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
19. Palace
20. Stay With Me
21. Pray

One Night in Austin: It was a hot time in the old town last night

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We’re in the throes of many consecutive days with temperatures above 100 degrees, but live music pays no mind to the summer heat in Austin. From downtown and SoCo nightclubs to a campus cafe to an iconic record store to a classic beer garden, we found good music everywhere on a Friday night in the heart of July. Check out the video above to accompany this recap.

5 p.m.: Dan Stuart at Waterloo Records. The expatriate rocker, who’s lived in Mexico for the last eight years, kicked off a weeklong “tour of Austin” to celebrate “The Unfortunate Demise of Marlowe Billings,” an album accompanied by a book of the same name. Remembering Waterloo’s smaller store when he lived nearby in 1990, Stuart mused, “Things change. Not all of it is bad!”

Focusing on songs from the new record such as “Here Comes My Boy” and “The Day William Holden Died,” Stuart also threw fans of his 1980s band Green on Red a bone at the end with a sweet solo acoustic version of “Time Ain’t Nothing.” There’s seven more chances to catch him around town in the next six days, starting Saturday night at Opal Divine’s Austin Grill.

READ MORE: Songwriter Dan Stuart embarks on a ‘tour of Austin’

6:45 p.m.: Rosie Flores Revue at C-Boy’s. The South Congress outpost of the Continental Club empire is big on weekly residencies, and a new addition is this Friday happy-hour show featuring longtime local guitarist and singer Flores with a terrific five-piece backing crew.

A master of many American roots styles ranging from country to blues to jazz and beyond, Flores is a natural bandleader. A solid crowd for an early-evening show soaked in the welcome air-conditioning as sunlight streaked through the windows at the front of the club, which had another fine show on tap after dark with the Texas Gentlemen.

Bruce Robison performs at Threadgill’s South on Friday, July 20, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

7:15 p.m.: Christy Hays and Bruce Robison at Threadgill’s. We don’t often stay for more than one act in these evening musical smorgasbords, but the bill for KUTX’s “Back to the Garden” series inspired a longer stay. The beer garden wasn’t as sweltering as you might think on a day like this, thanks to plentiful shade.

Hays, who’s split her time between here and Montana the past couple of years, played many of the songs on her acclaimed new record “River Swimmer.” She also wrote a song on the latest record from Robison, who delighted the crowd with favorites such as “Desperately” (a country chart-topper for George Strait co-written with Monte Warden) and the only-in-Austin anthem “What Would Willie Do?”

READ MORE: Bruce Robison looks toward the future of music with ‘The Next Waltz’

9:15 p.m.: Kevin Galloway at Cactus Cafe. For a decade, native Texan Galloway fronted the roots-rock band Uncle Lucius, a solid draw across the state with several albums to their credit. He’s moving to a new phase with “The Change,” his first solo record, due out in early August.

The Cactus show served as a full showcase for the new material, as Galloway played “The Change” from start to finish. It’s a fine record that benefits from a strong supporting cast, many of whom accompanied him at this show, including his former Uncle Lucius bandmate John Grossman on keyboards, ace pedal steel player Kim Deschamps, and guitarist Doug Strahan (whose own band, the Good Neighbors, opened the show.)

A full house at Antone’s for Los Texmaniacs and friends on Friday, July 20, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

10:45 p.m.: Los Texmaniacs with Flaco Jimenez at Antone’s. We’re well into the monthlong 43rd-anniversary celebration for Austin’s home of the blues now. One of the coolest things about Antone’s is that while its focus is blues, the club reaches well beyond those bounds too. This night was a prime example, with some of the best border-crossing Tex-Mex sounds to be found anywhere.

Max Baca’s renowned Texmaniacs crew anchored the evening, with Grammy-winning accordion great Jimenez coming out to join them shortly after we arrived. They ran through familiar tunes such as the Don Gibson country classic “Oh Lonesome Me” and the Mavericks’ rousing “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down.” We departed before the scheduled appearance of Jimenez’s Texas Tornados bandmate Augie Meyers, but there’s no doubt the party went on well past midnight. And it continues Saturday with a bang-up show featuring C.J. Chenier plus Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.

READ MORE: Get the blues while it’s hot at Antone’s anniversary bash

Hot Summer Nights: 13 fantastic free shows for your midsummer rocking

Find your new favorite local band when the second edition of Hot Summer Nights, the Free Week in July music series, takes over the Red River Cultural District next week. Venues throughout the district will host no-cover shows all weekend. Here are thirteen top picks to choose from, and you can find the full listings here.

Thursday, July 26

Lindsey Mackin of Annabelle Chairlegs at ACL Fest 2017. TINA PHAN / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Holy Wave, Annabelle Chairlegs at Barracuda outside. “Adult Fear,” the fourth full-length from Austin-via-El Paso psych rock specialists, Holy Wave, floats by like a hazy summer daydream. It’s the perfect sweaty July night soundtrack. Annabelle Chairlegs, fronted by hair-whipping guitar shredder Lindsey Mackin, takes a harder approach to psych rock, liberally indulging in grunge riffs. 8 p.m. doors. 611 E. Seventh St. More info

Emily Wolfe, Quiet Company at Mohawk. Oh, it’s guitar rock you want? Don’t let the candy coating on her vocals fool you: Emily Wolfe wrangles a gutsy riff with the best of them. And Quiet Company packed muscular chords aplenty onto their wistful 2017 EP, “Your Husband, The Ghost.” The loaded bill for this kick-off event also includes Think No Think, Darkbird and Chakra Khan. 6:30 p.m. doors. 912 Red River St. More info 

Gio Chamba, Ex-Romantika, Como Las Movies at Stubb’s indoor. Austin Vida curates a diverse bill of Latin acts headlined by Houston duo Gio Chamba, who play percussive electronica. They’re joined on the bill by horn-heavy cumbia/salsa act Ex-Romantika and electro-cumbia specialists Como Las Movies. 8 p.m. doors. 801 Red River St. More info  

Cilantro Boombox, Black Milk at Empire. Detroit artist Black Milk, headlining the Control Room spits real knowledge over rich beats that fuse elements of funk, electronica and soul. Cilantro Boombox, top billed in the Garage, hosts a buoyant global groove dance party. The rest of the bill, which includes power producer Just Blaze, local turntable titan Rapid Ric and Afropop group Zounmoutchi, fills out an enticing evening of indie hip-hop and world music. 7 p.m. doors. 606 E. Seventh St. More info

Friday, July 27

Golden Dawn Arkestra performs at Empire Garage during SXSW 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Golden Dawn Arkestra at Stubb’s outside. The revolving ensemble of cosmically costumed crusaders spent most of the summer beaming good vibrations across Europe. They bring down the mothership to celebrate the release of their new full-length, “Children of the Sun,” in their final hometown show before playing both weekends of the Austin City Limits Music Festival this fall. Hard Proof, Mobley and Trouble in the Streets are also on this power bill. 7 p.m. doors. 801 Red River St. More info

Big Bill, Moving Panoramas, Special Guest at Barracuda. Art punks Big Bill are community organizers and scene leaders who demand your attention, and we love the dreamy pop swirls of Moving Panoramas.  We also have a very good feeling about the special guest on this bill. 8 p.m. doors. 611 E. Seventh St. More info

Jess Williamson at the Mohawk. With incisive lyricism and a lilting twang that aches with emotion, Williamson brings rich story songs to life on her thoroughly lovely new collection, “Cosmic Wink.” Marijuana Sweet Tooth, Cowboy Crisis and RF Shannon are also on the bill. 8 p.m. doors. 912 Red River St.  More info

Riverboat Gamblers at Cheer Up Charlie’s. If you’re ready to wreck shop, these raucous punks will not let you down.  Sea Lion, the Sour Notes and Dentist will also perform. 8 p.m. doors. 900 Red River St. More info.

Blastfamous USA, Blxpltn at Empire. The revolution might not be televised, but, trust us, it will be very loud. Protest rappers Blastfamous USA and punks Blxpltn both hit the stage ready to fight the power. Prog metal group Megafauna shreds the Control Room too and over on the garage stage Tia Carrera and Dixie Witch will tear things up. 8 p.m. doors. 606 E. Seventh St. More info. 

Saturday, July 28

Ringo Deathstarr, Growl, Sailor Poon at Barracuda. Our favorite fuzz pop trio, Ringo Deathstarr, headlines a bill that also features the final show from garage pop band Growl. Feminist art punks Sailor Poon, Flesh Lights and Shivery Shakes also perform. 8 p.m. doors. 611 E. Seventh St.  More info

Eagle Claw, the Ghost Wolves at the Mohawk. Get ready to go hard. Eagle Claw is ready to melt your face off with hard-driving instrumental metal. Garage rock duo the Ghost Wolves, who just returned from a European jaunt, Chief White Lightning and Booher also perform. 8 p.m. doors. 912 Red River St. More info. 

Fragile Rock, Sphynx at Empire. Sad puppets who indulge in emo moping? Yes, please. Headlining the bill in the Garage that night is Moving Panoramas. Over on the Control Room stage, you can catch our favorite glam pop trio Sphynx. 8 p.m. doors. 606 E. Seventh St. More info

Sunday, July 29

Fat Tony at Cheer Up Charlie’s. The Shed barber shop presents a killer Hot Summer Nights cap-off party featuring Houston rapper/singer/all-around killer entertainer, Fat Tony. They also promise a waterslide, pop-ups and more surprises. 3 p.m. doors. 900 Red River St. More info.

Willie’s Picnic revisited: Ten tidbits gathered across the day

Ryan Bingham, with fiddler Richard Bowden, at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic at Circuit of the Americas on July 4, 2018. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

It was the sweatiest of times, then it was the rainiest of times, then it was the coolest of times. And beyond the strange weather, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic brought many memorable musical moments as well. Here’s a quick look back at some of them, plus a little news gathered along the way.

RELATED: Our full review of Willie’s Picnic 2018

1. Folk Uke has a new song. It’s called “Don’t Bite Beyonce.” The local duo that features Amy Nelson (Willie’s daughter) and Cathy Guthrie (Arlo’s daughter) is known for offbeat original material, so the tune that concluded their short early-afternoon set wasn’t entirely a surprise. It was pretty funny, though, a takeoff on recent tabloid news. Plus it’s the rare Folk Uke song that doesn’t have an unprintable word in it.

2. Ryan Bingham also has a new song. It’s called, presumably, “America,” and nothing else played all day or night at the Picnic resonated as deeply. The second verse: “America, unload that gun/ Save a daughter, save a son/ Bullets dressed them up in blood.” This was heavy stuff, but it might be the best song of social consience anyone has written in years. Bingham’s guitarist, Jesse Dayton, said they started playing it at shows just a few days ago.

3. Where’d David Allan Coe go? Scheduled to open the Picnic at 11:30 a.m., he was a no-show. A publicity firm representing the event had no details on the absence, and Coe’s Facebook and Twitter pages offered no explanations or clues. Coe has always been a little, shall we say, mercurial. And sadly, with the midafternoon rainout canceling the sets of Ray Wylie Hubbard and Billy Joe Shaver, might this have been the first Picnic without a three-named troubadour in, well, ever?

One of Willie Nelson’s buses in the backstage area at Circuit of the Americas during his Fourth of July Picnic, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

4. What to do when it rains? Most people went back to their cars. Reporters and photographers huddled in a couple of mostly empty but thankfully air-conditioned trailers, until a better opportunity arose. Willie’s longtime publicist, Elaine Schock, invited folks over to one of Willie’s buses — it said “John Denver” on the front, and apparently once belonged to the late country-pop star — for a sample of “Willie’s Remedy,” a new line of hemp-based coffee that Nelson is launching. Unlike Willie’s Reserve, his line of marijuana, it’s not a pot thing, though the brew may have mild health benefits. At any rate, the bus was pretty cool.

5. Willie has a new record coming soon. Oh yeah, while we were on the bus, they also played us some of “My Way,” a Frank Sinatra-themed record Nelson recorded earlier this year and is now set to release on Sept. 14. Perhaps inspired by the success of “Summertime,” Willie’s 2016 album of Gershwin classics that won a Grammy, this one finds him exploring the jazzier side that has always been almost as vital as country to his identity.

6. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians also have a new record coming soon. Exactly when and through what channels it’ll be released remain in limbo, but the band hopes to get it out by the end of the year. Recorded over the past year or so at Austin’s Arlyn Studios, it’ll be their first release since 2006’s “Stranger Things.” Many members of the band, formed in Dallas in the 1980s, now live in Austin or the Hill Country. On Wednesday, they sounded terrific on old and new songs alike.

PHOTO GALLERY: Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic 2018

7. Food prices at COTA remain ridiculous. Here was my tweet about that yesterday early-afternoon (before the rains came):

8. We miss the grass. When the Picnic moved to Circuit of the Americas in 2015, the first two years featured the Plaza Stage on a spacious grassy area just behind the Austin360 Amphitheater. Last year the Plaza Stage moved to a large patch of concrete near the entrance. There’s probably a reason. But, as someone commented on one of my social media posts from the Plaza Stage yesterday, “‘Picnics’ do not involve concrete.”

9. How cool was it? When the rains swept through, temperatures dropped by about 20 degrees. “Yesterday at this time it was 101,” an emcee said before Brickell took the stage just past 7 p.m. “Right now it’s 75.” Picnic meteorological records weren’t readily available, but this seemed potentially unprecedented, at least for the Picnics held in Texas. (That one-off in Washington state in 2007 probably hit a lower Fahrenheit mark.)

TIMELINE: The definitive history of Willie Nelson’s Picnic

10. Beto, Beto, Beto. Just past dark, the candidate for U.S. Senator suddenly was everywhere. Coming in from a late-afternoon speaking engagement at Hotel Vegas in East Austin, O’Rourke sat down with SiriusXM DJs for an interview that included a brief chat about his days playing punk rock in El Paso. Then he was out front for a short prelude to the fireworks. All that remained for the hat trick was to sing with Willie during the grand finale. He beat that, playing acoustic guitar too. You’ll find a little bit of that at the end of this full-day recap video:

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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.

Hall and Oates, Train concert at Erwin Center canceled

A concert featuring ’80s soft rockers Hall and Oates and ’90s rockers Train scheduled for July 28 at the Frank Erwin Center has been canceled.

Hall & Oates at the Austin360 Amphitheater on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

An email sent to fans who purchased tickets cited “scheduling conflicts” as the reason for the cancellation and included the following refund information:

Customers who purchased tickets using a credit card either online or by phone through Texas Box Office will be automatically refunded. For all other ticket refunds, fans should return to their original point of purchase. If you have questions regarding your previously purchased tickets, call 512-477-6060 or 1-800-982-BEVO (2386).

Free Week in July returns with Golden Dawn Arkestra, Riverboat Gamblers, more

Hot Summer Nights returns to the Red River Cultural District on July 26-29 with a blazing roster of free shows featuring many of Austin’s favorite bands.


The event mirrors, the popular Free Week mini-festival that takes over Austin clubs in the first week of January. Participating clubs, who will offer no cover shows, include the Mohawk, Stubb’s, Empire, Barracuda, Cheer Up Charlie’s, Swan Dive and Beerland. The lineups for the free shows feature a who’s who of the best bands in Austin, including space jazz crusaders, Golden Dawn Arkestra, punk rock wrecking crew, Riverboat Gamblers and recent Austin360 Artists of the Month, revolution rap kingpins, Blastfamous USA.

Gauzy dream pop artists Ringo Deathstarr and Moving Panoramas, Latin funk throwdown Cilantro Boombox, hip-hop producer Just Blaze, rapper Fat Tony and local psych rock torch-bearers Holy Wave are also on the roster alongside Sphynx, Sailor Poon, Blxpltn and our favorite emo puppet troupe, Fragile Rock.

Here’s the full lineup of artists playing Hot Summer Nights. More information on the Red River Cultural District Facebook page.



Anderson East can sing the IKEA catalog and we will listen

Artists like Anderson East, an Alabama rock-and-soul singer with a voice so startling and strong that it seems like the product of Greek mythology, are so singular that you almost have to grade them on a different curve.

Anderson East records an episode of “Austin City Limits” on Friday, June 22, at ACL Live. Scott Newton/KLRU-TV

For parallels, think of names like Whitney Houston or Amy Winehouse or Freddie Mercury; singers with pipes coated in brass, polished with velvet and powered by Tesla coils. You’d drop everything to listen to them read assembly instructions to an IKEA catalog, so the songwriting behind their creative works could be so-so and no one would put up much of a fuss.

East – born Michael Cameron Anderson – has channeled his vocal talents in a heartland direction and at this early stage of his career is in a vein something like what we’d get if Joe Cocker had more finesse and was aiming for the lyrical style of early Jason Isbell. Which is not a bad place to be.

East kicked off his “Austin City Limits” television performance Friday with his cover of Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” a move that drew a distinct picture of where East is coming from stylistically. East’s interpretation turned Nelson’s sparse and forlorn playing into a more tortured picture of a singer turned inside out by his missteps, with backup singers and horns adding color and a church revival atmosphere.

Anderson East records an episode of “Austin City Limits” on Friday, June 22, at ACL Live. Scott Newton/KLRU-TV

From there much of East’s set kept with the white bread church singer feel, even if the lyrical themes dominated by romance realized and lost was firmly secular. Whether leaned back and roaring or bending forward for a smooth croon, East’s pure vocal power and control were the highlight early on while he mostly played the empty-armed romantic looking for The One.
Another highlight throughout the night was piano player Philip Towns, who grabbed the spotlight several times with colorful layered solos, including three of them alone on “Learning,” a song that stretched to nearly 10 minutes and proves the band would acclimate well in the jam band world if so moved.

The most thematically interesting turn of the 80-minute performance came in the last third, when a pair of minor-chord songs – “Girlfriend” and “All On My Mind” – saw the mood turn sinister and East taking on the role of the other man in a love triangle and a lover who knows he’s mixed up with a quintessentially bad girl. With a string quartet on hand to add even more dramatic tones, those songs saw East playing something of a villain or bad boy, showing even more swagger and confidence.

That change of tone made the night’s final few songs – especially a tune like “Satisfy Me” that is is an airtight example of how a rock-meets-soul song should be constructed – feel more human, like they were coming from a performer who can exhibit and embrace the light and dark of the human condition.

And, lest we forget, has the kind of voice to make just about anything work.


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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
14. Merry Go Round
15. Neon Moon
16. High Horse
Love Is a Wild Thing
High Horse

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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.”

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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