By John T. Davis
Though the year is still young, 2016 has been unusually fraught with loss for Austin’s music community. Starting with the death in January of deejay emeritus and bandleader Paul Ray and cruelly punctuated by the passing of South By Southwest co-founder Louis J. Meyers on the opening day of this year’s festival, the city’s tightly knit creative family has been dealt one blow after another.
Thus, this year’s 34th Austin Music Awards, on Wednesday night at the Hilton Austin, was something of a circling of the wagons for veterans of the scene, an Irish wake of sorts that was nonetheless a celebration of both past and future.
Fittingly, the theme of the evening was “Deep Roots, Living Legends,” and the emotional heart of the event was a climactic pair of sets celebrating the rebirth of Antone’s, the city’s “Home of the Blues” (now in its sixth iteration just a few steps away from the Hilton) along with an homage to Ray and his 35-year run curating “Twine Time” on KUT and KUTX, where he served as the definitive last word on all things blues, soul and R&B. One knocked-in-the-head fan of the Saturday night broadcast, during the three years he lived in Austin, was Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, who returned on Tuesday to honor Ray and put a capper on the party.
Of course, the framing purpose of the evening was awards and the presentation thereof. In what has become a nearly annual ritual, Bob Schneider scooped up a gunnysack full of plaques, including Musician of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, Best Male Vocalist and Album of the Year (for “King Kong, Vol. 1”) and Song of the Year (for “The Stars Over Your House”). Patricia Vonne took home honors for Best Female Vocals and rappers Riders Against the Storm repeated for Band of the Year. 2015 Hall of Fame inductees included the Lubbock country/folk troika The Flatlanders, metal rockers Dangerous Toys, the late Davy Jones (of the Hickoids), blues harpist James Cotton, and the late singer/songwriter Sarah Elizabeth Campbell. Susan Antone, of Antone’s fame, was presented with the newly-minted Margaret Moser Award, a “living legend” honorarium (a complete list of winners can be found here).
The evening was divided into thematic sets, including “Freaks and Geeks,” a musical point-counterpoint between the stately pop-chamber ensemble Mother Falcon and the all-hands-on deck mini-Mardi Gras celebration of the psychedelic Afro-funk crew Golden Dawn Arkestra.
By contrast, there was “Blazing Bows,” a fiddle throw-down conceived as a tribute to the late country/ Western Swing bow master Johnny Gimble, featuring Carrie Rodriguez, Jason Roberts, Erik Hokkanen and Best String Player winner Warren Hood, along with Gimble’s son and granddaughter, Dick and Emily, on bass and keyboards.
Oscar winner (and former local cocktail waitress) Renée Zellweger emceed a portion of the show celebrating the 20th anniversary of the SIMS foundation, which provides affordable mental health services for local musicians and their families. House band leader Charlie Sexton and guests that included Doyle Bramhall Jr. and Britt Daniel of Spoon romped through Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You,” the Rolling Stones’ “Rip This Joint” and a magisterial cover of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.”
The evening steered toward a close with a blast of vintage R&B featuring Antone’s founding members Jimmie Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton, joined by the pioneering guitarist and songwriter Barbara Lynn, and C.J. Chenier, the son and scion of zydeco royalty, namely Clifton Chenier, who opened the original Antone’s back in 1975. From the Lazy Lester hit, “Sugar Coated Love” to the zippy, two-stepping “C’est Bon, C’est Bon” to Lynn’s big smash “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” and Vaughan’s heartfelt cover of The “5” Royales’ “I Like It Like That,” the mini-set served as a time machine back to a seminal era of Austin music.
Finally, well after midnight, Paul Ray received the kind of tribute he would have most appreciated: a celebration of the music he loved best. “Twine Time” was, said Plant by way of introduction, “my anchor, quite often” when he was a local. Clearly enjoying himself among friends, he threw himself straightaway into the Coasters’ “Young Blood,” with Vaughan and the rhythm section keeping up a salacious, swinging tempo.
Plant went for a deep cut next, “I’m Sorry,” the B-side of an old single by The Jive Five, an R&B track sugared with doo-wop background vocals, and then a cover of an old Clyde McPhatter song, “Let That Boogie-Woogie Roll,” highlighted by Emily Gimble’s rocking stride piano.
Finally, there was nothing for it but an extended all-star vamp on “Twine Time” itself, the instrumental theme song for the show that Ray appropriated from Alvin Cash & the Crawlers. The musicians took their sweet time with it, rolling out chorus after chorus, the way you keep waving from the porch long after a loved one has departed.