Will Jackie Venson be Austin’s next breakout music star? That has looked increasingly possible over the past couple of years, as the native Austinite has been on a steady career rise with acclaimed albums, sharpened artistic instincts and a growing live-show fan base. Thursday’s milestone was Venson’s biggest yet: Taping "Austin City Limits" at ACL Live.
As visible as Venson has been on the local scene lately, she remains largely unknown nationally, with the exception of those who caught her sets opening for Gary Clark Jr. on tour. When her "ACL" taping airs nationwide on PBS next month, it could well be a breakthrough moment for Venson, perhaps similar to when regionally popular band Shinyribs appeared on the show in 2017 and many viewers across the country heard them for the first time.
If the prospect of playing the hallowed TV show was daunting, Venson sure didn’t show it. She was in full command throughout her 70-minute performance, often beaming with joy even as she was brimming with confidence. An accomplished guitarist, Venson unleashed several incendiary solos throughout the evening, but the focus was primarily on her songs, style and voice. Venson’s music incorporates elements of rock, jazz, blues, pop, soul, reggae and more, ultimately emerging as a sound that’s entirely her own.
The set list drew significantly from "Vintage Machine," a full-length studio album Venson will release on Oct. 30. Highlights from the new material included the title track, an upbeat pop number with bursts of guitar noise emerging in stark contrast to its melodicism; "Make Me Feel," a quieter love song in which her heartfelt vocals were fully invested in the song’s emotional message; and "Go My Way," an instantly infectious pop tune that might well be the strongest song of the bunch.
Wearing a black leather dress designed by her sister that was inscribed with dozens of names of Black Americans who have died at the hands of cops — Breonna Taylor’s name was at the top — Venson took a couple of minutes mid-show to address her wardrobe choice.
"Black lives matter," she began. "Not the hashtag, not the slogan, not the organization, but actual lives. Me, my family, my band. We matter. And until we can stand on the same page, we’re just going to be complicit living in a society where some people can murder other people and not feel any legal repercussions. That’s the world we live in; that’s the country we live in. … If we can’t all stand on the same moral ground, then the fabric of our society is threatened. Say their names."
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Anchoring Venson’s band was her longtime rhythm section of drummer Rodney Hyder and bassist/keyboardist Rick Clark, with Eddy Hobizal adding keyboards behind backup singers Akina Adderley and Kate Priestley. A little past the halfway mark, Venson welcomed Austin soul singer Tameca Jones to the stage for a blazing rendition of the blues classic "Texas Flood," memorably recorded by Stevie Ray Vaughan on his debut album. The three musicians who weren’t singing all wore masks.
This was the third "Austin City Limits" taping done without an audience during the coronavirus pandemic, after a Sept. 10 show with Rufus Wainwright and a Sept. 22 performance by the Mavericks. Like the latter taping, this one was publicly streamed live on the show’s YouTube channel. Venson’s set will be edited down to a half-hour for the program’s Nov. 14 episode, paired with an archival Bonnie Raitt appearance.
Venson returned to the stage a few minutes after the show ended for a short interview with "Austin City Limits" executive producer Terry Lickona, who asked her about studying at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, growing up in Austin with a musician father — Hyder was the drummer in her dad’s band before he began playing with Jackie — and the challenge of taping the show without an audience.
"My dad gave me the perspective of always seeing everything as rehearsal," she said. "I miss all of that (playing to a crowd) — but I feel like this crazy year when I landed this amazing opportunity, where I don’t have an audience, it was so serendipitous that I spent four months streaming for cameras without an audience. … It was training ground for where I am now."
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