It’s opening week at the swank new Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater and there’s a definite buzz around town to check it out. It’s a bit of a long-winded and confusing name for a venue, but it reveals the theater is the new home for tapings of the famous ACL television show. It’s a 2,700 capacity state-of-the-art theater featuring a wide open floor space, a mezzanine above it and an upper deck with sharp viewing angles above that.
It’s a major upgrade from the Austin Music Hall, the comparable size venue just a few blocks away that has now been turned into a big white elephant. The sound there isn’t great, whereas this new concert palace is first class all the way. The drinks may be a bit overpriced, but there’s an entire bar dedicated to Tito’s vodka, an Austin-made spirit that’s been taking the country by storm. If you’ve never sipped a Tito’s and Sweet Leaf sweet tea cocktail (an iced tea also made in Austin), you’re in for a treat.
Willie Nelson opened the venue the previous weekend and now there are several benefit shows with discounted tickets to help out the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. It was a golden opportunity to see two great bands tonight, with a party that will visit the sounds of both New Orleans and Caracas. Los Amigos Invisibles out of Venezuela and Trombone Shorty from the Big Easy are on a co-headlining tour that seems like a great match. The two bands have vastly different sounds, but both specialize in delivering a festive dance party.
Trombone Shorty and his band Orleans Avenue open the show tonight and the audience is clearly ready to get down. The band has a high powered “Nawlins”-style funk sound that recalls peers like Galactic and seminal influences such as the Meters. But dynamic frontman Troy Andrews (aka Trombone Shorty) has got the band well on its way to developing its own flavor, which he calls “supafunkrock”. The set is only a few songs old when Andrews strips off his button-down shirt and tie, because it’s getting hot in here thanks to the energy the band is putting out.
A stellar rendition of Alan Toussaint’s classic “On Your Way Down” features a particularly fat groove. Covered on the band’s 2010 Backatown release, this song sounds tight and funky as Andrews synchs his horn lines with his two saxmen. Then the next couple of tunes feature Andrews on trumpet, an instrument he’s just as skilled on as trombone. “Get Your Groove On” shines with a hot cutting duel between Andrews on trombone and guitarist Pete Murano, with the pair trading hot licks on the funky jam. “Right to Complain” is another highlight, a bluesy rocker featuring bold horn lines and some socially conscious lyrics about changing the world that make it one of the deepest tunes of the modern era (which continues a long New Orleans tradition).
At the end of the set, the band wows the crowd with an instrument-changing jam that finds Andrews on drums, Murano on sax, drummer Joey Peebles on guitar, bassist Mike Ballard on trumpet, percussionist Dwayne Williams on trombone and the two saxmen on bass and percussion. The band rips through an impressive jam before switching back and closing the set with “Something Beautiful”, the band’s soulful hit tune recorded with Lenny Kravitz. The crowd has been entranced for 90 minutes as Trombone Shorty makes it clear they have quite a bright future.
Formed in their hometown of Caracas before re-locating from Venezuela to New York City, Los Amigos Invisibles may still be flying under the radar to many. But they’ve been rocking for 20 years with all six original members and even inspiring a forthcoming feature-length documentary. The crowd is definitely amped up from the opening set, and the band takes advantage by delivering their own 90-minute set of festivity that covers some wide stylistic ground. There’s funk, disco, Latin rock, acid jazz and psychedelia, all mixed into a rather original sonic stew.
The band warms up with a percussion-oriented song that gets a boost from some fat synth runs by keyboardist Armando Figueredo. Another tune features more of a psychedelic groove and a hot solo from guitarist José Luis Pardo, who demonstrates great chops all night pulling out of his thick classic rock playbook. Bassist José Rafael Torres keeps things funky all night. He looks a bit like Sam the bartender from the popular vampire show True Blood which lends some extra vibe for fans of the show.
Vocalist Julio Briceño sings almost exclusively in Spanish, so the lyrics are pretty much lost in translation, but he clearly knows how to keep a party going. The set keeps picking up steam throughout, notably on a rocking jam that recalls vintage Santana. Guitarist Pardo rips up some melty-hot Santana-style licks in his solo evoking the best of the multi-dimensional warrior himself. Pardo also makes great use of effects, laying down some psychedelic delay parts over another big groove to create some unique atmosphere. Figueredo stars again on a funky tune with his electric piano conjuring a Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters vibe from the early ’70s, much to the delight of the dancing audience. He then throws down a monster keyboard solo to drive the jam higher.
The band makes great use of classic rock teases to bridge the language barrier, such as when they segue into EMF’s early ’90s hit “Unbelievable”, which cranks the party up another notch. Later, Pardo uses his guitar to tease the opening riffs of the KISS 1979 hit “I was Made for Loving You”, which the band then uses as a launch pad into their own sexy funk groove. Pardo keeps the ’70s flashbacks coming when he plays the famous notes from the alien encounter in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an intro into a high-energy psyche-dance jam.
By the time it’s all over, there’s nothing but smiles as music fans head out into the balmy and still relatively young Austin evening. Two great party bands for one low bargain price at the hottest new venue in town has been a formula for double happiness.