You won’t see it on TV, but the revelation from Hayes Carll’s taping of “Austin City Limits” on Tuesday night at ACL Live was what happened when he tried to play “KMAG YOYO,” the title track to his 2011 album.
It’s a rapid-fire, wordplay-intensive tune that’s admittedly a challenge to pull off, and Carll crashed it into a brick wall at full speed twice while careening through the third verse. Finally he gave up. “That’s not going to cut it on ‘Austin City Limits,'” he mock-scolded himself. “There’ll be no ad-libbing babble tonight.”
Carll returned to the song in the encore and finally got down a version that should work just fine for the half-hour edit when his episode airs next season. But while the aborted first takes ultimately were a source of lively humor for his fans, they also testified to the change Carll has undergone as a songwriter and performer in recent years.
“Lovers and Leavers,” released in April, found the native Texan returning to his troubadour roots. Over the years since his 2002 debut album, Carll had drifted toward rowdy barroom rockers, but he’d increasingly felt less comfortable with that. It’ll always be a part of his identity, certainly: He cranked the tempo up on other songs in this 16-song set, including “The Lovin’ Cup” and the show-ending “Stomp and Holler.” But it’s clear that his heart is now much more invested in the acoustic avenues he followed on the new album.
Carll played seven of the record’s tracks at this taping, the second one he’s done for ACL. (The first came six seasons ago, in the wake of his breakthrough album “Trouble in Mind.”) Most of the new songs came in the first half of the show, which featured minimal backing from pedal steel guitarist Geoff Queen and percussionist Mike Meadows.
If the arrangements in that section got to be a bit predictable — Carll would play the first verse and chorus solo, then the steel and rhythm would join in — it put the focus squarely on the words, no doubt by design. Such an approach also favored a few extended introductions of the songs, which played well into Carll’s natural gift for storytelling.
He dedicated “Sake of the Song” — an original from the new album that shares a title with a Townes Van Zandt classic — to the late Guy Clark, colorfully recalling a songwriting session he once had with Clark. Prefacing the as-yet unreleased “Jesus and Elvis,” he explained that it was inspired by a visit to the delightfully campy North Austin bar Lala’s. Best of all was his introduction to “The Magic Kid,” a song about his young son’s determination to become a magician. “He knew this thing made his heart sing,” Carll marveled, before letting his own heart sing out the words and melody that his son inspired.
A quick mid-show reset of the stage converted Meadows’ percussion riser into a perch for keyboardist Emily Gimble. Meadows moved to a full drum kit in the back, teaming with bassist John Michael Schoepf for a more traditional full rhythm section. The expanded lineup ran through eight more songs, including the aborted and finally rescued “KMAG YOYO.” Another highlight from the new record was “Love Don’t Let Me Down,” which found soulful singer Gimble sharing the lead vocal with Carll.
At the end of that song, Carll noted that he co-wrote it with Allison Moorer and Jack Ingram, the latter of whom apparently was in the audience. Carll recalled having seen Ingram, a songwriter he admired, on “Austin City Limits” in 1997 and thinking, “maybe there’s a chance” he could get there himself some day. It took more than a decade, but now that he’s appeared twice on the program, it’s clear Carll has made the most of that chance.
1. Bad Liver and a Broken Heart
2. Love Is So Easy
3. Sake of the Song
4. Good While It Lasted
5. Jesus and Elvis
6. Girl Downtown
7. The Magic Kid
9. Love Don’t Let Me Down
10. The Lovin’ Cup
11. The Love That We Need
12. KMAG YOYO (aborted)
13. My Friends
14. Long Way Home
15. Wish I Hadn’t Stayed So Long
16. KMAG YOYO (revisited)
17. Stomp and Holler