Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Top 10 local music stories of the year

From the Cactus Cafe to Alex Chilton's death, the top local stories from the music scene

Patrick Caldwell
DJ Larry Monroe ended his run on KUT in August after almost 30 years.

Like 2010 itself a year beset by continuing economic travails, humanitarian disasters and soccer fans blowing vuvuzelas the year in music was a rollicking, constantly surprising ride. But where much of the news in the world at large was sobering, music was a bizarre, entertaining universe unto itself.

M.I.A. waged war on The New York Times, the Insane Clown Posse went viral and "indie rock" proved that it's the new mainstream, with Vampire Weekend, Spoon, LCD Soundsystem and the National cracking the Billboard top 10. The '90s returned with a vengeance -- Pavement, the Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden all got the band back together, with Superchunk releasing one of the year's best records. Adorable 15-year-old moppet Justin Bieber became one of the world's biggest stars, while Katy Perry's breasts were deemed a threat to the audience of "Sesame Street." Also there was Kanye West.

As all that pandemonium dominated the music press, larger issues percolated in the background. The U.S. Department of Justice approved the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster into the world's biggest concert concern. Kickstarter exploded and crowd-funding picked up steam. Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act, allowing for the creation of hundreds of new low-power noncommercial FM radio stations. Apple shuttered Lala, rumors swirled that Google was mulling its own music service and Spotify gained ground in Europe — all potential signs that the move toward Internet-based music streaming has begun in earnest. The notion of a hard drive full of iTunes songs might soon seem as antiquated as a shelf full of CDs does today.

The year in Austin music kept pace, with a 2010 full of staggeringly good records and stories laughable, intriguing, disappointing and outraging. With 2010 now drawn to a close, here's a survey of the biggest stories in local music last year.

1. Cactus Café no more? When the University of Texas announced plans in January to shutter the café, it didn't just feel like losing a club, it felt like losing a friend. Months after KUT assumed control of the venue, very little has changed for the Cactus — with the major exception of the loss of longtime booker Griff Luneburg, the man who lovingly curated the café and grew it into one of the country's best listening rooms. The Austin music scene might not have lost the Cactus Café, but it did lose Luneburg's presence there, and the jury's still out on whether that's the same thing. With Matt Muñoz, KUT's unexpected choice for manager, still settling in, only time will tell.

2. Goodbye to Studio 6A and hello to Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater. The studio that's hosted "Austin City Limits" since 1974 is Austin's most famous stage and one of its best musical ambassadors. A thousand pages of rock history were written there long before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designated it a landmark. And although the new West Second Street studio will be a boon to the program, as well as a game-changing venue in the heart of downtown, I'll always have a soft spot for the original stage, outdated skyline and all.

3. C3 on top of the world. One of the country's most influential independent booking companies, C3 Presents had a banner 2010 with the sold-out Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza music festivals both running without a hitch, the announcement of a new Lollapalooza in Chile and its win for independent promoter of the year in the Billboard Touring Awards. Controversy swirled over C3's use of radius clauses to prohibit competing shows, which reportedly led to its being subpoenaed by the Illinois attorney general's office, a story broken by former Chicago Sun-Times writer Jim DeRogatis, but few of the criticisms stuck. Look for the company to become an even bigger force in music — local, national and international — in 2011.

4. Hard times for Direct Events. Not all local promoters won big this year. What should have been the triumphant resurrection of the Backyard stalled out, with a thin calendar and a problem-plagued Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic. The company and owner/proprietor Tim O'Connor were hit with lawsuits and liens over both the Backyard and the Austin Music Hall, where C3 Presents booked many of the venue's more high-profile shows. The Backyard has a new manager, Greg Henry, and it will be interesting to see how he fares — and how the Austin Music Hall copes with the opening just down the street of Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, a comparable venue.

5. Frank Hendrix makes his move. Emo's owner Frank Hendrix largely has kept a low profile, content to let the venue's managers and bookers set the legendary punk club's agenda. But Hendrix stepped out in a big way in August, with Emo's staff jumping in to help book and manage Antone's. Emo's also will expand this year to a new Michael Hsu-designed location in the former Back Room on Riverside Drive. That new venue, modeled in part on Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club, also might herald the closure of the current Emo's outdoor stage, which could have a tremendous impact on the local club scene.

6. Billy Joe Shaver acquitted for aggravated assault charges. The outlaw country pioneer's April trial for aggravated assault for shooting Billy Coker outside a bar in 2007 played out like the finest country album never recorded — from unexpected appearances by Robert Duvall and Willie Nelson, to the presence of all-star defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, to Shaver's own inimitable testimony on the stand ("I get more women than a passenger train can haul") all the way through to the "not guilty" verdict.

7. Everybody in Austin music ever forms Austin Music People. The nonprofit lobbying organization formed last year and announced mere days before the Austin City Limits Music Festival has largely stayed mum in the ensuing months, keeping a low profile despite star power that includes former mayor Will Wynn, Momo's owner and former Live Music Task Force chairman Paul Oveisi, Roland Swenson and Brent Grulke of South by Southwest, Charles Attal and Charlie Jones of C3 Presents, Mohawk owner and Transmission Entertainment principal James Moody and a host of others. AMP's first real test will come the next time the city's music scene faces a challenge on the order of the sound ordinance or the smoking ban.

8. WOXY closes up shop. Beloved independent online radio station WOXY became a seemingly indispensable part of the Austin music community within weeks of relocating from Cincinnati in 2009, particularly by sponsoring a bevy of great local shows. When the station stopped streaming abruptly on March 23 because of the financial difficulties of owner Future Sounds Inc., Austin music lost another great incubator and another great proponent on the national stage.

9. New West gets the Texas Music Group masters. When the Texas Music Group — which included the Antone's Records and Watermelon Records labels — declared bankruptcy, it left the master recordings of some of Austin's most famous and influential records without a home. That changed last year, when New West Records picked up the masters, which include early works by Alejandro Escovedo and Toni Price, for $275,000. Appropriately, New West is also the home for releases of the "Austin City Limits" TV show on CD and DVD and once counted Stephen Bruton among its roster.

10. Alex Chilton dies on the first day of SXSW. Big Star is among the archetypal cult rock bands, and an indomitable influence on modern indie rock, so the unexpected death of frontman Alex Chilton cast a pall on the opening day of the South by Southwest Music Festival. A planned Big Star reunion show at Antone's on Saturday of SXSW turned into a heartfelt all-star tribute show featuring M. Ward, the Meat Puppets' Kurt Kirkwood, Chuck Prophet, the Watson Twins and Big Star's Jody Stephens, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow — as well as the band's original bassist Andy Hummel, who himself passed away in June, leaving Stephens as the only surviving founding member.

The year in (extreme) brief

Though 10 stories might have stuck out as especially impactful or striking, they only scratched the surface of all the developments that made Austin music interesting in 2010. A few other highlights:

- Willie Nelson made headlines when the formerly red-headed stranger cut off his world-famous braids and inadvertently launched the kitschiest product in the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum gift shop — faux braids.

- Nelson received even more press attention after he was arrested for marijuana possession near El Paso in November.

- Historic Uhland dancehall Club 21 burned to the ground; it first opened in 1893.

- Twin Cities soft rock supergroup Gayngs canceled their Austin City Limits Music Festival appearance after their driver took off with the tour bus, gear in tow, over a contract dispute.

- A planned Austin date for Lilith Fair was shelved — along with dates in nine other cities — after Sarah McLachlan's famous female musician-celebrating traveling festival faced poor attendance.

- Larry Monroe retired from KUT after just shy of 30 years of soundtracking Austin, spinning his last "Blue Monday" on Aug. 30.

- NOFX frontman Fat Mike was banned from Emo's after a SXSW performance as alter ego Cokie the Clown — wherein he fooled several audience members into thinking the tequila he'd served was tainted with urine.

- Renowned film, TV and music video director Spike Jonze came to town to shoot the epic science fiction-tinged video for Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs."

- Austin guitar great, throaty growler and former Fabulous Thunderbird Nick Curran was diagnosed with cancer.

- The City of Austin denied an outdoor music permit to eco-conscious East Side venue Sustainable Waves, shut down the live music at vintage clothing store Roadhouse Rags and tangled with Guero's Taco Bar over its outdoor stage.

- And in a city with thousands of musicians, it's hard to track every band that breaks up, disbands or goes on hiatus, but the losses of Cruiserweight, Brothers and Sisters and Voxtrot might have stung the most.

In memoriam

A few of the local music personalities we lost in 2010:

Tony Campise, 67 (March 7), Jazz saxophone great

Charlie Tesar, 66 (May 15), Owner of departed, iconic Austin music venue Liberty Lunch

Ella Gant McBride, 86 (May 19), Last surviving Gant family folk singer

Nick Travis III, 55 (May 24), Blues bassist and peace activist

Jim Ramsey, 58 (June 29), Legendary concert promoter and booker

Esteban ‘Steve' Jordan, 71 (Aug. 13), Accordion pioneer

Ernie Mae Miller, 83 (Dec. 8), Blues and pop piano master

Bill Maddox, 56 (Dec. 27), Drummer for guitarist Eric Johnson