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The year in Austin music: festivals in flux, rising talents, civic challenges

Peter Blackstock
pblackstock@statesman.com
Sir Paul McCartney performs Oct. 12 during the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park. McCartney played both weekends of the fest. [SCOTT MOORE FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Paul McCartney played in Zilker Park for the Austin City Limits Music Festival. South by Southwest further morphed away from its music origins as its interactive event steered broad growth. Local acts Shakey Graves and Wild Child continued to build national and international followings. The city and local nonprofits struggled to help musicians with affordability and other obstacles. Threadgill’s closed its south location after more than 20 years.

That’s just some of what happened in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World during 2018. In a year that saw no major sea-changes, plenty of smaller but significant developments left their mark on the local music community. We look back at what happened, with an eye toward what’s in store for 2019.

Festival ups and downs

Continuing a trend we observed in 2017, the South by Southwest Music Festival felt quieter and more manageable. Keith Urban, who headlined Stubb’s to a less-than-capacity crowd on Friday night, was one of the biggest names at SXSW, and a lack of big corporate sponsors kept the day party madness to a minimum.

Crowds were smaller than they’d been in past years, making it possible to breeze in and out of popular Red River clubs at peak times during the weekend. Nonetheless, a study commissioned by the festival reported the economic impact for this year’s event was up, albeit only slightly at less than 1 percent.

The festival took place amid a stretch of serial bombings that shook the city and killed two people. SXSW was largely unaffected, but a Saturday night showcase featuring the Roots at Fair Market was canceled because of a bomb threat.

In 2019, SXSW will not coincide with spring break at the University of Texas and the Austin Independent School District. The festival is scheduled to take place from March 8 to March 17; spring break for UT and AISD is the following week. That hasn’t happened since SXSW’s early years.

McCartney’s two epic Friday-evening performances were the highlight of ACL Fest this year, offsetting the disappointment of the injury-related cancellation by rapper/R&B artist Childish Gambino. Rapper Travis Scott was bumped into the headline slot some festgoers felt should have gone to Janelle Monae, who put on stunning performances both weekends.

The Americana-oriented Old Settler’s Music Festival had a tumultuous year, moving to a new site near Lockhart a year earlier than planned after conflicts arose with the former Salt Lick Pavilion venue and former OSMF principals who sought to create a new Driftwood Music Festival there. The matter was headed to court until a settlement resulted in the Driftwood fest putting its plans on hold.

Old Settler’s scrambled to prepare its new location by April, but everything went fairly smoothly and festgoers seemed to enjoy the significantly more spacious grounds. In November, OSMF announced a major step up for the 2019 festival with the booking of headliners Brandi Carlile, nominated for six 2019 Grammys, and Jason Isbell, past winner of four.

Also on the outer edges of town, Utopiafest celebrated its 10th year with a move to Burnet, much closer to Austin than its former location deep in the Hill Country. Perfect weather and a solid lineup, including Patty Griffin and Lukas Nelson, helped make the new site a success despite significant shuttle problems. But organizer Travis Sutherland made a plea for future support a few weeks later, suggesting the fest hadn’t gone well from a financial standpoint.

After taking a year off in 2017, psychedelic music festival Levitation returned to Austin for a club-based event in the Red River Cultural District. With an adventurous and well-curated lineup, crowds showed up, and many individually ticketed shows sold out. Though festival organizers noted they were already running out of room, they’ll continue to evolve the event in the clubs for 2019 when the festival moves to the fall for a Nov. 7-10 run of shows.

Austin radio station KGSR changed its name to Austin City Limits Radio, and the station's free summer concert series, Blues on the Green, continued to draw thousands of people to Zilker Park.

Electronic music festival Euphoria Fest also moved to the clubs this year after organizers failed to secure a permit for Carson Creek Ranch.

And two new smaller events entered the fray. Carson Creek stayed in the festival market as the Waterloo Music Festival made its debut there in early September. Fans of jam bands got three nights of String Cheese Incident plus Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, a top-drawing Grateful Dead tribute act and a handful of locals.

In late October, Montreal-based Piknic Electronik made its U.S. debut at Auditorium Shores. With the event scheduled on the same weekend as Austin Film Festival, Texas Book Festival and Halloween festivities, event organizers struggled to pull a crowd.

Bands on the rise

Nobody had a Gary Clark Jr.-level breakout year, but two prominent Austin acts signed to hot Nashville label Dualtone Records — Shakey Graves and Wild Child — both released new albums and had big years on the road.

Graves’ “Can’t Wake Up” came out in May and reached the top 40 of Billboard’s Rock Albums Chart, plus top 20 in Alternative Albums and top 10 in Folk Albums. His tour schedule included a headlining slot at Colorado’s iconic Red Rocks amphitheater in August and playing ACL Fest in October. Wild Child’s “Expectations,” released in February, cracked the top 10 of Billboard’s Heatseekers chart for rising acts; the band toured both the U.S. and Europe extensively to support it.

Bluegrass band Wood & Wire released its fourth album, “North of Despair,” in April, but their fortunes fully bloomed in December, when the group was nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and received a $20,000 grant from local music patron group Black Fret on the same day.

Also in the mix for the 2019 Grammys, with awards to be presented Feb. 10, is Willie Nelson, who got two nominations for his “My Way” album of Frank Sinatra standards. Released in September, it followed the spring release of “Last Man Standing,” an album of all-new original material co-written with producer Buddy Cannon. In November, Nelson taped “Austin City Limits” with his own band for the first time in more than a decade; the episode is set to air on Jan. 26.

Nelson was just one of several longtime Austin acts with noteworthy new albums in 2018. Marcia Ball, this year’s official Texas State Musician, earned widespread acclaim for “Shine Bright” and was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame in October. Jerry Jeff Walker, who nearly died of cancer in 2017, returned in March with “It’s About Time,” his first release in nearly a decade. And Asleep at the Wheel’s “New Routes” found Ray Benson’s nearly 50-years-running outfit energized with a strong lineup of younger musicians including standout fiddler, singer and songwriter Katie Shore.

Other prominent Austin acts with new records in 2018 included Shawn Colvin (a children’s album), Ghostland Observatory, Kelly Willis, Max Frost, Brownout, Bob Schneider, Eliza Gilkyson, Israel Nash, Golden Dawn Arkestra, Melat, Malford Milligan, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, and Shinyribs (a Christmas album).

Our Austin360 Artist of the Month series sought to spotlight rising stars in the local scene throughout 2018. We featured: Jackie Venson (January), Lisa Morales (February), Blastfamous USA (March), Caroline Says (April), Black Pumas (May), Jaimee Harris (June), Night Glitter (July), Kevin Galloway (August), Sailor Poon (September), Kydd Jones (October), Western Youth (November) and Andrew Nolte (December).

Civic landscape of the Live Music Capital

The closing of Threadgill’s South in early December meant a loss not only of an outdoor/indoor venue hub, but also a lot of Armadillo World Headquarters history and memorabilia that owner Eddie Wilson had housed at the venue since it opened in 1996. The original Threadgill’s on North Lamar remains open and will continue to present acoustic music.

The Red River Cultural District lost a key club when Sidewinder closed in May in the wake of city officials reducing its room capacity from 238 to 49 in the middle of SXSW. Also disappearing in the spring was Rattle Inn, a West Sixth street bar that presented music semi-regularly.

New arrivals on the club scene in 2018 were few and far between, but one potentially major addition was Parker Jazz Club, a new downtown hub for jazz to complement the long-running Elephant Room. Parker’s began to hit its stride later in the year: Wynton Marsalis and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra dropped in to jam in November after their Paramount Theatre gig, and in December the club presented Freedonia, a new all-star local jazz outfit featuring Christopher Cross.

Farther south, former Momo’s owner Paul Oveisi opened Cosmic Coffee & Beer Garden early in 2018 without live music, but by year’s end he was presenting shows on Saturdays and Sundays. That will continue into 2019.

More action involving the music community often centered on City Hall. In April, the Austin City Council delivered one of the year’s biggest legislative wins for the music scene with the decision to make permanent a pilot program that extended curfews in the Red River Cultural District.

In November, Austin voters approved Proposition B, which includes $12 million earmarked for creative spaces. Music and arts groups, in crisis mode for the last several years as skyrocketing property values continue to price them out of rehearsal and performance spaces, hope the money will provide some relief.

Dreams of writing a separate property development designation for music venues were deferred with the death of CodeNext. But the re-election of mayor Steve Adler may lead to some movement on his “puzzle plan,” which ties additional money for music venues to an expansion of the Austin Convention Center.

A new nonprofit, EQ Austin, grew out of a city-led task force dedicated to increasing equity, diversity and inclusion in the music industry. Funded by Austin Music Movement, a collection of local music advocacy organizations, the new group will program events by artists performing in under-represented genres.

Other long-running local nonprofits kept working to help musicians in the face of challenging times. The Health Alliance for Austin Musicians hit a new high of $565,000 with its annual HAAM Day fundraiser in September, but still struggled to keep funding high enough to enroll members through the end of the year because of high demand and rising costs.

Meanwhile, the SIMS Foundation, which helps musicians and music industry professionals with mental health needs, dealt a sharp rise in substance-abuse cases, particularly involving opioids. SIMS worked with the mayor and city council to pass a resolution for a city-wide response to the opioid crisis in May.

Elsewhere, real estate magnate Gary Keller’s advocacy organization All ATX continued seeking out avenues to support Austin musicians. Keller was involved, along with the governor’s Texas Music Office, in a November announcement that major performance rights organization BMI plans to open a location in Austin in early 2019.

Increasingly a key player in getting money to musicians is Black Fret, a patron group that awards grants to 20 Austin acts each year. Recipients of $20,000 in 2018 were Donovan Keith, Greyhounds, Los Coast, Jane Ellen Bryant, Jaimee Harris, Wood & Wire, Jeff Plankenhorn, Israel Nash, Shy Beast and Tomar & the FCs, with $5,000 grants given to Texas KGB, Rebecca Loebe, Dave Scher, Palo Duro, Megafauna, A Giant Dog, Trouble in the Streets, Billy King & the Bad Bad Bad, Otis the Destroyer, and Kalu & the Electric Joint.

In Memoriam

One of the two people killed in the March serial bombings was Draylen Mason, a 17-year-old jazz and classical bassist who’d been accepted into several prestigious college music programs. In Mason’s memory, New Orleans’ renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band began the Sousa Fund to provide instruments for young African-American bass and tuba players.

Other Austin musicians who died in 2018 included Hosea Hargrove, 88, a renowned local bluesman who’d been performing in Austin since the 1950s and was a member of the Austin Music Hall of Fame; accordion master Ponty Bone, 78, who played with Joe Ely and many others; local hip-hop pioneer Donnell Robinson, 49, best known by his stage name MC Overlord; indie-pop musician and producer Seth Gibbs, 36, who’d worked with the Reputations, Bobby Jealousy and others; and Mike Carroll, 57, singer for noted Austin garage-punk bands Poison 13 and Lord High Fixers.

People well-known within the music industry also died in 2018. Sammy Allred, 84, became famous early on with the Geezinslaw Brothers, an early 1960s country-comedy duo on Columbia Records, but subsequently had a long run as a radio personality on Austin station KVET. Bill Collings, 68, founded Collings Guitars in Houston in the 1970s but relocated in 1980 to Austin, where it became a world-renowned company whose instruments were favored by many well-known musicians. And Micael Priest, 66, was among a handful of artists whose posters contributed significantly to the legend of 1970s venue Armadillo World Headquarters.