This year, the show that began in the mid-’70s with a Willie Nelson pilot episode, celebrates its 35th anniversary with two Seattle-based bands, Pearl Jam and the Dave Matthews Band, that also headlined this year’s eighth annual Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park.
The Dave Matthews Band episode (taped Aug. 10) aired on Saturday, the same night the band played the Livestrong stage at the ACL Festival. It was the first time that a band had made its debut on the TV show and festival on the same night.
Pearl Jam’s episode, which airs Nov. 21, was taped Saturday night at the historic studio, a day before the band was scheduled to close the festival with a Sunday night performance at the Livestrong stage.
I attended Saturday’s Pearl Jam taping with fewer than 400 other guests, among them actors Meg Ryan and Laura Dern. Pearl Jam rocked the house with a two-hour performance that will be edited into an hourlong show that fans won’t want to miss.
It was electric, like the group’s recent tour kickoff concert in Seattle, though far more intimate. More about the taping in a moment.
The KLRU studio was recently designated an American music landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with the crossroads in Clarksdale, Miss. (the birthplace of blues), the Whisky-a-Go-Go in Los Angeles and the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens performed their last concert.
“Austin City Limits” is the longest-running music series on TV. This season, the show will feature such acts as Ben Harper and Relentless7 Oct. 10 (taped in March during the SXSW conference and festival), Kenny Chesney Oct. 17, Elvis Costello Nov. 7 and Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel Nov. 14 (commemorating the show’s first season in the mid-’70s).
The spartan KLRU studio looks like a small, college gymnasium with bleachers, a camera boom as big as a T. Rex and a backdrop of the Austin skyline behind the stage. In 2011, the program will move to a new, state-of-the-art studio in downtown Austin.
Before introducing Pearl Jam, Terry Lickona, the longtime host and producer of “Austin City Limits,” announced the evening’s special guests: a group of “Wounded Warriors” who had served in Iraq.
Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder came out first for an acoustic segment featuring “Walking the Cow” by Texas songwriter Daniel Johnston, “Just Breathe” and “The End” from the band’s new hit album, “Backspacer.”
“Does it sound right to you?” Vedder asked the audience as he fumbled with a guitar. The answer was a resounding, “Yes!”
“Well, I guess that’s what counts,” he said good-naturedly. “But I want to enjoy it too, selfishly.”
With band members Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Matt Cameron and keyboardist Boom Gaspare on stage, Pearl Jam launched into a spirited set of rockers and ballads. Vedder was in a bouyant mood, telling a humorous story about Johnny “Guitar” Watson before the band played a blistering “Johnny Guitar,” also from the new album.
Vedder teased the trim and fit McCready, who once played in a glam-rock band called Shadow, saying he was the “only guy who could wear Spandex and still be baggy.”
Vedder, occasionally swigging from a bottle of red wine, was clearly pleased with the sound and vibe of the room, despite minor glitches.
“This room, it’s like driving a Buick,” he said affectionately, to hearty laughter from the audience.
Vedder was far more reverent when he talked about the Wounded Warriors.
“I consider it an honor to be able to play for you here tonight,” he said.
He then began a rambling, heartfelt monologue about compassion and tolerance, saying, “Maybe the only thing we should be intolerant of is intolerance.”
His comments preceeded a raucous version of “Do the Evolution” that animated the entire band.
Greeting a friend from Austin in the audience, Vedder told a story of climbing the scaffolding on the Texas state capitol building during a renovation in the ’90s.
“Got Some,” from “Backspacer,” featured Cameron’s thundering drum work.
After a short break, Vedder invited Ben Harper to the stage for a wild version of “Red Mosquito,” featuring Harper on lap steel. The band roared to life for a song that will be among many highlights in the Nov. 21 episode.
It was Harper’s fourth appearance at the ACL studio; his first was with Taj Mahal years ago.
Another amazing moment was when Vedder invited the “ACL Choir,” as he called the audience, to join in on the chorus of the tender ballad “Better Man.”
Vedder joked that the studio director had offered Pearl Jam the gig as house band, and the group broke into a kind of hotel-lounge segment that brought laughter from the crowd.
The taping ended with McCready’s powerful interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.” The Wounded Warriors placed their right hands over their hearts, along with much of the audience. It was an amazing finale.
I couldn’t help wishing that Seattle had a music TV series like “Austin City Limits,” in light of the abundance of local talent in the Northwest and the volume of national touring acts.