ACL Radio’s first-ever "Blues on the Screen" aired Wednesday evening on Fox 7 Austin with performances from Alesia Lani, Kydd Jones, Sam Houston & Blk Odyssy and Lavelle White — a lineup curated by singer-songwriter/guitarist Jackie Venson to help raise awareness about Black musicians in Austin.
"I feel it’s important because we need to open the doors to more diversity and more creativity with our lineups in this city and with our city events," Venson told ACL Radio’s Andy Langer in a brief interview during the program.
The artists’ performances were taped two weeks ago at downtown venue 3Ten. During the telecast, a banner across the bottom of the screen requested donations for Central Texas Food Bank and for E4 Youth, a local nonprofit that helps "ages 16-22 learn to Engage, Educate, Employ and Empower themselves," per its website.
Each act played for roughly half an hour. Lani kicked things off with a set of engaging original R&B material backed by a five-piece band, plus a cameo guitar appearance by Venson on her last song. Jones followed with a diverse selection of hip-hop material backed by a two-piece crew that included versatile guitarist Bomani Barton.
Next up was Sam Houston & Blk Odyssey, a recent Austin360 Artist of the Month featuring Houston and a four-piece crew that focused on socially conscious material such as the opening "There’s a Riot in the Streets." Closing out the event was blues great Lavelle White, who turned 91 last week and played with a five-piece crew that enlivened songs such as the timely "Keep Your Mask On."
Some of the musicians in each act wore masks onstage, including Jones’ guitarist Barton, though his was for reasons beyond coronavirus precautions. On May 31, Barton posted publicly on social media about having been "shot with rubber or bean bags" during recent Austin protests after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in late May. He required surgery on his jaw that required it to be wired shut for several weeks, according to his Facebook post. "I just want y’all to know this is why we fight," he wrote.
In her "Blues on the Screen" interview with Langer, Venson stressed the importance of inclusivity. "You have to actively defy behavior that promotes excluding people," she said. "And it’s not even just racism for me; it’s excluding anyone. If you’ve seen behavior that’s excluding people in your community, you need to actively stand up and address it and find a solution for it. I just want everyone to be included, and I want everyone to be represented."
Venson said she believes such societal changes are "going to take bravery from everyone. I don’t think this is a problem that can be fixed by one person or one organization. I think this is something that we all have to play a little part in. And if we get to the point where maybe aren’t talking about it anymore, it’s up to one of us to stand up and bring it up again."
"Blues on the Screen" was conceived as a virtual alternative to ACL Radio’s long-running Zilker Park Blues on the Green summer concert series. Initial plans for the show morphed into a lineup of four Black performers after Venson, who’d been asked to perform, aired concerns about diversity in the lineup.
Langer said Thursday that while there are no current plans for subsequent "Blues on the Screen" events, he added that the seasonal window of the past Zilker series wouldn’t necessarily apply to the virtual version. "In theory, in the new reality, we can use the name beyond just summer," Langer noted. Meanwhile, Wednesday’s program is still viewable on YouTube, with donations to the Food Bank and E4 Youth still being accepted.
Last month, American-Statesman music writer Deborah Sengupta Stith moderated two roundtable discussions with prominent Black and brown musicians in Austin, covering systemic racism and issues of representation in the city’s music industry. Jones, Mobley, Mélat and Ghislaine "Qi Dada" Jean participated in the first discussion, which partially focused on protests in the wake of the police killings of Mike Ramos and George Floyd. The second roundtable, held to mark Pride Month, featured out artists Tje Austin Alldredge, Mama Duke and Gina Chavez.