Grupo Fantasma, Donavon Frankenreiter among first shows booked at new venue 3Ten

Grupo Fantasma will play the new 3Ten venue on April 16. Photo courtesy of Grupo Fantasma
Grupo Fantasma will play the new 3Ten venue on April 16. Photo courtesy of Grupo Fantasma

Next month’s debut of the new downtown venue 3Ten ACL Live, as detailed in today’s American-Statesman, will feature three days of official South by Southwest showcases, preceding a handful of dates by national and local acts already on the books for April and May.

The 350-capacity room, on the ground floor below the main ACL Live theater, occupies a space that previously housed a branch of the Metroplex pizza chain Coal Vines. Transformed with a first-class sound system, it’s primed to make a splash during SXSW with shows from Wednesday through Friday of the music festival.

The venue’s inaugural night of music, March 16, will feature a showcase presented by renowned Los Angeles radio station KCRW. On the bill are Ra Ra Riot, Eliot Sumner, Cloves, Joon Moon, Marlon Williams & the Ybarra Benders and Sofi Tukker.

The March 17 showcase, presented by booking agency High Road Touring, will include Run River North, Haelos, Yak, Boulevards, Tor Miller and local band Los Coast. March 18 brings a BBC-related English lineup with Elf Kid, Leo Kalyan, Jamal Woon, Folly Rae, Shakka and JP Cooper.

The first ticketed shows at 3Ten are an April 8 touring show by singer-songwriter/surfer Donavon Frankenreiter, supporting his latest album “The Heart,” and an April 9 appearance by local Talking Heads tribute band Heartbyrne. Tickets to both events go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday via the venue’s new website, 3tenaustin.com, or by phone at 877-987-6487.

Those two dates will serve as after-shows for sold-out concerts upstairs by Widespread Panic, which has a three-night engagement at ACL Live April 8-10. Expect 3Ten to be used frequently for such a purpose, much like Stubb’s often books music in its restaurant room after shows on its outdoor stage.

Also announced are an April 16 night of cumbia music by local luminaries Grupo Fantasma; local country duo Waterloo Revival playing April 22 after a Jonny Lang show at ACL Live; and shows by hometown favorites the Nightowls on May 13 and Uncle Lucius on May 27. Tickets to the first two also are available Feb. 26; the latter two shows go on sale March 4.

Ameripolitan Awards bring Pride and respect to the Paramount

Charley Pride performs at the Ameripolitan Awards at the Paramount on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock
Charley Pride performs at the Ameripolitan Awards at the Paramount on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

The most meaningful moment in Tuesday’s third annual Ameripolitan Music Awards show at the Paramount Theatre came not from a winner’s acceptance speech, a musician’s performance or the host’s repartee. Rather, it happened when the two previous winners of the Ameripolitan Venue award took the stage to announce this year’s winning venue.

Broken Spoke owner James White took his customary opportunity to sing a little song with the ace backing band assembled for the occasion, but when it was Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer’s turn, he succintly summed up the mission statement of quality music venues. “Basically, it’s about respecting the musicians,” he said.

Those words lingered enough that Jenny Littleton of the comic-relief duo Doyle & Debbie dropped character briefly during the presentation of a subsequent award to say how much she appreciated Wertheimer’s words. No doubt the hundreds of musicians in the house, many of whom traveled from faraway states and even overseas countries to be here, concurred.

You could feel the appreciation of that respect when artists such as Charlie Thompson, an Englishman who won the Honky Tonk Male award, spoke poignantly about what it meant to be here for the occasion. Or when Western Swing Female winner Carolyn Martin of Nashville expressed her sincere appreciation for the recognition from her peers.

Ameripolitan Awards founder Dale Watson and host Ray Benson at the Paramount on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock
Ameripolitan Awards founder Dale Watson and host Ray Benson at the Paramount on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

Held a day after the Grammys, the Ameripolitan Awards reflected a very different aspect of the music industry. Created by Austin country mainstay Dale Watson and hosted by Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson, the show honors mostly little-known artists in a variety of roots-based genres. Though guests and participants dress largely in western wear, it’s less about glamour and glitz and more about just having a good time with fellow appreciators of the music.

The one big performance of the evening, by Country Music Hall of Famer Charley Pride as recipient of the Master’s Award, came off splendidly. After giving a short and gracious acceptance speech, Pride sang two of his biggest hits, “Is Anybody Going to San Antone” and “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” before telling a couple of stories and finishing with his old friend Ray Price’s “Heartaches By the Number.” In fine vocal form at age 77, Pride clearly made the night for many in attendance.

Other performance highlights included tributes to this year’s two “Founder of the Sound” recipients, Wanda Jackson and the late Red Simpson. Rockabilly singers Marti Brom, Rosie Flores and Kim Lenz made a nice medley of three Jackson classics, and Austin guitar great Bill Kirchen closed the show with splendid versions of a few gems from Simpson, who’d originally been scheduled to perform before his death last month.

The structure of the show seemed a bit uneven. The first half featured a regular pattern of one award presentation followed by two performances, but after an intermission, the routine switched to four or five awards followed by a single performance. The final stretch became a bit of an endurance test as the clock neared midnight; a more evenly spread back-and-forth between awards and performances might have helped.

The evening’s other hitch was what seemed like a home-team advantage among nominees. While venue winner the White Horse (the third straight from Austin), top DJ Ted Branson of Austin’s KOOP and festival winner San Angelo Cowboy Gathering are all deserving, it suggested a favoritism toward locals and Texans among the voters, perhaps revealing that the Ameripolitan membership is skewed significantly toward the host city. That’s not entirely surprising, but given that the audience included a fair number of faraway travelers, it would have been nice to see more acknowledgment of that support in the non-musician categories.

The full list of winners:

Honky Tonk Female: Margo Price
Honky Tonk Male: Charlie Thompson
Honky Tonk Group: Jeff Woolsey & the Dancehall Kings
Outlaw Female: Bonnie Montgomery
Outlaw Male: Whitey Morgan
Outlaw Group: Jason Boland & the Stragglers
Western Swing Female: Carolyn Martin
Western Swing Male: Jason Roberts
Western Swing Group: Billy Mata & the Texas Tradition
Rockabilly Female: Marti Brom
Rockabilly Male: Wayne Hancock
Rockabilly Group: Bellfuries
Ralph Mooney Musician Award: Jason Roberts
Venue: White Horse
Festival: San Angelo Cowboy Gathering
DJ: Ted Branson, KOOP
Founders of the Sound: Wanda Jackson, Red Simpson
Master’s Award: Charley Pride

At home, with heart, Gary Clark Jr. blazes through “Artists Den” show at Antone’s

Photo by Glen Brown, courtesy of "Artists Den."
Photo by Glen Brown, courtesy of “Artists Den.”

On Monday, Gary Clark Jr. joined Chris Stapleton and Bonnie Raitt in an on-air tribute to B.B. King at the Grammys, then spent the rest of the night celebrating his 32nd birthday.

On Tuesday, Clark returned home to tape an episode of “Artists Den,” a music television series that airs on PBS in the United States and internationally in a variety of markets including outlets in United Kingdom, Germany, Latin America, Australia and Japan. According to the “Artists Den” presenters who introduced Clark’s nearly two-hour set, show producers would have been happy to film in L.A. to accommodate Clark’s schedule, but it was important to the artist who’s spent the last several years carrying the torch for Austin music  to film in his hometown at the club he recently helped resurrect.

Photo by Glen Brown. Courtesy of "Artists Den."
Photo by Glen Brown. Courtesy of “Artists Den.”

Clark was loose and comfortable in the latest iteration of Antone’s, a space that has essentially become his Austin home base. He rattled the rafters with blistering guitar licks on signature hits like “Bright Lights, Big City” and “When My Train Pulls In.” He poured furious intensity into “The Healing,” the powerhouse title track from his 2015 album, and brought local soul maven Tameca Jones out to share the stage on the sexy soul number “Wings.”

In a somewhat odd choice, he took the set out on a subdued note, “sharing an intimate moment” with the crowd with an emotional rendition of the sensitive heart-breaker “Church.” He returned to play the love songs “Down to Ride” and “Stay” as an encore and the love for Austin’s hometown hero was definitely in the room, packed with fans who won free tickets to the show through an online lottery.

The Gary Clark Jr. episode of “Artists Den” will close out the show’s tenth anniversary season.

Jason Isbell raises the bar for Americana at ACL Live

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, with a set that brought to mind Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at ACL Live. Photo by Peter Blackstock
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, with a set that brought to mind Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at ACL Live. Photo by Peter Blackstock

When Jason Isbell says he can’t think of a better place to open a tour than in Austin, it’s not just idle “Hello Cleveland” talk. Dating back to his days with the indie Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers before he struck out on his own with the 400 Unit, he’s played here many times, and it’s been a long climb up to a sold-out two-night stand at ACL Live.

He recounted many steps that led here midway through his brilliant set Thursday night. The Parish, the old Antone’s and Emo’s, the sound-deficient La Zona Rosa, even the shuttered Mexican restaurant Jovita’s: He still remembers, and that’s part of what makes his arrival as contemporary roots music’s brightest star so special. He earned it the hard way.

On Monday, he’ll be in Los Angeles for the Grammys, nominated for Best Americana Album for last year’s “Something More Than Free” and Best American Roots Song for its lead single, “24 Frames.” He played that song and seven others from “Something More Than Free” on this night, connecting deeply with the audience on numbers such as “The Life That Chose You” and “If It Takes a Lifetime” that balance Isbell’s sense for effortlessly tuneful songcraft with a lyrical grace on par with living legends like John Prine and Kris Kristofferson. Yes, he’s that good.

As good as the numbers from the new record were, the two-hour set served as a reminder that Isbell has been building toward this apex for a good while. He also tapped five songs from 2013’s “Southeastern,” the album that first served notice of his game-changing potential. He’s learned lessons from his singer-songwriter forbears – “Different Days” is a keen sequel of sorts to Jackson Browne’s “These Days” both in its title line and its main riff – but he steps clearly into his own voice on “Cover Me Up,” which he introduced with a heartfelt story about the first time he played it for fiddler and harmony singer Amanda Shires, now his wife.

An accomplished singer-songwriter in her own right, Shires is a ringer in the 400 Unit, which also features guitarist Sadler Vaden, bassist Jimbo Hart, keyboardist Derry DeBorja and drummer Chad Gamble. They support Isbell’s material with subtle empathy when the songs need it and at full throttle when he kicks rockers such as “Super 8” and “Decoration Day” into overdrive.

The latter song was one of three in Thursday’s set that reached back to Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers days, when he was a bright young star barely out of his teens who showed promise as an occasional songwriting contributor in a band that was loaded with talent. Little did we know just how much more was on Isbell’s horizon.

South Carolina guitar-and-drums duo Shovels & Rope proved an ideal opening act, setting the tone with roots-based material that alternated between old-school rock ’n’ roll and more plaintive country-folk. Husband-and-wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst saved the best for last, hitting magical harmonies on the clear crowd favorite “Birmingham.” (A note to those attending Friday’s show: The duo began its 45-minute set at 7:45 p.m.)

SET LIST:
1. Palmetto Rose
2. Go It Alone
3. Decoration Day
4. Traveling Alone
5. The Life That Chose You
6. Different Days
7. Outfit
8. Never Gonna Change
9. Something More Than Free
10. Stockholm
11. Dress Blues
12. 24 Frames
13. Cover Me Up
14. If It Takes a Lifetime
15. Speed Trap Town
16. Super 8
17. Children of Children
ENCORE:
18. Flagship
19. Codeine

Yo La Tengo transports auditorium audience to the astral plane

Yo La Tengo at Hogg Auditorium, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock
Yo La Tengo at Hogg Auditorium, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

Yo La Tengo has traversed a lot of musical territory in 30 years of recording, but a prime entry point for a lot of their fans was the 1990 acoustic album “Fakebook,” a brilliant collection of originals and mostly obscure covers. Like the band’s career as a whole, the record seemed a hodgepodge on the surface but was united by a singular artistic vision, mood and feel.

Last year’s “Stuff Like That There” served as a 25th-anniversary nod to “Fakebook,” and for the acoustic tour that followed, core members Ira Kaplan (guitar), Georgia Hubley (drums) and James McNew (bass) brought along guest guitarist Dave Schramm, who played a pivotal role on both records. Saturday night found them at the University of Texas’ Hogg Auditorium, a venue seldom used for popular music concerts — an aspect that underscored the special nature of this evening.

Through their understated performing style and their careful selection of songs unearthed from unlikely sources, Yo La Tengo has a way of transporting its audience into another time, another place, another mood. The tempo and intensity may change from song to song, but the spell that Kaplan and Hubley weave with their vulnerable vocal soliloquies and harmonies consistently becomes magic.

Saturday’s show, which included 26 songs over two sets and an encore, ultimately was more about the new album: They played 10 of the 14 songs from ‘Stuff Like That There,” compared to just three from “Facebook.” Still, the same aura that pervades both records was present throughout the night, extended with many other tunes that fit the theme. That included beyond-the-hits covers from the likes of the Rolling Stones (“Take It or Leave It”) and Devo (“Bottled Up”) as well as heartstopping originals such as “Today Is the Day” (from 2003’s “Summer Sun”) and “Autumn Sweater” (from 1997’s “I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One”).

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They pushed the bounds of this self-described “folk show” most noticeably on “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” with curves and drones that stretched on for nearly 10 minutes. But best of all was “Our Way to Fall,” from 2000’s “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out,” which closed the second set with an exquisite melody set to lyrics that embody everything a great reflective love song should be: “I remember before we met, I remember sitting next to you, I remember pretending I wasn’t looking.”

FIRST SET:
1. Tried So Hard
2. The Point of It
3. Rickety
4. My Heart’s Not in It
5. Take It or Leave It
6. All Your Secrets
7. Friday I’m in Love
8. Autumn Sweater
9. Bottled Up
10. The Ballad of Red Buckets
11. What Can I Say

SECOND SET:
12. Butchie’s Tune
13. Alyda
14. Naples
15. Automatic Doom
16. I Can Feel the Ice Melting
17. Awhileaway
18. Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind
19. Today Is the Day
20. I Can’t Forget
21. Wasn’t Born to Follow
22. Ohm
23. Our Way to Fall

ENCORE:
24. Tom Courtenay
25. This Diamond Ring
26. Farmer’s Daughter

Christopher Cross bridges voices across eras at ACL Live

By John T. Davis
Special to the American-Statesman

Christopher Cross 1064
Photo by Gary Miller Courtesy of KLRU-TV

According to one sensibility, certain voices are immutably welded to their moment in time, never to transcend it. By that yardstick, the Beach Boys will be forever married to the sunny 1960s; the Doobie Brothers (with golden-toned vocalist Michael McDonald) evoke the tumult of Watergate and the bitter denouement of Vietnam. And Christopher Cross embodies the pinnacle of adult contemporary radio’s perfect pop production line, as much a product of the early 1980s as an episode of “Miami Vice.”

Alternatively, you could make the argument that some voices — through repetition, transgenerational affection and sheer prowess — become, in effect, timeless.

On Wednesday night at ACL Live, Cross, McDonald and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love (along with guitarist Eric Johnson) made a compelling case for the latter point of view.

The occasion was “Christopher Cross and Friends,” a special PBS taping produced by KLRU, which will yield a musical special and a DVD.

Hometown boy Cross has always retained a big reservoir of affection in Austin, though he seldom plays locally. So his appearance in front of a sold-out house, along with the chance to showcase his friends and mentors Love, McDonald and Johnson, had a special resonance to his fans.

Opening with a decades-spanning pair of tracks (“Got to Be a Better Way” from 2014’s “Secret Ladder” and “Never Be the Same” from his chart-topping 1979 debut), Cross combined deft guitar work with a crackerjack band. Throughout the evening he was abetted at various times by the “Barton Strings,” members of the Austin Symphony conducted by Peter Bay, and the Conspirare Youth Choir. (“Their grandparents are all big fans of mine,” Cross noted wryly.)

But it was the voices, echoes of a million radio hits and 45 singles past, that carried the evening. Whereas Love’s weathered voice (he turns 75 in March) tempered the Endless Summer vibe of “Good Vibrations” and “Kokomo,” and McDonald’s regal tone on “What A Fool Believes” and “Takin’ It to the Streets” has darkened and mellowed like port wine, Cross’ airy, high-tenor vocals seem almost eerily unaffected by the passage of time.

Cross never came close to repeating the massive success of his first album and the Oscar that came his way for co-writing and singing the theme to the movie “Arthur.” “Radio and tastes change and a lot of my records slipped under the water,” he noted without rancor.

But he’s never stopped making music, and his love for his craft was evident at every turn. And although the encore number, John Lennon’s “Imagine” with all hands on deck, might have been the emotional climax of the evening, it was the effervescent Wall of Sound blitz — strings cranking, choir piping, sax and guitars wailing — of Cross’ breakout hit “Ride Like the Wind” that was the musical high point for this Reviewer Of A Certain Age. You could maybe call it dated. But from my seat, it sounded timeless.

ATX hip-hop: Tank Washington goes hard

A couple years back, hip-hop powerhouse LNS Crew looked like ATX hip-hop’s next big thing. Then rapper Cory Kendrix moved to Denver and Kydd Jones decamped to Atlanta. At the end of the 2015, producer Haris Qureshi told us the crew had largely restructured as a record label. LNS crew as a whole will be back in town for South by Southwest, but rapper Tank Washington is still holding down the fort for Austin full time.

“My sons Trae and True live here so I’m probably not moving unless it’s very lucrative for me,” he said this week.

That’s good news for Austin hip-hop. His latest album “Pain,” released at the beginning of January, is a fully realized platter, loaded with thoughtful, mid-tempo meditations on the struggles of a young artist ready to break out. He recently smoked a Free Week performance at the Mohawk and he’ll be at the Weird City Hip-hop Festival on Saturday.

Photo by Priscilla Cuevas.
Photo by Priscilla Cuevas.

Austin360: You open this album with a very moving memorial for your father. What was your relationship with him like? 

Tank Washington: My dad was one of my best friends. Our bond was very strong. Our birthday is on the same day!! He taught me so much about life and pretty much everything I know, I got from him. I miss him a lot.

Did losing him drive you to finish this album?

Of course it did. I lost him in the process of completing this album. That’s why the “RIP POP” track is first. His death is still fresh on my brain since it’s only been 4 months since he passed away from cancer.

What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the Austin hip-hop scene? 

Our strength is in variety. There’s so many different sounds in Austin hip-hop that if people actually paid more attention and listened, they would have their mind blown. The weakness is consistency. I think a lot of artists get fed up with not getting anywhere. At times, they give up. I feel like we need to keep pushing and putting our music in people faces!

Sonically, this album covers a lot of ground, from soulful Southern stuff to a kind of chilly OVO vibe. Who did the production and what sounds inspire you? 

Pretty much everything on the album was produced by my crew. Kydd, Cory, and Scott Pace helped me a lot with the beats. Also, DJ Anna Love blessed me with some heaters when I went up to Denver to rock a show with Cory earlier this year. Chamothy The Great let me use the song “MT4Ts” for my album and J Money from San Antonio produced the track “Never” which is one of my favorites on the album. As far as inspiration, I’m inspired by whatever sounds good. I went in a lot of directions and sounds with this album. I don’t just have one sound and my life is like that: it’s up and down and I expressed a lot of my personal life on this album.

What is the one thing everyone should know about you as an artist?

I’m real and I’m something people should pay attention to.

What’s your signature breakfast taco?

Bacon, egg, potato, sausage and cheese with red sauce! In case you were wondering, Kydd gets potato with either bacon or sausage tacos (no egg) with green sauce. I don’t know what’s up with that but that’s what he likes.

Follow Tank Washington on Twitter @pacboitank. 

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis teach the art of uncool in Austin

The venerable Bass Concert Hall has hosted touring musicals, classical ensembles and indie rock darlings. It has now also featured a man wearing a gold cape and a Goblin King wig humping the stage.

For one oft-cheesy, always heartfelt Wednesday evening, the venue welcomed Seattle hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and their decidedly uncool brand of cool. As is custom for a Live Music Capital tour stop, the rapper (real name Ben Haggerty), backed by mostly silent beat-smith Lewis, kicked the evening off by recounting early trips to Austin for South By Southwest (“We didn’t have any shows”). This show, however, was sold out.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis perform in concert at Bass Concert Hall on January 13, 2016. (Suzanne Cordeiro photos for American-Statesman)
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis perform in concert at Bass Concert Hall on January 13, 2016. (Suzanne Cordeiro photos for American-Statesman)

The room packed a very young, very white crowd into a space ill-suited for a midweek turn-up. Water flung from plastic bottles was unnerving, and a couple of commands to jump just seemed to be a bad idea considering the tight rows. But from the first moment Macklemore appeared onstage for “Ten Thousand Hours,” his back to the audience, every stimulus was still reason for thrown hands and loosed screams, as space allowed.

With a metronome’s precision, Macklemore is able to alternate between slam-poet vulnerability and absurdist showmanship of indeterminate irony. Breakthrough hit “Thrift Shop” came early in the night, along with prop racks of vintage togs, streamers, bboys and a sense of game routine. Macklemore rapped about the capitalist exploitation of America’s youth through sneakers on “Wings,” which is not your average emcee fodder, and yet he still managed to sell stone-faced gravity.

(There’s also a tangle of racial politics entwining songs like “Wings,” as well as the rapper’s career as a whole, that could fill a million thinkpieces. Could, and has. Go go Google.)

That balance of goofy hedonism and the kind of honesty that makes your want to tip your cap brim over your eyes moved the evening along reliably. The aforementioned stage-humping emerged from the bonkers “And We Danced,” which was dedicated to David Bowie, because it’s been that kind of week. The Sugarhill-Gang-meets-Broadway spectacle of “Downtown” featured Bruno Mars-esque choreography and Foxy Shazam singer Eric Nally, a wispy, mustachioed force of vocal and noodle-limbed nature who stole the show right out from under the headliners.

A-List Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

And on the side of extreme sincerity, the well-it’s-hard-to-argue-that-it-didn’t-do-a-lot-of-good “Same Love” played to a very receptive crowd; the rapper’s dedication of the song to his daughter’s future particularly stirred up the cheers. “Growing Up (Sloane’s Song),” actually written for Macklemore’s daughter, best showcased the night’s penchant for being both hugely uplifting and accessible. (“I’m still tryna figure out who I am/I don’t wanna mess this up or do this wrong.”)

Sometime after Macklemore ran across the stage with an Irish flag as confetti rained on the audience, a runaway, wonky bass beat took the thunder out of closing number “Can’t Hold Us.” That song, with its added element of chaos, seemed a symbol of the night even if it was not a sonic treat: raucous, nimble, flamboyant and, yes, completely committed in every way.

Dave Rawlings Machine lights up Paramount with nearly 3 hours of acoustic bliss

The Dave Rawlings Machine takes a bow at the end of their Paramount Theatre show, Jan. 9, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock
The Dave Rawlings Machine takes a bow at the end of their Paramount Theatre show, Jan. 9, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

For David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, obviously some difference of concept or approach informs their decision as to whether any given album or tour will be billed under her name or his. But for their fans, any delineations ultimately evaporate. The crowd comes for exactly the same reason — to hear the couple deliver some of the finest Americana music ever made.

They’ve gone back and forth with the names lately. The new Dave Rawlings Machine album “Nashville Obsolete” follows 2009’s “A Friend of a Friend,” with four prior Welch albums and one in between. But in 20 years of watching them perform, I’ve never once seen Welch onstage without Rawlings, or vice versa, even for a single song.

One thing that does differentiate Dave Rawlings Machine performances is that while Welch-billed shows almost always are just the duo with no backing, the Machine allows other players into the mix. Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre, they brought aboard guitarist/banjo player Willie Watson (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show), bassist Paul Kowert and fiddler Tatiana Silver Hargreaves.

Though Rawlings and Welch anchored the stage together front-and-center, Rawlings’ featured role meant more diversions down fascinatingly long and winding song paths. “Nashville Obsolete” features new tunes that run 11 and eight minutes – “The Trip” and “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home),” respectively – and both were featured in a first set that also included three songs from “A Friend of a Friend.″

A second-set high point was the melding of “I Hear Them All,” a song Rawlings and Old Crow leader Ketch Secor wrote together, onto Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land is Your Land.” Paired up, the two tunes came across like one united and timeless populist anthem.

Rawlings returned to that combo approach in the first encore, weaving Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst’s “Method Acting” into Neil Young’s epic “Cortez the Killer” for another 10-minutes-plus journey of acoustic epiphany. It recalled nothing so much as the epic suites favored by Austin’s Alejandro Escovedo, who ironically was weaving similar spells with the songs of Leonard Cohen across downtown at ACL Live as the Rawlings Machine performed.

In the end, what left the most lasting impression is just how good Rawlings is as a bandleader. While he couldn’t help but shine in his customary support role with revelatory solos when Watson and Welch took lead vocal turns, he beamed proudly when Watson and Kowert sang out with illuminating emotion on verses of The Band’s “The Weight.” And as he brought everyone together around a single microphone for the a cappella closer “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” (made famous by Welch, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss on the “O Brother” soundtrack), it was as if to say, hey, this isn’t about me. Welcome to the Machine.

SET LIST:

  1. The Weekend
  2. Bodysnatchers
  3. Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)
  4. Wayside/Back in Time – Welch lead vocals
  5. To Be Young
  6. Keep It Clean – Watson lead vocals
  7. Bells of Harlem
  8. The Trip
  9. It’s Too Easy

INTERMISSION

  1. Ruby
  2. The Last Pharaoh
  3. He Will Set Your Fields on Fire
  4. Sweet Tooth
  5. I Hear Them All / This Land Is Your Land
  6. Stewball – Watson lead vocals
  7. Short Haired Woman Blues
  8. Queen Jane Approximately

ENCORE ONE

  1. Look at Miss Ohio – Welch lead vocals
  2. Method Acting / Cortez the Killer

ENCORE TWO

  1. Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad
  2. The Weight
  3. Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby

Alejandro Escovedo brings the spirit of Leonard Cohen to ACL Live

Alejandro Escovedo Experience: The Leonard Cohen Influence at ACL Live on January 9, 2016.  Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman
Alejandro Escovedo’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep: The Leonard Cohen Influence” at ACL Live on January 9, 2016. Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

By Don McLeese
Special to the Austin American-Statesman

Wherever he was, Leonard Cohen’s ears must have been burning with pleasure Saturday night as Alejandro Escovedo and a stellar, varied supporting cast paid tribute to his influence, and to the spirit of romantic poetry in music, at ACL Live.

The Canadian bard surely would have loved the young girls’ choir, serenading sweetly, “Lover, lover, lover, come back to me,” as saxophonist Elias Haslanger channeled some Sonny Rollins calypso. Cohen might have scratched his head at some of the selection, which favored the obscure over the familiar. And his ears might have been ringing as well, when the relentless guitars of Mitch Watkins (one of many Austin musicians who have toured with Cohen) and Escovedo turned “Avalanche” into a raucous rocker.

Alejandro Escovedo at ACL Live on January 9, 2016. Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman
Alejandro Escovedo at ACL Live on January 9, 2016. Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

Opening with the martial subversion of “Democracy,” Escovedo’s fourth annual birthday concert at the Moody (he turned 65 on Sunday) was best approached with an open mind and no expectations. Anyone hoping to hear his interpretive twists on Cohen staples such as “Suzanne,” “Tower of Song” or “Dance Me to the End of Love” might have been disappointed. Instead, the program titled “A Thousand Kisses Deep: The Leonard Cohen Influence” dug deep into the songbooks of both Cohen and Escovedo, illuminating the material of each through juxtaposition with the other.

Perhaps the most effective segue came when Escovedo followed former Cohen vocalist Julie Christensen’s rendition of “Anthem” (“there is a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in”) with his own “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” sounding like saloon-song Sinatra at his darkest.

Julie Christensen and Robert Patrick with Alejandro Escovedo's "Leonard Cohen Experience" cast at ACL Live on January 9, 2016.  Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman
Julie Christensen and Robert Patrick with Alejandro Escovedo’s “Leonard Cohen Experience” cast at ACL Live on January 9, 2016. Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

Actor Robert Patrick and Christensen turned “Joan of Arc” into a dramatic duet, and he later performed a monologue in which Cohen’s (too) oft-recorded “Hallelujah” briefly offered almost subliminal instrumental backing. With the superb musicianship. lighting, sound and staging providing a safety net, it was an evening that took risks and challenged listeners to make connections, in an experience that won’t likely be repeated.

“What’s happening here in this room tonight is what I love about Austin, Texas,” said a beaming Escovedo. It is also what Austin loves about Alejandro.

Former American-Statesman critic and columnist Don McLeese has been writing about Alejandro Escovedo and Austin music since 1990. He now teaches journalism at the University of Iowa.