It's hard to believe that the great PBS concert showcase series Austin City Limits (or ACL) has been doing its thing for 38 seasons now. That makes it the longest running live music program in television history.
What makes this amazing benchmark even harder to fathom, is the fact that it has done so, while maintaining such a high standard of quality. Austin City Limits began its life by mostly spotlighting artists in the more traditional country, alt-country and Americana genres. But in more recent years, it has expanded its focus, attracting younger, alternative bands like Wilco, and just two weeks ago on its 38th season premiere, Radiohead.
ACL's 38th season continues tonight with a concert pairing blues and soul greats Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples (check your local PBS listings).
But whether it is legends like Raitt and Neil Young, or alternative trailblazers like Radiohead, what probably most attracts artists of this caliber to ACL is the exacting standards of the show. ACL provides a forum particularly unique for television, where musicians are given the opportunity to express themselves artistically in a way completely unencumbered by the constraints of commercial television and its corporate advertisers.
Forget Big Bird. If Mitt Romney wins, my biggest fear (if he actually goes through with the long-running Republican talking point of defunding Public Broadcasting), would be the loss of shows like this. I Want My ACL!
But that's another story, and one probably best saved for the Op-Ed section.
Radiohead's ACL performance two weeks ago was a perfect case in point. As a genre, "alternative" music can mean a lot of things to different people, depending on who you talk to. Over the years, it has been defined by everything from the post-punk grunge of Nirvana to the heavily pierced and tattooed "nu-metal" of Korn, to all those quirky pop groups with names favoring the word "The" (Foster "The" People, Young "The" Giant, Minus "The" Bear, and so on). Most recently, "alternative" seems to have become an easy way to describe the revival of earnest, and suspiciously sixties sounding folk-rock bands (think Fleet Foxes, Avett Brothers and Band of Horses).