For more than three decades, Austin City Limits (Saturdays, 9 pm/ET, PBS) has been providing an outlet for something increasingly rare on television: live music. Saturday night, the series kicks off its 33rd season with versatile singer-pianist Norah Jones, making her second appearance in front of the iconic Austin skyline backdrop — which misleads some viewers into believing the concerts are filmed outdoors. "We get e-mails asking if this is a park outside Austin," says ACL's producer Terry Lickona. "Someone even asked if it had RV hookups."
With a rich history of showcasing acts as disparate as country outlaw Merle Haggard and indie-rock ensemble Arcade Fire (who perform later this season, on Nov. 10), the show prides itself on its variety. "Our goal is to make sure we have the right balance between what's happening today and our roots," says Lickona, who, during his 30-year run as producer and talent booker, has seen many greats pass through ACL's photograph-lined halls. Still, he cites the final episode by Stevie Ray Vaughan, the late Texas guitar virtuoso, as a personal favorite. "He was at the peak of his musical power," Lickona says. "The music was flowing through him, and the audience was just ecstatic."
To take nothing away from the great SRV, but perhaps some of the ACL crowd's trademark enthusiasm is a result of the free beer distributed by the staff before show time. "That's the lubricant that makes these audiences so enthusiastic," Lickona jokes. "But besides the beer, the secret is creating an atmosphere where the artist feels comfortable. And that's almost impossible to do in television." But by way of a relaxed taping schedule and a passionate, loyal staff, the series has done just that, eliciting brilliantly inspired performances and return visits from many acts (like Jones tonight and alt-country groundbreakers Wilco, who make their third appearance on Nov. 3). "It's great to be able to see some of these artists as they grow, not only in terms of popularity, but in terms of sophistication and their musical growth," Lickona says. "We're able to document that, each step along the way of their careers."
In this age of MySpace and iPods, Lickona is well aware of the ways people discover their music. But, unlike the major record labels, Austin City Limits is doing its best to adapt and prosper, releasing a number of classic shows on CD, DVD and via iTunes. Each September in Austin, the show also stages an eclectic, fan-friendly three-day music festival that bears its name. "We're trying to expand the platforms through which Austin City Limits reaches music fans…. I think the ACL Festival has really opened the doors to a whole new audience of younger people, who probably thought of the show as something their parents watched."
Most indicative of the series' desire to grow, however, is this month's groundbreaking on a state-of-the-art facility in downtown Austin, a few blocks away from its current digs on the University of Texas campus. Slated to open in late 2010, the venue will double as a concert venue and new studio, where future ACL episodes will tape. But what of that famous illusory backdrop? "We're going to rebuild it," Lickona says. "It's been hanging by chewing gum and string for 25 years or so. If we tried to move it, I'm afraid it'd fall apart."
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