Another Epic Austin City Limits HOF

Roy Orbison, Rosanne Cash, Neville Brothers, and LBJ honored

After more than three hours and enough opera, country, and fonk to fill three separate Austin City Limits tapings, the most important induction at Wednesday evening’s fourth annual Hall of Fame concert from the local live music beacon singled out the one honoree without an accompanying musical set: the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act.

Elvis Costello, Raul Malo, Brandi Carlile, Chris Isaak, and Trombone Shorty delivering the evening’s grand finale of “Down by the Riverside” (Photo by Gary Miller)

“If my grandfather was here, he’d think this was a great, great party,” offered Catherine Robb, granddaughter of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who signed the measure into law. LBJ Foundation executive director Amy Barbee then pointed out that the full-house gathering inside ACL Live at the Moody Theater proved the law’s efficacy.

Indeed, one could imagine an entire television special dedicated to the November 1967 establishment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which birthed PBS and by extension ACL. The Flatlanders, who the Stonewall-born 36th U.S. Commander-in-Chief famously witnessed during the inaugural Kerrville Folk Festival, could star, with attendant Lone Star country and folk all-stars building to the climax. In attendance already at last night’s HOF presentation was LBJ’s daughter Luci Baines Johnson.

Instead, another epic awards special, broadcast every New Year’s Eve, staged a show whose initial two-thirds might have merited some sort of federal proclamation from Johnson. Wink native Roy Orbison and Nashville’s first daughter Rosanne Cash branded the first half of the program in trademark ACL style. Master of ceremonies Chris Isaak practically relegated the late Dick Clark to a high school talent contest judge with unflagging humor, self-deprecation, and genuine enthusiasm.

Isaak, Brandi Carlile, and Raul Malo took turns paying vocal homage to Orbison’s baritone tenor both separately and together. Where the latter Mavericks frontman visibly mustered his smooth Miami croon to climb “Crying” and the lady of the grouping came closest to evoking the otherworldly falsetto from the Traveling Wilburys’ operatic heart, the night’s emcee stole the spotlight with goose-bump-inducing solo vocal tremors on “Only the Lonely” and even in unison with Carlile on “Dream Baby” and “Oh Pretty Woman,” which also brought back Malo. Only 1-year-old Roy Orbison III, onstage with his father, two uncles, and only other fellow grandchild to accept the trophy, radiated more natural charisma.

The Rosanne Cash segment next set off equal fireworks as guested by Elvis Costello, Neko Case, and Ry Cooder. The English New Wave star of yesteryear fell prey to ego in choosing a lesser composition he co-composed, and at first, his Canadian co-star and New Pornographer scooted too quickly through Cash’s sublime “What We Really Want is Love.” Johnny Cash’s son-in-law, Rosanne’s husband of 22 years, John Leventhal – as canny a producer, guitarist, and musician as his wife is a singer-songwriter – rightly called for a re-do, which Case then nailed. Guitar whisperer Ry Cooder strolled onto the bandwagon for a sultry, stately reading of Cash & Leventhal’s exemplary rhyme “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” whose encore “Seven Year Ache” beat the heart of five guitars: Cooder, Costello, Leventhal, and backing bandmembers Lloyd Maines and David Grissom.

After the intermission and a tip of the ivories to Fats Domino by ACL brass, Elvis Costello again had the misfortune of being miscast in leading an off-key rendition of the Fat Man’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” kick-off tune to the third and final ACL taping alum tribute – New Orleans’ Neville Brothers. All five Crescent City kings survive, but none showed, ceding a 45-minute performance to their sons, nephews, bandmembers, and ace ringers Trombone Shorty and Dr. John. “Brother Jake,” a scorching “Fire on the Bayou,” and grand finale “Down By the Riverside,” which brought back Isaak, Carlile, Costello, and Malo, bounced and brassed (hello Grooveline Horns) a dwindling, wrung-out full house right out the front doors.

Shoot, LBJ might have liked that segment best.

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