by Morgan Davis
In honor of David Letterman’s retirement, we decided to look back at 9 of the best performances by Austin artists on the show, ranging from Austin pioneers like Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan to newer sensations like Black Joe Lewis and Shakey Graves. Let us know who else you’ve enjoyed seeing on the program!
Poi Dog Pondering- “Everybody’s Trying”
As one of the earlier Austin acts to make an appearance on Letterman, Poi Dog Pondering helped bring attention to the scene with “Everybody’s Trying,” a track that had them showing off a distinctly Texas-flavored take on college rock. The band looked like an Americana Dexys Midnight Runners, both in dress and sheer number of personnel, but “Everybody’s Trying” is a deceptively quaint and humble song, an expression of the then relatively small Austin community, long before it blew up into what it is today.
Willie Nelson- “Night Life”
Austin ambassador Willie Nelson has made a number of appearances on Letterman over the years, and it’s easy to see the respect and admiration Dave and Paul Shaffer have for the country legend, giving him room not only to perform but to also talk shop afterwards. While Willie’s more recent performances on Letterman have seen him paired with everyone from Ryan Adams to Billy Joe Shaver to Snoop Dogg, this classic performance of “Night Life,” featuring the Late Night band in tow, easily ranks as one of his best, finding Willie in peak form and dressed to the nines.
Spoon- “The Underdog”
Being one of Austin’s most successful indie acts, Spoon have been guests on Letterman a number of times, but their performance of “The Underdog” is an easy favorite, featuring a mostly acoustic Spoon paired with a horn section and percussionists. Britt Daniel comes across as unnaturally cool and collected despite nearly being swallowed up by the sheer number of musicians surrounding him. It’s easy to see why the single did so well for the band, as even in this altered form it’s irresistibly catchy.
And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead- “Rest Will Follow”
For a unique Letterman guest spot where the show was hosted by Paul, Austin’s preeminent noisemakers Trail of Dead came packing not one but two drummers. Paul went above and beyond with his introduction of the band, giving himself a demonic voice modulation as he welcomed them to the stage. Despite the extra rhythmic intensity, “Rest Will Follow” is one of Trail of Dead’s prettier songs, closer in mood and intensity to a Sunny Day Real Estate track than their more Sonic Youth-indebted preceding work. The performance was solid enough to get Paul to say at the end “Finally! A band with two drummers and they know how to use them!”
Black Joe Lewis- “Come to My Party”
While promoting his Electric Slave album, Black Joe Lewis popped up on Letterman to show off his single “Come to My Party,” complete with a group of Austin horn players in tow to back him up. Though the performance has Lewis’ famous guitar curiously low in the mix, it’s nonetheless a high energy performance that makes it clear that Lewis is one of Austin’s best blues and soul performers. By the end, even the notoriously stoic Letterman is enthusiastically demanding the audience give Lewis an even bigger reception.
Shakey Graves- “Dearly Departed”
Earlier this year, Shakey Graves was one of the last Austin acts to debut on Letterman, prompting Dave to sing the praises of Shakey’s hometown before he and his band could launch into their addictive single “Dearly Departed.” What makes this such an excellent performance, outside of Dave’s enthusiasm for the ATX, is the obvious chemistry between Shakey and Esme Patterson as they perform this cheerfully haunted duet. Bouncily rhythmic but also stuffed full of rambunctious slide guitar work and excitable vocals, “Dearly Departed” helped prove why Letterman is right to say Austin is such a great city.
Gary Clark Jr.- “Next Door Neighbor Blues”
For his second appearance on Letterman, Gary Clark Jr. ditched his band and provided a one man set, playing drums with his feet while offering some gritty electric blues. Most of Gary Clark Jr’s Letterman gigs have been with the backing of a full band but this solo clip is a better showcase for his blues genius, providing an unfiltered look at his vocal and guitar talents and in the actual episode, after Gary Clark Jr has wrapped up, you can hear Letterman talking to Paul about the complexity of the performance.
Asleep at the Wheel- “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”
Austin Grammy winners Asleep at the Wheel partnered up with former Austinite Kat Edmondson to cover Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ classic “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” on Letterman recently, connecting Texas’ Western Swing music with the 21st century. Edmondson’s jazzy vocals are a twist on the more yodel-centric material of the Texas Playboys, but Asleep at the Wheel’s musicality is unquestionably Texan, though Paul Shaffer does join in on keys to make the mix even more eclectic.
Stevie Ray Vaughan- “Tightrope”
Austin guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan only made a few appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, but he made every one of them count. “Tightrope” stands out, though, as one of his most energetic guest spots, a harder blues number that even caused Paul Shaffer to get a little over excited on the keys while backing SRV up. SRV was already a star in 1989, when this guest appearance took place, but it nonetheless helped pave the way for a number of Austin performers to share the legendary Letterman stage.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.