Another ACL TV Show Experience

Back to ACL TV!

When it rains it pours. And in a good way.

Last Tuesday, it was ACL TV show time again. I was fortunate enough (and yes, willing enough to wait in line for 45 minutes in the 100 degree heat) to land tickets to the ACL TV taping for Allen Toussaint. I invited my pal and collaborator Jessica Nelson, who by the way is a very talented Austin logo designer and graphic designer. She was a first-timer, and I got a kick out of her exclamation after the first song: “I feel like I’m in a dream!”

We got an excellent spot in the second or third rank, mosh pit, stage right, just behind a young woman who proved to be the most uninhibited dancer and Toussaint fan in the entire crowd. I’m certain she’ll show up in the broadcast.

Allen Toussaint

Now when people talk about a “music legend,” there’s usually a little bit of reserve implied. The words mean important geezer or he was a wrecking ball in his prime. Bob Dylan is a music legend, but my friends who saw him at the ACL Music Festival are not reluctant to diss the man, claiming his performance was unfocused and unpleasant to the ear.

Allen Toussaint is a music legend, but I mean that only in a complimentary way. I was a little concerned going in that the show was destined to be an oldies, “pat on the back” kind of affair, but such concerns were only the figments of an uninformed mind.

You see, Allen Toussaint is musicality incarnate.

I’m not writing this to detail the contributions of Toussaint, a New Orleans R&B institution and author of hits for artists as diverse as Glen Campbell, the Stones, himself, and yes, Devo. But the guy is totally relevant and a master showman. Genial, sharing the spotlight generously with his talented band, Toussaint gave to the Steinway and the mike at his ACL TV taping like they were his own flesh and blood. I was consistently impressed with the sweetness and tonal perfection of the band’s solos. Probably the only sour note of the evening was when he threw us a wry, remonstrative smile when some lunk kicked a plastic cup during the quiet piano-accompanied storytelling lead-in for “Southern Nights.”

The ACL TV Taping’s Brightest Moments

There are two moments that stand out for me. One was a gift from the audience to him, and the other of course was his gift to us.

During his instrumental rendition of “St. James Infirmary,” some of the audience seized on the beat and began snapping their fingers to it. Spontaneously, everyone joined in, until the soft tune was delicately accented by all our fingers in unison. Toussaint had a smile on his face as he finished the song, and he thanked us for the experience.

The other moment was a brilliant, tour de force piano solo delivered by Toussaint without any help from his band. I dread to call it a medley, because medleys are often maudlin, and this performance was the antithesis of maudlin. It soared from jazz to pop to classical to R&B, blending them all and making a persuasive wordless argument for a universal theory of musical genres. Sometimes he hinted at familiar strains, like a gentle musical nudge; other times the ear could pick out pieces of Gershwin or Paul Simon. More impressive, really, was that the performance conveyed emotions more than musical ideas – wonder, joy, sadness, and at the end, an expansive sense of adventure and possibility that I can only guess to have been a statement about Austin and the spirit of the south. A lesser musician would’ve tried to make that statement with a bit of Willie Nelson or a lick of Texas blues, but no, no, Allen Toussaint is far too skilled and subtle for that.

When we left, we heard one of the ACL TV staff talking to another, grinning broadly. He was saying, “That one was a highlight.”

Thank you, Mr. Toussaint.

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ACL TV Show Recap

An ACL TV taping is a once-in-a-lifetime experience

You ever been to an ACL TV show taping? If you live in Austin, or visit Austin occasionally, you owe it to yourself to go to an Austin City Limits taping. It’s like a backyard concert with 320 of your closest friends, listening to an amped-up performance from a musical act of national or international stature.

My friends Kevin, Katya, Centerfield Dave, and Mike and I were lucky enough to get into the Okkervil River ACL TV taping last Thursday. Lucky is definitely an operative word; five people after us, the ACL staff cut off the line of hopefuls and sent those people home empty-handed. For your reference, my ACL numbered ticket was #185.

Okkervil River’s performance

I’m not very pleased with my success as a music reviewer; I’ve done it several times and I’m never entirely satisfied with the results. Still, for your sake, dear reader, I’ll try and sum up the experience. This was Okkervil’s first ACL TV taping, but as you’d expect from an act with their pedigree, they were entirely up for the experience and showed no signs of nervousness.

They hit the stage with about ten or 12 musicians, including a string quartet (quintet?) and a few pieces of brass. Frontman Will Sheff, initially sporting a bookish pair of black-framed glasses, had the air of an affable, gawky friend amongst friends, sometimes rattling on about surviving the TV taping, always singing with passion and without visible effort. His aw-shucks demeanor was nowhere to be seen, though, in the times when it was most important, in the crucial peaks of songs and in urging the crowd for energy.

The band showcased both fresh arrangements — most notably a delicate piano-and-vocals intro to Black Sheep Boy‘s dire and delicious “For Real” — and its patented propulsive paens like “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe,” which are vibrant on headphones but deliver a visceral, full-howl punch in person, building slowly until every bandmember on stage is seemingly deconstructing their instrument in a frenzy of passion.

I was personally hoping to hear them play the tragically delicate “Savannah Smiles” off Stage Names, but there never seemed to be an appropriate time to yell out suggestions. “The President’s Dead” would’ve been nice too. Was happy to hear the lyrical “Starry Stairs” and its horn-driven lope, though. I’m not sure requests are even allowed at an ACL TV taping; the TV crew probably has to plot out all the camera moves for each song. Often the bulky cameras were gliding around at the front of the stage, inches from colliding with one another.

Was also happy to see Jonathan Meiberg of the sublime band Shearwater make an appearance for “Lost Coastlines.” Sadly they failed to mike his guitar on the first go-round, though, so Sheff announced a do-over which was gamely received.

The ACL taping environment

This was my third ACL TV taping experience (the other bands were Guided by Voices and Ben Kweller). I’m a lucky boy. I remember they miscalculated for GBV and were trying to hand out tickets on the corner of Dean Keaton and Guadalupe to get butts in the seats. Pretty sad for one of the best shows I’ve ever seen (not just at ACL TV).

Anyhow, back to Okkervil. As you’d expect with such a small crowd, instrument changes and personnel rearrangements caused mildly uncomfortable silences, during which we could hear a pronounced equipment hum. The ACL TV crew do this gig on a regular basis so I doubt any of that is going to be audible in the master signal. At any ordinary venue, I expect crowd noise and sheer size would probably overwhelm the hum to the point of inaudibility. On the plus side, I’ve seen Okkervil before at the Carousel Lounge, and I can promise you that I could hear the lyrics a heckuva lot better at the ACL TV taping.

Thumbs down, though, to Budweiser Select, the ACL sponsor who failed to provide enough beer. I didn’t expect or even want seconds, but the keg was floated well before we entered the building.

I give Sheff all the credit in the world for amping the crowd and garnering our support. Okkervil songs are hardly dance numbers, but people were up, involved. clapping, hollering, and even soul clapping when requested. The ACL TV studio is essentially a sterile environment, like a kiddie pool stage surrounded by junior-high-school risers, and it’s easy for a band to die miserably in the silence.

Some ACL TV advice

If you want a slice of some ACL TV deliciousness:

  • the “space available” tickets are all the same, no matter when you get your email notification that you’re eligible. There are no elite beggars, as I found out on Thursday. I was on the early list and thought there’d be two lines.
  • they pass out numbered tickets early, and then you have to return an hour before the show to see if you actually got in. It’s an evening-eater and frankly a pain in the ass to wait in line twice in one evening for a ticket you may or may not get. Maybe I’ll write up my suggestion for fixing this later.
  • no cameras.
  • no backpacks.
  • wear comfortable shoes because you might be standing all night.
  • the chalk line around the camera jib is a suggestion, not a rule, according to producer Terry Lickona. You can stand over the line as long as you don’t mosh your way into that big metal beam.
  • turn off your cellphone. :)
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