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Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, October 1, 2010, Music

Austin City Limits: 35 Years in Photographs

photographs by Scott Newton; edited by Terry Lickona and Scott Newton
University of Texas Press, 204 pp., $40

Past John Mayer's rote foreword, the photographer's preface for this musical family album plants the seed that grows with every page turned: the perennial idea/suspicion that all artists channel – whether knowingly or "blissfully unaware" – a higher spirit. Scott Newton's "quixotic quest of trying to make the invisible visible" makes its case beginning with My Morning Jacket under the Austin City Limits legend on the front, Ray Charles defying gravity on the back, and last year's storming Austin City Limits Music Fest taping of Pearl Jam on the inside front cover. The 36-year-old PBS centerfold counts Newton its photo documentarian since 1979, the year after producer Terry Lickona took his place in the control booth. A-Z of their work together bookends with Willie Nelson ("simple equation," writes Likona, "no Willie Nelson = no Austin City Limits"), but alights the Arcade Fire in 2007. Late Buena Vista Social Club pianist Ruben Gonzalez grinning after an unforgettable 2001 taping lenses a stolen shot quality, like the close-up of plastic dinosaurs atop R.E.M.'s amps. Now iconic images of Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, and Roy Orbison deal themselves in among a guitar gallery that somehow misses its potential, a shoe gallery that fulfills its inspiration, and the drum circle that almost wins if not for Susan Voelz in the strings roundup. There's not enough cleavage to Dolly Parton, though that's wardrobe, not Newton, and Robert Plant misses the mark, though the taping itself was titanic. Newton shoots a library every performance, but Neko Case isn't particularly flattered, and for Cat Power, the crouching/smiling shot should have switched places with the open-mouth mic shot to its right. Neither matters much in light of Elvis Costello's hot, tired visage revealing more about the man than 1,000 of his songs. Sheryl Crow gets better than she deserves, and the Dixie Chicks might have filled four pages instead of the customary two. John Fogerty levitating belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, where a number of these pictures spent time earlier this year. Duffy's light-and-shadows gatefold pops up unexpectedly effective, Patty Griffin is flaming red, and Etta James kills it again. One hair-and-shadows vertical shot of Norah Jones cuts glass. Latin American rock machetes a swath (Cafe Tacuba, Manu Chao, Alejandro Escovedo), and black is still beautiful (B.B. King, Femi Kuti). Ralph Stanley stares into your soul from the legends network, which must include the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, puffing out his tuxedo shirt, and Lyle Lovett looking like a stork. Unexpected surprises: Pat Metheny and Mos Def. Less Joss Stone and more Loretta Lynn, por favor, but St. Vincent lives up to her moniker. Them Crooked Vultures, with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones sneering in musical affection at the dudery of Josh Homme, shakes its page audibly. Locals don't receive a disproportionate share – neither Stevie Ray Vaughan nor Lucinda Williams are at their best – but the penultimate photograph, the staff photo, may well be the book's crowning achievement.

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