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In its 36 seasons on the air, only two artists have made a dozen appearances on Austin City Limits: Willie Nelson, who taped the pilot in 1974, and Lyle Lovett, who got to know the studio from the audience before he performed on its venerated stage.
But it was Lovett who made the last stand on November 8, when the longest running music program on television taped its final episode in KLRU-TV’s Studio 6A.
In February, the show will leave behind its University of Texas studio — designated an official rock ‘n’ roll landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum — and move to its new, larger digs at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, connected to a new W hotel in Downtown Austin.
“We’re savin’ Willie for the new venue,” executive producer Terry Lickona announced in his introduction. Nelson is an investor in the new space, which also will be used for non-ACL concerts; statue of the Red Headed Stranger will even grace the theater’s entrance (whether it will sport shorn locks or braids hasn’t been revealed). But no one among the 320 audience members lucky enough to be in the room was complaining. In addition to sharing a special moment in the history of a show that put Austin on the map even before it became “The Live Music Capital of the World,” they got commemorative T-shirts, chocolate cake from a bakery owned by Dan Rather’s daughter, Rebecca, and the free beer that, Lickona joked, has been the secret to the show’s success — not to mention a flawless performance by Lovett and his band.
Though a liquor license will preclude beer giveaways in the new space, the intent is to create the same intimacy that gives the show its singular appeal. The new studio’s footprint is the same size as the old one; seating is stacked vertically to allow up to 2,700 people for regular concerts. For tapings, it will likely be configured for a maximum of 800, but can be kept smaller as well; balcony sections will be curtained off depending on audience size. The idea is that artists like John Mellencamp, who is booked for an April performance, can piggyback it with a smaller-audience taping, as many do during the ACL-spawned Austin City Limits Festival.
Artists like Coldplay and Pearl Jam may get the full house, but ideally, some artists will still get to play in the configuration that feels like sharing a large living room with 319 of your closest friends. And though the new cityscape backdrop, to be revealed during a fundraising gala in February, will contain more highrises, as the city’s real skyline does, it’s a safe bet that TV viewers will still wonder whether the show takes place outdoors.
During a night full of reminiscences, Lovett paid loving tribute to the studio and the history recorded there.
“I started hangin’ out here just after I started walkin’, it seems like,” he said. “It’s an incredible honor to get to be asked to tape the last show. What an incredible good time I’ve had every time I’ve been here.”
This time, he brought the players on his latest album, Natural Forces, including legendary drummer Russ Kunkel and bassist Leland Sklar, plus backing vocalists Sweet Pea Atkinson, Sir Harry Bowens, Willie Greene Jr. and Arnold McCuller. He also beckoned Ray Benson — whose band Asleep at the Wheel taped the first post-pilot ACL episode — for an unplanned duet on “Blues for Dixie,” and gave shoutouts to audience celebs including Lance Armstrong and Entourage star Jeremy Piven, with whom Lovett appeared in the Robert Altman film The Player.
During a sentimental finale, Lovett commanded the staff to join the band onstage for a sing-along version of “Closing Time,” followed by a group-hug moment.
“Here’s to another 36 years,” he said.
Ticket-coveting Austin City Limits fans undoubtedly will drink to that — even if they have to buy a beer to do it.