Austin City Limits has begun its 31st season, and if the first few shows are any indication, it's going to be a great year. For those unfamiliar with the format, music legends as well as bands that have recently appeared on music's radar perform uninterrupted on a simple soundstage in front of a backdrop featuring the Austin skyline. Some shows feature one artist for the full hour, but most split the hour between two acts.
The season began October 8th with an episode featuring Jack Johnson and Rilo Kiley. Since then, shows have featured Alison Krauss and Union Station with Kathleen Edwards and R&B legend Etta James. This weekend (check your local listings), Ben Folds and Ray LaMontagne each share half an hour of their soulfully written and heartfelt music.
Sitting center-stage at a majestic grand piano, Ben Folds opens his set with an upbeat, harmony-infused version of The Cure's "In Between Days." From there, he delves into his own repertoire, including a couple beautiful songs written for his son and daughter and an energetic take on "Zak and Sara," which brought to mind Billy Joel's "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." He closes his set with an audience sing-along during which he leaps on top of his piano and conducts the audience like a manic symphony composer. It's a funny gimmick until the audience buys into it, and then it's evidence of a very special bond that he is able to create through his music.
Next, Ray LaMontagne uses his stripped-down arrangements and husky whisper of a voice to expose his open and vulnerable thoughts and feelings. The same Tosca Strings who recently concluded their two-year world tour with David Byrne support on a few songs, including the seemingly omnipresent "Trouble." The highlight of the set is the closer - LaMontagne's solo rendition of the unreleased "Heaven is a Honky-tonk," which he explains was inspired by the passing of Townes Van Zandt and Johnny Cash.
The season will continue with episodes featuring The Killers and Spoon, John Prine and Amos Lee, Franz Ferdinand and What Made Milwaukee Famous, Pixies, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Lyle Lovett and Jamie Cullum, Michael McDonald and Joss Stone, Elvis Costello, Blues Traveler and Cafe Tacuba, Ryan Adams and Tift Merritt, Widespread Panic, and Gretchen Wilson and Miranda Lambert.