Jon Batiste’s “Austin City Limits” Debut is an All-Time Highlight
Over the decades, âAustin City Limitsâ has had shows that clearly stand out among the hundreds of episodes aired by the show. Tom Waits in 1979. Leonard Cohen in 1989. Tribute to Townes Van Zandt in 1998. Dixie Chicks in 2001. Allen Toussaint in 2009. Kendrick Lamar in 2015.
Add Sunday night’s recording by New York Dynamo via New Orleans Jon Batiste to the shortlist. The show’s executive producer, Terry Lickona, echoed what we already knew at the end of a nearly two-hour set by Batiste and his group of 18 musicians: “It was one of the most incredible shows I have ever seen on this scene.”
Perhaps better known as the conductor of late night TV host Stephen Colbert, Batiste has been preparing all his life for this musical supernova moment. Raised in a prominent New Orleans musical family, he attended the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, releasing his first album as a teenager.
An impressive career embellished with landmark collaborations has unfolded over the past decade, culminating with Batiste sharing an Oscar with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross earlier this year for their work on the 2020 Disney film âSoulâ.
Batiste’s new record, “We Are,” released in March, was the focus of Sunday’s recording. Ten members of the group took to the stage before Batiste, creating a groove for their leader’s grand entry on the album’s title track. Dressed in a red suit and cowboy hat, Batiste strutted and strutted as he sang the tune, blasting the crowd and his group into a frenzy.
Batiste moved to the piano on the left of the stage to begin the second rhythmic piece “I Need You”, but soon enough he was back on his feet, grabbing a saxophone midway through for a lively solo. “Oh, my lord!” he exclaimed at the end of the song, and everyone in the crowd was there with him.
Then the group doubled in size. Lickona had hinted in her introduction that a second-line New Orleans procession would take place at some point, with “ACL” volunteers handing out white handkerchiefs to those on the floor standing for the opportunity. Suddenly the Hot 8 Brass Band paraded among them, taking the already festive affair to another level.
Quite quickly, Batiste was himself in the crowd (playing a melodica), one of the two times during the show where he walked through the audience to get closer to the spectators. On the pre-show roster, from which Batiste deviated or expanded frequently, this section was rated as a âLove Riot Moment,â which describes it quite well. (Other long passages later in the show were listed as âJam Momentâ and âJazz Moment.â)
Batiste turned to a hip-hop groove with the quick lyrics of “Whatchutalkinbout”, one of the most vivid tracks on the new album. In the middle of the song, guitarists Brandon Niederauer and Ari O’Neal took center stage for a gloriously theatrical six-string duel, one of the many occasions where Batiste gave the limelight to his impressive bandmates.
All the energy accumulated until the moving hymn “Tell the truth”, the central point of the show punctuated by a mission statement from Batiste. “I really believe in it,” he said. “It’s not a concert for me. It’s a spiritual practice.”
The second half of the performance followed a different path. First, Batiste left to allow his main band to shine, with bassist conductor Thad Tribbett, drummers Joe Saylor and Lunar Rae, percussionist NÃªgah Santos and keyboardist David Grant stretching out on solos. .
Eventually everyone came back – first backing vocalists Tamara Jade, Desiree DesZ Washington and Susan Carol, then finally Batiste, who made their way to the piano for a fascinating medley. Playfully working in pieces of everything from classical to ragtime to “Chopsticks”, Batiste demonstrated the breadth of his range and interests as a pianist, making it clear that he recognized no walls between the songs. musical genres.
Batiste hit deeper tones with âSt. James Infirmary Blues,â a Grammy-nominated track from his 2018 album âHollywood Africansâ, and clips from the movie âSoulâ before delivering another grand slam. Austin’s great guitarist Gary Clark Jr. stepped out backstage, receiving a warm hug from Batiste before settling down with the band on the new album’s “Cry” and stepping out for a scathing solo in the middle of the song. .
“Freedom”, another track from “We Are”, proved to be a fitting finale with the whole group before Batiste emerged for a solo-piano encore. The tender “Don’t Stop”, which closes his 2018 album, was like a blessing to all that came before it. âThere’s a reason you’re here,â he sang passionately before a suddenly muffled crowd. “You have nothing to fear, so don’t stop.”
A somewhat disappointing passage followed after the concert ended. Lickona reappeared to explain that a faulty smoke machine at the start of the show had marred Batiste’s entrance, although those of us in the crowd probably never would have known. The band covered the first two songs, but part of the crowd was gone, and it was impossible to re-pack that same energy (both for the audience members who stayed and for the musicians on stage). Hoping they stick with the original take from the TV broadcast.
Batiste rarely played Austin; his last appearance here was in 2014 at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. he is play at ACL Fest this year, an appearance over two weekends only on Sunday, October 10. With its performance on tap, this final day of this year’s festival deserves to be considered the hottest ticket of the entire race.