Austin360's all-stars of 2020: Entertainers and food faves who led the way in the pandemic
This year. Woof.
To mark the end of 2020, we at Austin360 wanted to sing the praises of the artists, cultural institutions and local businesses who made the months since March bearable. They entertained us. They fed us. And through it all, they did it in a way that made us feel safe, leading in our community during a time when leadership often felt hard to come by.
We can't include everyone, and the pandemic isn't over yet, but here are a few of our all-stars.
They helped us duck in safely for a pastry
Your peepers drift over what’s separated from them by glass. Key lime pie, with graham cracker crust as thick as Mansfield Dam. Shortbread dressed up in icing as a Technicolor dreidel. The crumb topping of a cranberry muffin the size of a softball. Then, still behind a clear shield, a helpful person ready to hand all of it over.
Nothing like the year from hell to make you need a carbo-load.
Before you enter Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery, you see that they’re taking the de rigueur pandemic safety measures — social distance, face masks, not getting your grubby little hands on everything — seriously. Actually seriously; we’ve all seen signs posted touting these things, only to step inside somewhere and get a case of the stomach pits.
But even on busy weekends, this beloved bakery and coffeehouse keeps a tight watch on how many customers stand on the appropriately spaced blue squares while they wait for a treat or a drink. It’s not uncommon to find a staff member outside controlling the flow of people who go in and out, and their baristas are quick to (politely) remind customers to keep their distance and keep that mask on. And the whole operation moves at a gallop.
Heather O’Connor, chief of operations for the Quack’s family of stores, says the business had a bit of a leg up when it had to shift gears in March. Takeout service has always been an integral part of the business. Even as the city reopened indoor dining, Quack’s in Hyde Park has kept things grab ‘n’ go and maintained its eight-person capacity, though it recently reinstated limited patio seats.
They also started up curbside service. Customers can only order over the phone once they’re in a parking space, and O’Connor says she has no problem sending a barista out to detail the whole menu for a newbie.
The bakery team has been coached on the appropriate language and tone to use when reminding guests of the new rules, she adds. (Only one person that she knows of got frustrated enough about the mask requirements to storm out and kick over a curbside parking spot sign.)
“If people push back, managers step in,” O’Connor says. “It’s an immediate eviction.” Overall, people have been kind, and O’Connor says it’s been heartening to see Austinites come out “in droves” to support a local legacy business.
The frontline staff has been part of setting the tone. O’Connor says that listening to employees has led to several policies during the pandemic. During the busier-than-usual Thanksgiving season, indoor employee lunch breaks were phased out at the staff’s suggestion, and employee drinks are kept at a station outside the back door instead of inside for the same reason.
The company’s newer satellite locations, Lady Quackenbush’s in the Mueller district and Captain Quackenbush’s Coffeehouse in South Austin, are also open again after earlier closures, O’Connor says, using the 43rd Street location’s pandemic blueprint.
(411 E. 43rd St. 512-453-3399, quacksbakery.com)
— Eric Webb, Austin360 editor
They made movie magic
Most movie theaters in town have reopened. Most. But if you, like me, are not yet feeling comfy about a couple stationary hours indoors with strangers, Austin Film Society is trying to fill the cinematic gap.
Austin Film Society has kept its AFS Cinema shuttered since March, a rare move. (The cost to its staff in the form of layoffs and furloughs must be noted, too.) But the reason they’re on this list: how they’ve found a way to keep the fun of the movies alive, because sometimes Netflix just won't cut it.
I appreciate the curation of an arthouse theater like AFS, so their virtual cinema programming of first-run indie fare has been a godsend. (“And Then We Danced,” “The Twentieth Century,” “Martin Eden,” “Miss Juneteenth” … I could go on.) Other virtual events included Q&As with filmmakers and a live script reading of “Dazed and Confused.”
“AFS is a hub of film culture, and our team is focused on how we can continue to serve the community online when we can't be in person. While we have our sights set on the return of in-person programming and the AFS Cinema, we want to ensure, in the meantime, that film lovers can participate from home, and maintain their connection to our city's film culture,” Holly Herrick, AFS head of film and creative media, said in a statement.
But here’s where they’ve shined: in-person screenings, outside and from a distance. They saved my Halloween with Japanese horror flick “Kuroneko” at the Contemporary Austin’s Laguna Gloria amphitheater (the mist over the water was eerie as all get-out), and that same weekend, I was able to catch a screening of Sundance hit “Minari.”
Drive-in movies have experienced a renaissance this year. Blue Starlite and Doc’s also have helped Austin go to the movies with a clear conscience, and AFS also got into the act, with drive-in screenings of “Smooth Talk,” “A Matter of Life and Death” and “Dial Code Santa Claus.”
All that, and they’ve kept supporting Texas filmmakers through grants, too.
He welcomed us to a 'Home Unfamiliar'
In April, with the clubs shut down and musicians feeling adrift, expressive pop artist Mobley embarked on an ambitious project. He randomly paired 15 musicians and 15 filmmakers to create a visual album with a process structured around the surrealist drawing game exquisite corpse.
In the game, a scene is formed as each player draws a part then folds the paper to obscure their contribution before handing off to the next player. For the visual album, each artist was provided an end clip of the preceding song. They were each given two days to complete their work and the project’s title: “Home Unfamiliar” was their only prompt. Top Austin talents like Shakey Graves, Wild Child’s Kelsey Wilson, Sweet Spirit’s Sabrina Ellis and Spoon’s Jim Eno contributed.
“Honestly, given how random it is, and given that everybody had a little less than 48 hours to complete their pieces from their homes, it's really an amazing piece of art. And I think it's a real testament to the creativity and talent of everybody involved,” he said.
The album is an exploration of the music video as short-form filmmaking and a creative document of this strange moment in time, but “ultimately, the goal has been to use (the project) to raise money for pandemic relief efforts,” Mobley said in June. “Home Unfamiliar” screened through the Alamo Drafthouse’s video-on-demand service, with proceeds benefiting the Central Texas Food Bank and DAWA (Diversity and Wellness in Action), a fund created by Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone from Riders Against the Storm to provide short-term assistance to people of color who are musicians, artists, social workers, teachers, healing practitioners and service industry workers experiencing life crises.
Mobley kicked the planned release of his next EP, “Young & Dying in the Occident Supreme,” to 2021, but dropped a powerful video for the song “James Crow.” Innovating for these strange times, the single release was accompanied by a “curbside tour.” Fans signed up to win a private performance of the single played in front of their homes at a distance of at least 12 feet. He’ll continue to adapt going into the new year when he celebrates the EP release with a nine-date virtual tour. Though the shows will all be shot in Central Texas, each one benefits a different independent venue around the country and the DAWA fund.
— Deborah Sengupta Stith, music writer
They made a Willie good pivot
The pandemic’s onset in early March hit everyone like a ton of bricks, but especially those who’d planned big events that coincided with South by Southwest. One of the biggest was the Luck Reunion, the annual daylong festival at Willie Nelson’s ranch in Spicewood that was a marquee SXSW satellite event in the 2010s.
Launched after Matt Bizer and Ellee Fletcher Durniak teamed up about a decade ago, the Luck Reunion scrapped months of plans for its 2020 event in mid-March and quickly pivoted to an online version, which they titled “Til Further Notice.” Assembled in less than a week, the six-hour event was all over the map, mixing upstarts such as Nikki Lane with legends like Neil Young.
It went well enough that the Luck Productions team decided to do more. Smaller streamed events such as a “Prime Cuts” cooking series and the music-focused “Hello Walls” preceded a “Come and Toke It” special on April 20 (that’s 4/20, yes). Next was a benefit for the local music scene in June titled “A Night for Austin” spearheaded by Nelson and Paul Simon that raised more than a half-million dollars.
By the time they reached Independence Day, the Luck crew had learned enough to take some adventurous turns for the first-ever virtual version of Willie’s historic Fourth of July Picnic. The event mixed prerecorded segments with livestreamed performances on the Luck grounds, plus a special tribute to Nelson with all-stars sending in vocal performances that were paired with a full band playing in a Luck saloon.
Durniak — who’s the granddaughter of pianist Bobbie Nelson, bandmate and older sister of Willie — says Bizer’s production experience helped them adapt to the challenges of the livestream world. But a lot of it was just figuring things out on the fly. “We definitely learned a lot from diving deep into the virtual space,” she said.
By midyear, they’d established their own streaming platform, luck.stream, so that early avenues such as twitch.tv and Facebook Live weren’t needed. They also started helping to produce streamed events for festivals such as San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Nelson’s long-running benefit concert, Farm Aid, as well as the local HAAM Day, an annual fundraiser for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.
The Luck crew made a limited return to live events in fall, co-producing a series of outdoor, socially distanced concerts on the lawn of the Long Center (including a tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, a close friend of Nelson who died in October). Durniak says they may do another series with the Long Center in the spring, depending on pandemic developments in the new year.
The 2021 Luck Reunion is unlikely to happen in March, but Durniak noted that most 2020 ticketholders have opted to defer until the event is able to happen again, rather than take refunds. Until then, she says, “We’re working to figure out what we can do until we can fully come back with our flagship event, which is the Reunion.”
— Peter Blackstock, music writer
He got back to the 'spiritual connection'
Shakey Graves, the popular singer and guitar-slinger had no idea that most of his fans would be stuck at home for months, combing the internet for distractions, when he plotted a web series as part of his 2020 content rollout. He was looking for ways to “reconnect myself differently with my own project,” the artist also known as Alejandro Rose-Garcia said during a recent episode of Austin360’s streaming show, the Monday Music Mashup.
Caught up in the grind of constant large-scale touring, he felt he wanted to get back to “that spiritual connection” between music and listener. Many of his fans discovered his songs on late-night trips down YouTube rabbit holes, but “he had never really made any of that content with my own voice,” he said.
So “200 years ago in January,” he booked a series of shows in small rooms that reminded him of the residency gigs he played starting out in Austin. He filmed the shows, which included new tracks from his 2020 EP, eerily titled “Look Alive.” He also filmed behind-the-scenes footage of his brand new studio, shared witty anecdotes about the evolution of Shakey Graves and turned a spotlight on the members of his team who have supported the project from the beginning. When the pandemic hit, “these steps were suddenly met by the environment that we're all kind of now trapped in,” he said.
He rolled out the three-part series “Hello Gorgeous,” which is alternately heartwarming and hilarious, in April and May, but that wasn’t his final foray into pandemic filmmaking. When he was booked to play the Philly Folk Fest in August, he eschewed the idea of a straight performance set and instead taught himself to shoot and edit video to create a conceptual visual performance.
“I don't even think that many people actually watched it during the livestream of the festival. But at the end of the day, I learned a whole lot. It felt like a small, self-taught community college class on what to do and not to do in video processing,” he said.
You can check out the video clips on his Instagram account, @shakeygraves.
They took us to the honky tonk from home
“Not at Donn’s Depot” is what pianist Chris Gage calls his Monday livestreams, which began shortly after the coronavirus pandemic interrupted his long-running Monday night residency at the storied West Austin bar. He may not be at the Depot — Gage and his wife, fellow musician Christine Albert, stream the show from their home studio — but the cast of regulars carries over from the physical realm in the Facebook chat that runs alongside their broadcast.
It’s common for Gage and Albert to draw hundreds of viewers when they go live from 8 p.m. to around 9:30 p.m. every Monday at facebook.com/chrisgageaustin. They recently passed the 40-show mark, and while streaming fatigue is a real thing — many artists understandably have let online performances ebb and flow across the year — the couple’s commitment to keeping the weekly residency alive has been inspiring.
Gage starts things off at the piano each night, with songs that range from classics by Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt, to tunes by personal favorites such as Tom Peterson, to Albert/Gage originals. Eventually Albert will join in, playing guitar and dueting with Gage on a tried-and-true tune or perhaps singing a song in French.
A hallmark of Gage’s shows at Donn’s was the constant parade of peers who’d drop by and sit in. That’s not possible in-person during the pandemic, but Gage was determined to keep the collaborative spirit going.
“When the bars closed, I couldn't bear the thought of not feeling that, so I created a way to do it with videos and Pro Tools mixes that I could play live with during our livestreams,” Gage explained when he assembled a recent compilation show of guests who’ve taken part since March. They’ve ranged from Beat Root Revival sparkplug Ben Jones to flutist Beth Galiger to Shinyribs leader Kevin Russell to their piano-playing neighbor Sharon Bourbonnais to Albert’s son, Troupe Gammage.
The care and effort they’ve put into these weekly streams is clear in the production quality, and in the backdrop of their studio room. To Gage’s left is a poster of the late Jerry Jeff Walker, in whose band Gage played for years. When Walker died in October, Gage played a moving tribute to his old boss the following Monday, fighting back tears.
In addition to keeping the Monday residency alive, Albert and Gage also team up for a “Good Time Hour” duo livestream at 8 p.m. on Fridays. That one, which airs on the Albert & Gage Facebook page, got started a little ways into the pandemic; they recently passed two dozen shows.
Her star rose even higher
A combination of good fortune and good management set Jackie Venson, the new-school Austin guitar hero, up for a smooth transition into the pandemic era. For years, Venson had been building an online community among her fans, who are scattered around the world, in a private Facebook group. In 2019, Facebook tapped her to beta test new features in its streaming service. As part of the arrangement, she was required to do weekly streaming performances.
“I did one day a week, and it grew my page significantly,” Venson said in a recent episode of Austin360’s streaming show the Monday Music Mashup. The beta test ended in February, taking Venson “all the way to the beginning of the pandemic,” she said.
When the clubs shut down in March, Venson immediately pivoted to online performance, taking to her Facebook page every night for the first couple months of the pandemic. With a DIY production aesthetic, the performances were warm and wonderful living room jams. She mixed in everything from songs from her vast catalog to piano pieces to DJ sets as her alter ego, Jackie the Robot.
Venson thinks of streaming performance with its inherent lack of polish as the next great equalizer in the music industry. “It makes it so that you don't have to be super rich or super connected or anything to just basically entertain people,” she said, adding that people “like it to be raw. They like it when you accidentally knock over the tripod and the camera falls.”
Her streaming sets were so successful that when she was given an opportunity to book a livestream version of ACL Radio’s Blues on the Green, she left herself off the lineup, instead curating the event’s first all-Black bill featuring Ms. Lavelle White, Kydd Jones, Alesia Lani and Sam Houston and Blk Odyssy. “I'm not just going to be like this dragon that hoards all the gold,” she said.
As the pandemic wore on, Venson took a break from her nightly performances, during which time she released a new album, “Vintage Machine,” and logged a star-making debut performance on Austin’s iconic television show “Austin City Limits,” which included a breathtaking cover of the Stevie Ray Vaughan classic “Texas Flood” featuring Tameca Jones.
In December, she resumed the nightly performances. Though the routine can be exhausting, she believes it’s setting her up for a successful post-pandemic return to live shows. “It’s like forced practice, and I have to do it. And I can just feel my hands staying in shape,” she said.
They were good grocers
When restaurant dining rooms closed and panicked shoppers left grocery store shelves empty in mid-March, no one knew how the grocery industry would respond to such an increase in demand. Many chains quickly responded by adding staff and limiting quantities of certain goods, including meat and toilet paper.
H-E-B quickly boosted worker pay, and in June, the San Antonio-based retailer became one of the first grocery stores to require customers to wear masks in stores. In Austin, H-E-B held off on plans to replace the South Congress and Oltorf store and delayed the opening of a huge store at South Congress and Slaughter Lane, but that store later opened to large crowds in June. (No word on when plans for the new SoCo store might resume.)
In recent months, employees have faced threats when trying to enforce the mask requirement, but the company continues to stand by the mandate.
— Addie Broyles, food writer
I start looking forward to my Friday trips to Central Market as early as Monday. From the very first weeks of the pandemic, the staff has shown amazing grace and rigorous order. In all those months, I spied only one shopper without a mask. People are reasonably good about spacing and the staff has responded nimbly to some of the longtime traffic logjams in the store’s basic layout. They also restricted self-service around open containers, although it didn’t happen magically and all at once.
As soon as I walk through the front doors and into the produce department, I’m dazzled by the colors, shapes, textures and smells of fresh food. In turn, I’ve tried to share this feast for the senses, not only by cooking more, but by playing a game on social media called “What Am I Cooking”? Followers guess the dish from the mis en place I’ve staged from my Central Market bounty. My husband Kip does the same with his larger baking, canning, pickling and preserving projects that he then distributes to friends, families and neighbors.
We realize how incredibly lucky we are to be able shop at Central Market — for his part, Kip starts the cooking week at the Oltorf H-E-B — and we admire the hard work and courtesy of the workers.
— Michael Barnes, arts and history columnist
They kept the meals running
Ordering curbside pick-up or grocery delivery wasn’t something that many shoppers had experience with until the coronavirus pandemic started, but as soon as the shutdown began, those services quickly became lifelines for countless Austinites. For weeks, it was hard to snag a curbside window at everywhere from Whole Foods to Walmart, but grocery stores added more in-store shoppers and pick-up times.
At the same time, food delivery apps were also flooded with new customers, and they quickly added more drivers to accommodate. These shoppers and delivery drivers, including those from Instacart and DoorDash, literally carried the food that kept so many home-bound Austinites fed during those early days of the pandemic, and they continue to provide an essential service as the pandemic drags on.
They kept it fresh
Early on in the pandemic, local farmers markets were deemed essential food access points, and each market — from Bastrop to Bee Cave, Sunset Valley to Georgetown — came up with a new operating strategy so that local farmers, ranchers and food producers could continue to sell their goods to shoppers.
Some set up online ordering systems or drive-thrus; others increased the distance between booths and limited the number of shoppers who could be at the market. Many farms, including Green Gate Farm, Johnson’s Backyard Garden and the Central Texas Farmers Co-op, expanded their community-supported agriculture programs (or CSAs). Some ranches, such as Bastrop Cattle Company and Mockingbird Farm, introduced home delivery.
Local food delivery companies, including Farmhouse Delivery and SnackShare, saw exponential growth overnight as customers looked for ways to support Central Texas growers while also providing food for their families.
They kept cooking in tough times
The pandemic has delivered no small amount of heartache to a local restaurant industry I love and one I’ve spent the last decade documenting. But amid the sadness and fear, restaurants and their hardworking staffs have proven themselves nimble, creative, conscientious and resilient.
My all-star team would include every restaurant in Central Texas, but here I’ve focused on a few examples of the various ways restaurants have remained viable and provided jobs in dire times.
L’Oca d’Oro owners Adam Orman and chef Fiore Tedesco, through nonprofit organization Good Work Austin, created work opportunities for employees by giving back to the community, partnering with the Austin school district and the city of Austin to feed students and their families and those experiencing homelessness. Good Work Austin has been able to pay 12 restaurants to do food access work and have prepared over 500k meals.
The partners have kept L'Oca d'Oro's dining room closed but still comforted diners with a meal subscription service featuring its handmade pastas and seasonal dishes that remind us of all what we’ve missed and what we have to return to when things start to look more normal.
Lenoir has shown that you can enjoy an elegant dining experience with exceptional cuisine and warm professional service without walls or a ceiling, turning its wine garden into a socially distanced, casual fine dining oasis that evokes the nights we once spent inside. It also added lunch and dinner takeout service.
Restaurants like Home Slice Pizza, Eldorado Cafe, Olamaie and Asia Market Eatery could undoubtedly be adding to their bottom lines by opening their dining rooms for service to a limited capacity, but each has chosen to function solely as takeout operations in hopes of mitigating the threat to public and employee health and safety.
These are only a few examples. Every other restaurant — whether it started a grocery business featuring local products; reopened its dining room to limited capacity and spent significant hours and financial resources on creating as safe an environment as possible; or turned out its lights indefinitely while the pandemic raged — deserves our thanks and recognition.
Few industries have endured the debilitating hit from the pandemic as the hospitality industry. The independent operators in Austin help give our city its texture and taste. Without them, Austin would look and feel a lot more like other cities around the country. Losing them would be beyond weird.
— Matthew Odam, restaurant writer