It’s a hot day in October. The summer hasn’t ended yet in Austin, Texas. Nevertheless the Austin City Limits Festival began last weekend and continues this afternoon through Sunday in Zilker Park – and thousands of people will stand in the sun to experience it. Last Friday, a smaller crowd had gathered to celebrate what has become a beloved tradition: the Austin City Limits Live Morning Broadcast.
This event occurs yearly in the mornings before the weekend of the festival. It’s a chance to see some of the Austin City Limits artists in a more intimate (and shaded) setting. For five dollars, anyone can come in and watch. The cover is donated to HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians), an organization devoted to providing “access to affordable healthcare for Austin’s low-income working musicians, with a focus on prevention and wellness.” Tacos and coffee are available; it would barely be an Austin event without this promise. They come courtesy of Kerbey Lane Cafe, a popular casual dining spot for both tourists and locals.
Austin City Limits Radio, host of the Austin City Limits Live Morning Broadcast, was formerly known as KGSR. The station has been around since 1990. KGSR established a strong presence in Austin with live concerts, broadcasts and an annual benefit compilation disc of live performances. After a buyout by Emmis Communications, the station was faced with the challenge of balancing local performances, eclectic alternatives and popular music. They recently chose to rebrand with Austin City Limits Enterprises who “licenses the name to C3 Presents/Live Nation for the ACL Music Festival and to the Downtown venue ACL Live.” Now the radio station has the additional brand value created by their association with the popular “Austin City Limits” name and is shifting their programming to artists that fall under the Austin City Limits umbrella (having played at the ACL Festival or been on the Austin City Limits TV show).
This event used to take place at the Riverside location of Threadgill’s, a “comfort food cafeteria” and live concert venue fairly close to the Austin City Limits festival. However, Threadgill’s became a victim of the rising cost of Austin rent and was forced to close down in the last year. After the closing, the Live Morning Broadcast found a new venue in Antone’s, Austin’s “Home of the Blues.”
After changing locations several times over the decades, Antone’s now rests in a somewhat small building, in the shadow of the Hilton a few blocks from the highway. The space is largely open. The Friday crowd was fairly sparse. Andy Langer, Austin City Limits radio host, was on hand to introduce the acts and spoke warmly to the radio listeners, informing them that there were plenty of tacos still available.
Up first was rising Austin star Alesia Lani. Her voice is both soothing and electric as she glides over notes. She moves and dances with festival ready energy and it’s easy to see why she made the cover of this week’s Austin Chronicle.
After Lani came charismatic country singer Rob Baird, another Austin local. Langer chatted with him about his local status and the recent attention he’s gotten (one of his songs was featured in the hit show Nashville, which helped him gain some recognition). His southern-style vocals were smooth with enunciated twangs on “Run of Good Luck,” a sad sort of song about leaving, love, steel, and leather; he fits in well in the company of Texas country.
The final act on Friday was Alejandro Aranda, who performs as Scary Pool Party. Aranda rose to fame in part after his appearance on the 17th season of American Idol, and his set was highly anticipated, especially by several ladies standing at the front who cheered wildly each time he had been mentioned throughout the morning. Langer even made note of their enthusiasm in his introduction.
Aranda appeared on stage dressed in casual leisurewear, looking like he’d just rolled out of bed, strapped on his acoustic guitar, and set out to charm. His playing is delicate, deft and quietly captivating; his vocals are smooth and include an assortment of well-placed “oooh and ahs.” Aranda performed touching ballads of millennial love and the phone screens that divide us.
The crowd was much larger on Saturday. Either word had gotten out, or everyone had been waiting for the weekend. The much buzzed-about Swedish American indie pop group Flora Cash kicked things off with one of their biggest hits, “You’re Somebody Else.” Consisting of wife-and-husband duo Shpresa Lleshaj and Cole Randall, their vocals are closely harmonized and well balanced, though their set was more acoustic and withdrawn than their typical electronic performance. Clad in their brightest festival fashions, they bounced with infectious charisma and mutual chemistry that the crowd seemed to appreciate. Their final song, “Missing Home,” was a new release; it’s a catchy pop-styled number with an approachable sense of joy and longing, a restrained drumbeat and dreamy harmonies.
Bringing a different style to the stage, Austin locals Black Pistol Fire followed, with Kevin McKeown on guitar/vocals and Eric Owen on drums. Kevin McKeown alternates between sparser lines and full blast rock energy with vocals in the blues tradition of wondering “who’s keeping ya” and keeping people satisfied. But it was McKeown’s pure unbridled energy and a crazy amount of enthusiasm that truly won the crowd over. He’s on stage. He’s on top of something. Now he’s in the crowd. Now he’s back on stage. In an ongoing banter with radio host Andy Langer, Langer asked him what it was like to perform an afternoon set in the Texas sun; McKeown admitted that it was actually very difficult.
MisterWives, or one third of them, appeared next. Normally a six piece, they played a stripped down set with just Jesse Blum on keys and vocalist Amanda (Mandy) Lee Duffy while the other members of the NYC-based band prepped for their ACL performance. As one would imagine, this approach gave the songs a completely different vibe than their more danceable and rousing original versions, particularly recent single “whywhywhy;” here, the chorus came off as less of an accusation and more of a lament. Duffy’s voice alternated between fragile softness and powerful outcries, highlighting her skill as a vocalist.
The final act – and biggest name of the day – was Grammy-Award winning contemporary Christian artist Lauren Daigle. Langer emphasized how exciting was to have someone like Daigle playing such a small, intimate venue like Antone’s. Her setup took a little longer, with three additional mics for her backup singers. She began with a brief interview, in which Langer questioned her about the pressures of being a role model and source of religious guidance. She both accepts and deflects the role, explaining that people should seek out experts for that sort of thing. Still, the nature of her responses indicated both awareness of the impact of her words and a thoughtfulness overall of their ramifications.
Daigle’s voice is husky and powerful. She gestures broadly with her notes and her assortment of bracelets jangle with each movement. She sings in smooth harmony with her three vocalists. Their chemistry is evident and the crowd is captivated; this, evidently, is the talent that made her a crossover success as highest charting female Christian performer of the last two decades.
Despite the change in venue, The Austin City Limits Live Morning Broadcast continues to be the most exiting thing that happens before noon during ACL Fest. Those who didn’t spring for tickets to the main event can experience live music from festival artists. The acts were small and big, near and far. The radios station broadcast extended the reach even farther so all in the region get to have some part of the festival magic. With genres ranging from soulful gospel to hard rock, Morning Broadcast offered a great representation of the many types of music and musicians that live and perform in Austin, Texas.
Austin City Limits continues through this weekend in Zilker Park; check out the full schedule here.