their second consecutive Jmblya visit. Quavo, Offset and Takeoff seemed to barely break a sweat as they sauntered across a stage adorned with strobe lights and bursts of fog, unloading the staggering treasure trove of hits they’ve amassed in just a few years. “Hannah Montana” and “Fight Night” gave way to “T-Shirt” and the chart-topping “Bad and Boujee,” mapping the group’s ascension from internet sensations to rap elites and reinforcing their steadfast refusal to tweak their sound in the slightest. Their iconic triplet flow showed signs of strain on their eighth-best single, “MotorSport,” which exists solely to showcase Nicki Minaj and Cardi B and becomes literally pointless in their absence. Thankfully the group ended their hit-filled set just as they risked outwearing their welcome, proving their mettle as bonafide headliners.

After the mass exodus that followed Migos’ set (the only biblical thing about the day’s proceedings), one could have reasonably suspected the crowd to look considerably thinner during J. Cole’s headlining performance. But one would have been dead wrong. The impenetrable throng stretched nearly to the food vendors in the back of the parking lot—roughly twice the size of Migos’ crowd—all awaiting what would easily be the best set of the day.

Cole wasted no time warning up, throttling his microphone stand and leaping into the air as he rapped his first song with vicious determination. It only takes a cursory glance at Twitter to see the split opinions on Cole’s music: Fans consider him an intellectual and top-tier MC, while detractors find him lyrically corny and musically boring, the most damning insult of all for a rapper. And while his new album, “KOD,” drags and sputters in places, Cole spat fire and fury throughout his entire hour-plus performance.

FASHION FESTIES: See what people wore to Jmblya 2018

The Fayetteville, North Carolina, native’s lyrical dexterity offered a reprieve from the sound issues and marble-mouthed rapping that characterized the rest of the day. He barked the chorus to “Motiv8” and spat the dizzying flows of “ATM” until his voice grew hoarse. A masterful backing band lent an urgency to some of his drearier compositions, and the audience answered Cole’s call-and-response chants with gusto. Couples cozied up to each other during “Kevin’s Heart,” either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that the song is a candid reflection on the consequences of infidelity, inspired by Cole’s friend, Kevin Hart.

J. Cole performs Saturday, May 5, at Jmblya at Circuit of the Americas. Robert Hein/For American-Statesman

Even with five chart-topping albums under his belt, Cole remains an anomaly in the rap game. Sporting baggy t-shirts and shoulder-length dreads, he eschews the flashiness of his peers, and he only makes headlines when he drops new music. The singular success of his last two albums, “2014 Forest Hills Drive” and 2016’s “4 Your Eyez Only,” turned the phrase “platinum with no features” into a proper boast and evergreen meme. Appropriately, Cole dazzled on his own at Jmblya, the most poignant moment of his set coming during “1985 – Intro to ‘The Fall Off’,” which listeners have interpreted as an admonishment of young SoundCloud mumble rappers Smokepurpp and Lil Pump.

“I love these little dudes, I really do,” Cole insisted before spitting the second half of the song a cappella. He resisted the urge to punch downward at rappers barely half his age, instead dropping the knowledge he’s earned from over a decade in the business—while also talking himself up.

“I must say, by your songs I’m unimpressed, hey / But I love to see a Black man get paid / And plus, you havin’ fun and I respect that / But have you ever thought about your impact?” Cole asked a spellbound audience. And then: “I’ll be around forever ‘cause my skills is tip-top.”

In that moment, nobody doubted him for a second.

Old Settler’s music and spirit shines through, in all kinds of weather

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You want variety of music AND weather? The Old Settler’s Music Festival had it covered on Saturday. Blues to bluegrass to country to classical to gospel to folk to rockabilly: Check. Cloudy to light rain to heavy rain to rainbow to sunset to starshine to dense fog? Check.

Storms were in the forecast for much of Central Texas, and they arrived in full at Old Settler’s around 5 p.m., after on-and-off sprinkles throughout the afternoon. The music officially came to a halt at about 5:30 p.m. when the rains grew steady and moderately heavy, though thunderstorms thankfully steered away from the area.

But just like that, the skies began to clear. The sun started peeking through in the west, a faint rainbow briefly appeared in the east, and the Caldwell County raindrops gave way to the California Honeydrops. That was the name of the eclectic, soulful band whose set on the main stage was briefly delayed, but when they took the stage just before 6 p.m., there were broad smiles and sweet sounds all around.

The sun sets as JD McPherson plays on the main stage at Old Settler’s Music Festival on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Such is the resilience of the Old Settler’s spirit. The fest’s new grounds — a move to Tilmon, just southeast of Lockhart, followed 16 years in Driftwood — presented modest challenges with the weather, as water collected at a low point in the gravel road en route to the stage area. But vehicles were still able to pass, and grassy parking areas appeared to avoid stuck-in-the-mud dilemmas. This location has a lot of wide-open space, and that allows options to avoid obvious trouble spots.

Musically, the Honeydrops were a midpoint highlight on the heels of an afternoon that got off to a great start. Billy Strings, who impressed mightily on Friday night, returned for a 1:30 p.m. set on the Bluebonnet Stage. I missed that, but arrived just in time to catch Houston’s Sarah Grace & the Soul, winners of the morning’s Youth Talent Competition, pay tribute to Prince with a rendition of “Purple Rain” on the second anniversary of his passing.

Over on the main stage, country-folk troubadour Colter Wall served up hard twang and tales from his upbringing on the Canadian Great Plains. Just 22, Wall sounds like he’s going on 66, possessing a rich and resonant voice that makes his music feel more raw and real than just about any current mainstream country performer. With Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton having become major draws in recent years, the future may be bright for Wall.

Colter Wall and band at Old Settler’s Music Festival on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Back at the Bluebonnet Stage, a whole different breed of young talent awaited. Darlingside, a quartet from Boston, delighted a crowd that might not have expected to hear such a sophisticated take on roots music. Playing a variety of instruments that went beyond guitar, banjo and fiddle to include cello and what appeared to be a lute-shaped mandolin, they joined voices in radiant harmony around a single microphone at the center of the stage. When light rain started falling near the end of their set, the band gracefully noted that they understood if folks needed to leave, while expressing extra appreciation for those who stayed.

The rains gradually increased over the next hour, a sad development mainly because one of the day’s most lively acts, Michigan powerhouse soul-gospel outfit The War and Treaty, was next up on the Bluebonnet Stage. Led by husband-wife singers Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter, the five-piece band bravely blasted on through the weather, and at least a couple hundred audience members were moved enough by what they heard to stick around for much of the set. On an ideal day, these folks could give a fest-making performance.

The War and Treaty at Old Settler’s Music Festival on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

After the rain delay and the California Honeydrops’ re-emergence, the skies magically became quite clear. That helped make sets by North Carolina bluegrass band Balsam Range and roots-rockabilly raver JD McPherson all the more enjoyable. Basking in floating bubbles near the children’s area on the Bluebonnet Stage, Balsam Range played an engaging mix of original covers, including John Denver’s “Matthew” and Austin songwriter Walt Wilkins’ “Trains I Missed.” On the main stage, McPherson and his band got the crowd rockin’ just as the sun set over the campground trees.

JD McPherson and band at Old Settler’s Music Festival on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

After dark on the Bluebonnet Stage featured back-to-back slots by rootsy acts loosely tied to the Texas roadhouse circuit. Songwriter Will Hoge lives in Nashville but has developed strong ties here from frequent touring, and he’s honed his stage show into a sharp and lively presentation ranging from power-pop to country-folk anthems. Less effective was Waco’s Wade Bowen, who was dealt a tough hand by recent vocal problems but soldiered on as the clear skies suddenly became shrouded in fog.

Bowen also had the tough task of going up against I’m With Her, the one act that seemingly everybody at Old Settler’s was there to hear. Wimberley-raised Sarah Jarosz, who now lives in New York, is pretty much the face of this festival, having won its inaugural Youth Talent Competition in 2002 as a pre-teen. She’s returned all but two years since, and this time she brought along an all-star team: Sara Watkins (of Nickel Creek) and Aoife O’Donovan (from Crooked Still) joined Jarosz for the trio album “See You Around,” released earlier this year.

I’m With Her, featuring (l-r) Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, at Old Settler’s Music Festival on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

They played most of the material on that album, spicing things up with a couple of surprises: Jim Croce’s “Walkin’ Back to Georgia” and Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” Near the end of the set, Jarosz gave the festival’s Caldwell County rebirth her blessing. “Even in this new location, it still has the same great vibe, I think,” she said. “You’re true music fans; I always feel that.”

READ MORE: Our 2017 interview with Sarah Jarosz

The moon rises over Will Hoge and band on the Bluebonnet Stage at Old Settler’s Music Festival on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Grand music, and big bubbles, drift on the air as Old Settler’s welcomes new digs

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The first big day of Old Settler’s Music Festival at its new site near Lockhart promised lots of good music from the likes of Calexico, Billy Strings, Jamestown Revival, Donna the Buffalo and many more. Under a welcome layer of clouds with mid-60s temperatures and a cool breeze, it delivered all that. Plus, bubbles.

Kids chase after bubbles at the Old Settler’s Music Festival on Friday, April 20, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

The fest, now held in the rural community of Tilmon about 20 minutes southeast of Lockhart, officially kicked off Thursday evening with a concert on the campground stage, as hundreds of weekend-long festgoers already had set up tents and RVs across the spacious new site’s four camping areas. But Friday was the first opportunity to hear music on the main Original Black’s BBQ Stage and the adjacent, smaller Bluebonnet Stage.

Also of note at the Bluebonnet Stage was a bubble-making expert who periodically unleashed torrents of bubbles across the field. This was sheer ecstasy for the younger attendees in the crowd, who chased them down with laughter and broad smiles.

Teenage country singer Frankie Leonie, winner of last year’s OSMF Youth Talent Competition during its final year in Driftwood, got the honor of christening the big stage and delivered magnificently. She played her own songs, including one beautiful number recently recorded with Dallas group the Texas Gentlemen, alongside tasteful covers of tunes by Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings and Nikki Lane. Leonie set the tone for a full afternoon and evening of music that never disappointed and frequently exceeded expectations.

Instrumental fans got some great extended excursions from the Jeff Austin Band and Ireland’s We Banjo 3, “the oddly named quartet” as they put it: Their lineup includes mandolin, banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar. Featuring two sets of brothers, the group joked about the cool weather: “You see we brought the lovely Irish summer with us. This is the warmest day in the history of Ireland.”

Sundown found Austin’s own Jamestown Revival holding forth on the main stage, mixing old favorites from their pop-leaning indie-Americana records with not-yet-released material. “It’s good to be playing at home; got the family out,” said Jonathan Clay as he and Zach Chance brought their voices together in harmony on a new tune titled “Operator.”

Zack Chance, left, and Jonathan Clay of Jamestown Revival at Old Settler’s Music Festival on Friday, April 20, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

The best acts went on just after dark. Skies cleared briefly, revealing a sweet spread of in-the-country stars and a quarter-moon that hung over the stage as Arizona’s magnificent Calexico began an hourlong set. Grown from the bare-bones duo of singer-guitarist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, the group is now seven strong and features members from Germany and Spain, though their music gets its greatest influence from the Mexican border. Trumpets and accordions spice up the mix of their sound that’s sometimes border dance music, sometimes indie guitar rock, but always enchanting.

Calexico at the Old Settler’s Music Festival on Friday, April 20, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Around the corner on the Bluebonnet Stage, teenage upstart Billy Strings led a four-piece band featuring acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo and upright bass. All of them just oozed with talent and vibrant style; they played their instruments with a live-wire fervor, perhaps picking up some youthful punk-rock energy but sounding nothing at all like punk in the process. Rather, they simply sounded full of life and passion, and Strings’ tenor voice was strong enough to echo the great Tim O’Brien when the band covered Bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power).”

Still to come for those staying till midnight were jam-band Greensky Bluegrass and Austin’s soulful Tomar & the FCs, plus a wee-hours session on the new “Camp Shhhtimes” mini-stage with another Billy Strings performance and a couple of talented locals. Saturday’s forecast calls for rain, but that didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of organizers and attendees, who noted they’d been through many rainy Old Settler’s days before.

The Saturday lineup offers Sarah Jarosz’s new trio I’m With Her (featuring Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan), California Honeydrops, Darlingside, the War and Treaty, Bob Schneider and many more. Sunday afternoon’s finale on the Campground Stage includes Ray Wylie Hubbard, Steve Poltz and others.

READ MORE: Our full preview of the 2018 Old Settler’s Music Festival

Sunset at the Old Settler’s Music Festival on Friday, April 20, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Foo Fighters blast off Austin360 Amphitheater’s concert season with marathon show

Dave Grohl leads the Foo Fighters at the Austin360 Amphitheater on April 18, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

The pit at the Austin360 Amphitheater had no chairs for Wednesday’s season-opening concert by the Foo Fighters, and for all practical purposes on this night, you could have ripped out the reserved seats in the next tier as well. From the front all the way to the back at this sold-out show, everyone was standing for the band’s entire performance.

PHOTOS: A-List gallery of Foo Fighters at Austin360 Amphitheater

That’s a significant indication of both their fans’ enchanted enthusiasm and the Foo Fighters’ boundless energy. And this wasn’t some rapid-fire quick-hit performance. Dave Grohl and his bandmates held court for almost three hours without a break, not even stopping for an encore pause at the end. “Let’s just play through,” Grohl said near the end, to rousing approval from the audience.

The band had hinted at the marathon beforehand, sending out an email to ticketholders on Tuesday informing them that opening band the Struts would go on at 7 p.m. rather than the originally scheduled 7:30 “to give you more of a show.” This was no surprise, really, as the Foo Fighters went nearly three hours even when they taped “Austin City Limits” in 2014, on a show that gets edited to an hour for TV.

The last time they were in town, headlining the 2015 Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park, Grohl had limitations, confined to a throne at center stage after he’d broken his leg on tour but opted not to cancel shows. On Wednesday, the first stop of a North American jaunt after a five-week hiatus, he was back to vintage Grohl, sprinting and stalking the lip of the stage as he wailed away on guitar.

Last year’s “Concrete and Gold,” the group’s ninth album, was the motivation for this tour, and they hit two new-album highlights early: the show-opening “Run,” which earned them a Grammy for Best Rock Song, and the soaring “The Sky Is a Neighborhood.” Mostly, though, this was a career-retrospective kind of night, with Grohl promising early on that they’d play something from every single Foo Fighters album.

RELATED: Reflections from Dave Grohl about past visits to Austin

Ever the consummate rock bandleader, Grohl gave each of his five bandmates a moment in the spotlight. Guitarist Chris Shiflett took the helm for a cover of Alice Cooper’s “Under My Wheels.” The band vamped to bassist Nate Mandel’s bass-solo thumping of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” Co-founding guitarist Pat Smear careened into a crunching cover of the Ramones’ “Bliztkreig Bop.” Keyboardist Rami Jaffee set up an uproarious punchline, playing the piano chords to John Lennon’s “Imagine” before Grohl joined in by adapting the lyrics of Van Halen’s “Jump” to the melody.

Wide-smiling drummer Taylor Hawkins got a double-shot of featured time, first with a drum solo that bridged “Rope” to “Sunday Rain” in which his riser was levitated about 30 feet above the band by an adjustable platform. Later, he stepped out front — allowing Grohl to return to the drum seat where he first gained renown with Nirvana — for a duet with the Struts’ Luke Spiller on the classic David Bowie/Queen collaboration “Under Pressure.” (It was a fitting choice given that Spiller showed a bit of Freddie Mercury dramatics in his own band’s well-received opening set.)

One might have expected more than two dozen Foo Fighters songs to be played in a show that ran two hours and 45 minutes, but a handful of largely superfluous extended jams ate into the clock a bit. More welcome were the effortlessly personal Grohl’s occasional digressions, including one about a 1990s cross-country road trip that involved a stop in Dallas to visit ill-fated metal band Pantera and a lost wallet that got returned many years later.

Was it a true story? It was entertaining enough that it didn’t really matter, much as it ultimately made no difference whether the guy in the crowd wearing Kiss makeup who they brought onstage for a guest-guitar cameo during “Monkey Wrench” was a plant in the audience or a legit surprise. “Kiss Guy,” as Grohl dubbed him, was so on-point and in sync with the band that it stretched belief, but Grohl swore it was for real: “We’ve never done the setup,” he said, “and Kiss Guy is the best one we’ve ever had.” A YouTube fan video later identified him as Austin rock guitarist Yayo Sanchez:

Beyond the showmanship, the Foo Fighters first and foremost still deliver the songs. The crowd sang, danced and thrashed along all night to favorites such as “My Hero,” “Learn to Fly,” “These Days,” “Best of You” and the show-closing “Everlong.” Grohl gave sincere props for all that energy from the crowd, telling them, “Thank you very much for making us feel like a real band.” And he promised they’d be back, “so I don’t have to say goodbye.”