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On Cusp of 40, ‘Austin City Limits’ Mixes Jeff Bridges, Sheryl Crow With Video-Streaming Experiments

“Austin City Limits” is humming an interesting tune: The PBS musical staple is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary with a landmark two-hour TV special. Yet its top producer sees a day when digital transmission of video and audio plays a significantly greater role in how the show operates.

“The day may come when as many or more people will be watching our show online as will be watching it on TV,” said Terry Lickona, the show’s longtime producer. “ACL,” as it is often called, has already begun streaming its taping sessions, which often make it to television in edited form six months later. “It’s difficult to experiment, but I think that sense of immediacy and immediate gratification is something people want to experience, and so why not make that possible?” Even so, he acknowledged, PBS “is our home base, and hopefully always will be.”

With that in mind the show will mount an all-star benefit concert in June, and will include footage from it in a two-hour special set to air in October on PBS. “KLRU Presents: Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years” will take place Thursday June 26, and be incorporated into a two-hour primetime special, “Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years,” scheduled to run October 3 between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. on PBS. The concert will be hosted by Jeff Bridges and Sheryl Crow, and will feature Alabama Shakes, Gary Clark Jr., Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen, Kris Kristofferson, Lloyd Maines, Bonnie Raitt, T Bone Burnett, Jimmie Vaughan, Grupo Fantasma and Doyle Bramhall II along with musical performances from the hosts.

The lineup – a heady dose of rootsy American leavened by the modern blues workof Gary Clark Jr. and the nine-piece Latin fusion band Grupo Fantasma – articulates the show’s appeal. Since the mid-1970s, “ACL” has tried to offer viewers a means of discovering new acts that often hail from genres that aren’t included in mainstream Top 40. At first, the show concentrated on Texas music – its 1974 pilot spotlighted Willie Nelson – but that stance has evolved significantly as the show matured, Lickona said. A recent taping feature Beck (above, pictured).

“The show never would have survived, let alone thrived. if we didn’t change – like anything else in the world,” he said. “We went through different phases, I would say – from the focus on Austin and Texas music, we started leaning toward country music. During one point in time, it featured a lot of Nashville-based country acts, and then we became more roots-oriented, which I guess you’d call Americana music. And in the 90s was when we really began to contemporize our musical entrée,our menu.” The show would eventually branch out to indie artists, ranging from the well-known like Arcade Fire and Radiohead to smaller players like Sufjan Stevens.

According to Lickona, “ACL” came up on the power of highlighting the fringe early on in its tenure. Tom Waits made an appearance during the fourth season of “Austin City Limits,” providing a decidedly different sound from the coterie of artists – think John Prine, Leon Redbone and Asleep At The Wheel – the program had regularly featured.

“Tom Waits was about as different as it gets, compared to Willie or Townes Van Zandt, or some of the early performers,” he said.
The program has stayed alive even as the landscape for TV shows featuring concerts has grown more difficult to navigate. The shows largely run on smaller networks like Palladium, a Viacom cable outlet, or Sundance, which ran an eclectic program called “Spectacle” hosted by Elvis Costello. CMT continues to run its “Crossroads” series featuring collaborations between songwriters of different generations.

Yet for as much interest accorded the Billboard Music Awards or the Grammys, live music (or musical performances taped live) is typically not a staple of bigger broadcast outlets, save the musical guests on talk shows, “Saturday Night Live” and the summer concert series that have become a staple for “Today” and “Good Morning America.”

Chalk it up to the swift rise of digital music. iTunes, Rdio, Spotify, Pandora and the like make music into a very personal experience that can be shared via social media. Fans don’t need a TV show to capture the thrill of finding a new song or a new band.

Yet they still want “a sense of discovery,” Lickona said. “There are still enough music fans out there who appreciate it, especially if it’s coming from a musician who never gets to perform more than one song on television,”he added. “It’s kind of unique. After 40 years, it’s still unique.”

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