Coldplay Hits 'Austin City Limits'

On Saturday night, the long-running PBS show Austin City Limits deviates from its American roots and country fare to offer an entire hour of the British pop band Coldplay. Producers say it marks a step in a new direction, but some fans are worried. David Brown of member station KUT reports.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

After 31 years on the air, "Austin City Limits" has become something of an institution. Lyle Lovett's been a guest; B.B. King, Lionel Hampton and hundreds of others have performed on the show. For artists who aren't necessarily concerned with ratings, the no-frills presentation of the PBS TV show has a special appeal. But this weekend, the show takes a noticeable step in a different direction. From member station KUT in Austin, David Brown reports.

DAVID BROWN reporting:

It's a simple recipe: an intimate hour of music taped live before a studio audience. So what's one of the world's biggest rock bands doing on a stage like this?

(Soundbite of music)

BROWN: If you're British superstars Coldplay and you can sell out a stadium in a few hours, if you have open invitations to perform before millions watching "Saturday Night Live"...

(Soundbite of music)

BROWN: ...why pass all that up to come down to Texas to appear on a public television music show?

Mr. CHRIS MARTIN (Lead Singer, Coldplay): Just because we're big doesn't mean we don't care about what's good. Do you know what I mean?

BROWN: Chris Martin is Coldplay's lead singer.

Mr. MARTIN: Something about "Austin City Limits" is really important to us because it's, like, what we believe in.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) Oh, brother, I can't--I can't get through

We believe in it as an idea, and so that's why we do it. It doesn't matter how big we are. You know, we're just very proud to be doing it.

BROWN: And maybe savvy, too. For Chris Martin and company, appearing on "Austin City Limits" isn't really about reaching a certain number of eyeballs, as they say in television. It's more about how a band that once positioned itself as alternative can appear to stay that way now that it's become such a mainstream commodity.

Ed Bailey is vice president for brand development at "Austin City Limits."

Mr. ED BAILEY (Vice President for Brand Development, "Austin City Limits"): And quite frankly, I think they were shrewd enough to know that we do something that no one else in the industry does, and that's present 60 minutes of non-interrupted concert performance. And I think they're creative instincts said, you know, `That's the way we want people to see how we do our music, and no question that we're not here to shill for shampoo.'

BROWN: Which would seem to explain why it's good for Coldplay. But is it good for one of public broadcasting's trademark music programs? In 2003, "Austin City Limits" became the first TV show to receive the Medal of Arts Award, praised for preserving a rich legacy of authentic American music. For decades now, "ACL" has been one of the very few national broadcast outlets for performances by celebrated roots artists, blues and bluegrass players, Cajun and zydeco bands, musicians who matter to American music but who might not have other opportunities to be showcased nationally, unlike, say, British pop stars.

Mr. JOE NICK PATOSKI (Music Journalist): This does raise good issues because are they taking up someone's spot, someone that's up-and-coming and deserves exposure?

BROWN: Veteran music journalist Joe Nick Patoski lives near Austin and writes about Texas music.

Mr. PATOSKI: You must serve the audience that thinks they know what "Austin City Limits" is all about. You know, it isn't just generic. There is a feel and a vibe to it that other music television shows don't have.

BROWN: To be fair, Patoski points out that there have been debates over the direction of the program going all the way back to season two. For instance, some used to worry "Austin City Limits" was leaning too far to the Nashville sound. Now that the show has the clout to attract megastars and a desire to do it, some may wonder what might happen to the character of a music program that's been distinguished by low-intensity production values and non-mainstream talent. Terry Lickona has been producer of "Austin City Limits" since 1977.

Mr. TERRY LICKONA (Producer, "Austin City Limits"): There has been this perception of "Austin City Limits" as a primarily regional or Texas-based or, even more stereotypical, a country music show. I think what's happened in the past few years is that we have made a conscious effort to try to cultivate not only a different artist base, but also a different fan base--not different, but more of an eclectic mix. I'm much more impressed by a lot of these indie rock bands or younger artists and bands who are coming up today than I am some of the more traditional so-called roots-based music. In my mind, that's where the quality music is being made.

(Soundbite of "Yellow")

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) Look at the stars. Look how they shine for you.

BROWN: Lickona is quick to point out that the show has presented rock and pop acts in the past, including the likes of R.E.M. and Beck, but never anything with the commercial appeal of a Coldplay. In fact, Lickona wonders if now he might have better luck with a project he's been working on for years, trying to convince Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan to make their debut performances. For NPR News, I'm David Brown in Austin.

(Soundbite of "Yellow")

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) And it was called yellow. So then I took my turn, oh, what a thing to have done, and it was all yellow, yeah.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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