The city struggles with/without live music as clubs and musicians pick up the pieces of a cancelled SXSW
Fuck T.S. Elliot. In 2020, March, not April, is the cruelest month.
March Madness? Sorry. Billie Eilish’s triumphant post-Grammy tour? Yanked. Thom Yorke feeds our Radiohead jones with a solo tour. No dice. Wanna go to the movies? I don’t think so. Spring break? Maybe in 2021. And for us music fans, one of the biggest losses was no SXSW this year.
Other things you can cross off your list- movie going, plays, large scale music tours, small scale tours, family gatherings, seeing your friends, having a social life outside your phone/tablet/computer. A pandemic virus + China downplaying it + a president who can’t think outside of anything but himself = social isolation becoming all the rage. Truly a great freakin’ way to start the decade.
After all the grumbling, I was with Israeli rapper Kosher Dillz though, who said that even with the humongo music/tech/movie fest SXSW getting cancelled, he was still doing “SXSW.” Sure, you miss all the ‘official’ stuff and the swag they give out and all the fun parties and all the foreign acts coming in, but Austin is Austin- it pats itself on the back as ‘the live music capital’ but there’s a lot of truth to that. If you’re not in tech or a musician there, you know or love or are related to a musician there or have something to do with the music biz there. It really is a music friendly town that wisely supports the industry. Other cities should look to if they’re smart- LA and NYC truly suck the big one in this regard.
So why give up the adult version of spring break? I decided to pack a few gallons of hand sanitizer, put on a body condom and fly out to Austin anyway. The good news: the airport line was the shortest I’ve ever seen and there was PLENTY of room on the plane. We even started a few rounds of hacky sack going when the seat belt sign got turned off until the stewardess yelled at me. Around the airport, dummies everywhere had their surgical masks strapped on even if every doctor says that it’s practically USELESS and may cause other problems. They might as well have just wore leather pants and aviator goggles and looked much cooler at it.
Other than being a YOLO type, the other reason I wanted to go was ‘cause I “heart” Austin. I’d been to 20 SXSW’s (every year since 1999) and I fell in love with the city, even if it’s grown too much with the tech industry and rising real estate. SXSW was in a bad fucking place in 2020- no insurance to cover the cancellation, 1/3 of its staff axed and the whole future of the fest is a big question mark. Just in case anybody was gonna get a wise idea of doing an alt-SXSW fest, Austin (like other big cities) put the kibosh on any large gatherings, and that turned out to be only the beginning.
Just to show you that when it comes to music, Austin is still a never-say-die town, a bunch of Facebook groups popped up to show non-SXSW events still going on. Also, there were all sorts of stories about how the city was coming together to support the musicians and the music industry there, including heart-warming articles from KUT, Eater Austin and Billboard of local businesses support the music scene, plus other articles from Spectrum and Austin360 about how you can help the city and its musicians (if you’d like to do your part, you can donate directly to Banding Together ATX and the Stand With Austin fund). There were also local groups pulling together ‘SXSW-alternative’ events to try to make up for all the cancellations otherwise.
How bad was the damage to Austin gonna be? SX brought in 400K people there last year and over $350 million for the city and it would have likely brought in more for 2020. The money that SX brings in also means cultural funding for Austin which won’t be there for the city this year. On top of that, local Austin acts who usually get thrust into the spotlight and local venues who reap nice profits from the fest were SOL with the cancellation. For labels and non-Austin acts that looked for some national attention during the fest were also out in the cold as their promo campaigns were now sunk. Even many brands/sponsors who had launch campaigns timed with the fest were also scrambling to figure out what to do otherwise. With a wave of tours and other fests also biting the dust (including Coachella and Ultra) around the same time, a reasonable question to ask, as one headline put it, was “SXSW Cancelled Due To Coronavirus, So What’s Next For Music?“
And even if you think that Zuckerberg is sucking up all of your data to sell to anyone (he is) just so you can stay ‘connected’’ with friends and family, Facebook turned out to a great forum for everything from would-be SXSW artists to grieve about raising money to go there and getting denied- you can some pretty heartbreaking posts from the bands Mammoth Penguins and the School and promoter Steve Rogovin, plus a sad one from the normally cheery/funny El Arroyo restaurant. Thanks to visa restrictions, overseas bands / managers / labels were telling me that any dates in Austin or elsewhere in the US were out the window once SX sunk. Luckily, many acts used the Bandsintown site/app to update their gig lists and venues would post FB updates about their shows going dark. The Austin Chronicle deserves a big shout out too for not only maintaining a sold list of non-SXSW shows happening (because of timeliness, this page might not be active anymore) but also a constantly-updated list of all the cancelled shows as well, and needless to say, there were LOTS of ‘em.
Even with all of the notices/updates, it was still a chore to keep track of what was happening and not happening in Austin, as everyone scrambled there to figure out how to make things work. Generally, I figured that if I couldn’t get a band/label/management to a confirm a gig or if the act was from way outta town from Austin or the show was long ride from where I was staying downtown, it probably wasn’t gonna be fruitful to see IF a show was still going on or not. Not surprisingly, with a wealth of national and international talent suddenly gone, the talent pool was narrowed down to local/area acts so there was some overlap in the bands booked between Maggie Mae’s, Continental and Dogwood- the names Leon III, Moon Fever, Chandler, Alexis Marrero, Western Youth, Pike & Sutton kept cropping up. With the adjoining Flatstock (concert poster fest) and EDU conference also being axed, can-do Austinites still looked to making some remnant of them happen regardless later in the week.
It looked like SXSW being cancelled wasn’t going to totally destroy Austin. Or so we thought. Events nationally and locally moved faster than we, or anyone, could have imagined.
VIDEO: SXSW Canceled Due to Coronavirus
SATURDAY MARCH 14th
Our Texas adventure started in South Austin, staying with famed writer / raconteur / SXSW co-founder Ed Ward who usually avoided downtown Austin. For dinner, we met up with writer/editor Chuck Eddy (now working at Napster) and his family. Throughout dinner, he kept asking us “so, what are you going to do in Austin?” “I guess we’ll find out.” I answered.
To plan my week, I had to deal with not only all of the SXSW showcase cancellations but also many of the associated day shows gone. The previous week I combed through Bandsintown, do512, plus websites/Facebook pages plus emails to bands/labels/managers to find out what was and wasn’t going on in Austin. Not only had the SXSW stuff been cancelled but plenty of the alternative non-festival shows also got nixed. Luckily, No Depression guru and Austin Statesman writer Peter Blackstock tipped me off to their list of non-SXSW shows and another site listing all the cancellations so I could keep up with what was happening. Just like at SXSW, you needed a plan A, B, and C depending on the circumstances. I went through months of planning SXSW shows to one week of planning non-SXSW to plan around whatever was left. I admired the local bands/clubs/bookers/promoters for trying to keep some kind of semblance of music happening in Austin. Somehow SOME music was going to happen there regardless. Or so I hoped.
SUNDAY MARCH 15th
In lieu of running around Austin just to see shows as usual and since we thought that we’d see music during the week, we did something we’d promised ourselves we’d do someday if we had the time- explore other parts of Austin that we’d been missing for years.
Mr. Ward took us to the wonderful Book People shop where I picked up a book covering the modern history of Austin (Joe Nick Patoski’s Austin to ATX) and made our way across the street to Waterloo Records, which had cancelled all of its fest-related shows but still had its impressive stock of music on display– Ward had to literally drag me out of the place the first time I went there. Now, even with a large well-stocked store being a thing of rare beauty today, for some reason, it didn’t resonate with me in the same way. Maybe it’s because I had (or thought I had) most of the music I needed already or could easily find it online otherwise. Thinking about it now, I do kind of miss the child-like enthusiasm I once had for record shops and wondered if I could find that again.
Later, after Ward dropped us off, we got stroll around the South Lamar area to see the relocated indie/vinyl store End of An Ear, hipster-hangout and mini music venue Radio Coffee, well-named odd antique store Uncommon Objects and even a small goth store across the highway Secret Oktober, all of them a short walking distance from each other and proof that there’s plenty of life outside of SXSW in Austin.
MONDAY MARCH 16th
Making our way to the downtown area, we got a Lyft ride from a kind old hippie we’d met the day before. He insisted that we’d be able to see SOME live music in Austin despite the restrictions and he was right.
Turns out that there were a few low key showcases going on at the famed main strip of Sixth Avenue. To figure out what was happening and not happening, I kept up with The Chronicle’s gig list and cancelled list and sure enough, there were plenty of cancellations.
Without SXSW, downtown Austin was quieter than I had ever seen it, including the times that I had been there for some early Saturday mornings. I didn’t miss the huge crowds but this opposite extreme was kind of disconcerting.
The first thing I found available for downtown music that day was the start of San Jac Saloon’s “Country Fest,” which they had ambitiously planned for the whole week. Singer/guitarist Chris Ray had a tip jar, a Venmo sign, a songbook of country covers (“Mama Tried”) and a crowd of about 5 people, with me being the only one to applaud. When he asked for requested, I responded with Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See.” He obliged and medlied it with “Hey Jude.”
Walking down the street to Touché, another small club/bar I never noticed before, the joint was in the middle of their Rock XS fest. Singer/songwriter Julie Bouchard did a nice mix of folkie originals with modern covers (“No Diggity”). Next up was a rough and ready honky tonk trio with cowboys hats called Madstone. “Are you ready to hear some rock and roll?” the singer asked all four of us in the bar. We were and I tipped him as I left.
After wandering into the Shakespeare Pub where a fem folkie was doing “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and mostly ignored by the crowd (numbering about 7), I made my way to the Voodoo Lounge, which was hosting its AMW festival. There, Neetso and Swamp Mane (all the way from Maryland) were taking turns on the deck making dubstep that was actually palatable. The booker told me that they were replacing another act and that a bunch of others cancelled. The same thing was going on down the street at the charmingly named Dirty Dog bar which was having its Dirty Fest- one band didn’t show up so another group that was milling around went onstage instead. Houston metal band Surrender Stella conjured up mucho energy and humor for a crowd that numbered 3.
Despite all the complications, I was satisfied that I still got to hear country, metal, folk and techno in Austin, even if it was on a much smaller scale than I (or the city) was used to. And not one of the acts was scheduled for, or ever seemed to play, SXSW. But little did I know that I had just seen a piece of history, and it was nothing to do with any of the individual bands. That would turn out to be the last day of live shows in Austin for a while.
TUESDAY MARCH 17th
I started the morning by texting an old Austin chum to see if he wanted to meet up, even in a low key way. His response: “We are in emergency mode at work. Mayor about to make his speech.” Sure enough at about Noon local time, Austin Mayor Steve Adler ordered that restaurants are take out or delivery only. Bars can’t have public spaces open or serve alcohol. On top of that, events with more than 10 people are shut down, in line with the federal recommendations. Effectively means that all bars and shows are shut down. Shit…
One cruel irony was that the attendance was so low at all the Monday shows I saw that all of them would have fit the 10 person limit and then some. Another irony was that the souvenir shops still sold SXSW shirts.
Walking around Sixth Street to survey the damage, it was effectively a ghost town. The only things open were a few souvenir shops, two small pizzerias (doing take out only). The streets were mostly empty as such, with a few dog-walkers and some homeless people wandering around shouting and sputtering. Austin was no longer the Live Music Capital. It was now No Music.
Except… Near the corner of Sixth and Brazos, BD Riley’s, a long time Irish pub, managed to stay somewhat open for St. Paddy’s Day. They offered takeout and true to the word of the city ordinance, they poured me a Diet Coke. There was even a stool with an acoustic guitar and mandolin there and yes, someone was gonna actually play music. Trad Irish group the Chancers were there and despite everything, they insisted on playing just in front of the club. I was mostly the entire audience and even got them to do “An Irish Lullaby” (the only trad Irish song I could think of). Eventually, the owner of the pub politely told me that I couldn’t legally hang out in the bar and asked me to finish my drink and then leave. Standing outside, I marveled that despite the ultra-strict city ordinance, there was still some music on Sixth Street right there. I briefly became their sound man and thanked them for keeping music alive there. Guitarist Davey Arwine laughed and said “well, the virus hasn’t killed all of us yet!”
Otherwise, Sixth Street became a place to avoid. It wasn’t just because it was depressing to see it so vacant and drained of life. Usually, you avoid the main strip because of the crush of people there but not you stayed away for the opposite reason. Austin, like many major cities, has a homeless problem and while there are stalwart orgs like Front Steps and Salvation Army (despite their homophobia) to service them, there are so many people there seeking help that they line the streets outside Sixth there. Without the tourists, frat boys and SX attendees, the homeless took over Sixth Street and while many of them were docile and just trying to get by, others would loudly accost you for money or just for being there. Part of the problem is that the state has a boneheaded, inhumane governor, Greg Abbott, who sees the solution to the homeless problem much like Hunter S. Thompson saw the solution for the Hell’s Angels: exterminate the brutes. Rest assured, a fiery circle of hell that even Dante didn’t know awaits Abbott.
Back at the hotel, I called around until I found a decent restaurant in the area where I could pick up the food. An exotic place I never heard of, Emmer and Rye, fit the bill but when I went there and asked for plastic knives and forks for my pasta order, they scrambled around and finally just gave me their silverware and apologies for being disorganized. Back at the hotel, we found a hand-written rolled note with our order to thank us for supporting them.
Thanks to another tip from Mr. Blackstock, while I found that while there didn’t seem to be any small private shows going on, a bunch of Austin artists were doing virtual concerts from their own homes and asked fans to tip them online via Venmo. All of which seemed like a nice, smart idea but why stay in Austin to hear this when you could be back home and do the same thing? Also, obviously there wasn’t a lot of technical expertise on display- sites asked for passwords for access which the artists forget to provide, another artist asked you to buy a virtual ticket but the streaming link didn’t work and other sites never had a streaming link at the appointed time. Much as I would have liked to have seen/supported these acts, I had my limits.
I had my limits too for trying to track down music in Austin under these extreme circumstances. Maybe there were some private parties somewhere or maybe some other street performers would pop up here and there but as much of a music lover as I am, when you’re in circumstances like this, eventually you have to throw in the towel and realize that the only music I was gonna hear in the Austin was the background tunes in a tourist shop or a Spotify playlist on my laptop.
Most notably, the never-say-die Alt-SXSW Facebook page had transformed to reflect the realities on the ground- it was now called Covid-19 in Texas Info Group, with the past week of show postings all wiped out for good.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 18TH
We did still have the hotel reservation and figured that we’d just adjust by chillaxing more than we’re used to in Austin. Turns out that the city was happy to accommodate us but not in the way that we wanted.
The only people who seemed to be checking in or out of our hotel were airplane pilots- a good sign in a way that we would still be able to get home. And technically, we could still enjoy the fine dining options in town but we couldn’t dine at any of the restaurants, with town ordinances limiting them to take out or delivery only. Town ordinances also closed our hotel pool. And for more ordnance fun, just when you think Sixth Street couldn’t get more desolate or bleaker…
Wandering along the block were people dressed in shorts and orange shirts that said “Downtown Austin Alliance.” They were there mostly to keep the streets clean but to also provide security as needed, calling the cops if they witnessed any incidents. Other than the stray wandering homeless, the only other people on the block were construction workers who were boarding up bars up and down the block for security reasons- they didn’t know how long they’d be closed and needed some piece of mind obviously. One owner did wonder out loud though, “how the fuck would I get in afterwards?” Along with BD Riley’s (still only open for take out), the only other stores on the block open were a grocery store and two souvenir shops across the street and a decent pizza place (pick up only of course). When I mentioned the boarded up bars to the lady at the grocery store, she shrugged and said “they don’t gotta worry about the homeless people- they just wanna get high. They’re probably worried about other people outside of there coming in.”
Walking back to the hotel, as if I didn’t get the message that the whole area was becoming a Fellini film, I saw an older African American gent with a guitar bag strapped to his back and dragging a luggage bag on wheels behind him, walking towards Rainey Street where there zero venues open or any kind of crowd to hear music. I was almost going to ask him if he somehow found a place to play but the pained, angry expression on his face said it all.
That night, I walked down Sixth again, this time on the way to pick up a food order, and saw more of the clubs boarded up but with one guy standing in front of Voodoo Lounge, with the door open so that the mirrors balls and colored lights teased a musical evening that wasn’t gonna happen. Brian, a club manager originally from Connecticut, who worked on two other venues on the block, told me not to feel sorry for him and the other club people. “I’ve been through 2008 (the recession) and Hurricane Sandy and that was much worse. The important thing is that we’re still around, we got our health and we’re gonna stay inside and we’re gonna pull through this in a few months.” He did have one caveat though. “If this lasts longer than that, we’re all fucked.”
Across the street from my hotel, a cop car flashed its lights and joined two other cop cars there to apprehend someone. A young guy on his cell, standing near me, watched along and said “it’s crazy now- people are just stealing stuff and everything.”
Usually, some kind of journalistic obligations would lead me back to the block to report the progress, or more accurately, how things were regressing. Maybe they’d encase the bars in cement or create 10 foot high road blocks on each street or do a targeted carpet bombing of the area for security reasons or history would come full circle and it would turn into prairie land again. I’d seen it get bad enough and wasn’t particularly curious to see how much worse it would get.
As such, my girlfriend and I planned for just about the only left to do in the area, without getting stir crazy at the hotel- a road trip out of town.
THURSDAY MARCH 19/FRIDAY MARCH 20
Not surprisingly, car rentals were cheap and plentiful so we took advantage of it to do run throughs of San Antonio and the smaller, charming towns of Fredericksburg and New Braunfels- the later two are part of the well-named ‘hill country’ and heavily into their long-time heritage of German culture. To keep our spirits up, we blasted and admired the timelessness of Funkadelic and Stevie Wonder as we sped down I-35.
The lush green area was full of houses perched on small hilltops and long winding roads that led past farms and ranches. These towns had wonderful small-town vibes to them and were prime places to sample schnitzel and bratwurst. Braunfels even had a modified, scaled-down farmer’s market open where ‘essentials’ (food) were for sale but not non-essentials (crafts). One of the vendors said that because the town was smaller, farther south, you found more things open there though even there, it was still limited and the stores wisely tried to keep to the 10-person rule. In town, I also overheard someone say that in the past week, Texas led the nation in alcohol consumption, then proudly proclaiming “we know how to cope!”
San Antonio only lagged a day or so behind Austin in closing up all of its bars, most of its shops and limiting restaurants to take-out only. The river walk there, a lower-level brick walk-way which winds with the river for miles through the city, was still wonderful to wander around even with only a tourist shop and ice cream place still open.
Like Austin though, most of the regular tourist foot traffic had disappeared from San Antonio (even the Alamo was closed), leaving the stray homeless to claim the streets. Again, as hungry as I was to see and find music, I knew how fruitless it would be so I didn’t even bother, which was a rarity for me in any town. After driving around for a while, we actually spent most of our time in the hotel, as was advisable anyway.
Practicing for my upcoming hibernation, I streamed Willie Nelson’s all-star show online on Friday night, titled “Til Further Notice” (substituting for an even bigger “Ranch Reunion” show that was planned). Excellent line-up too, with about six hours of music: Margo Price, Tami Neilson, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Kurt Vile, Lucinda Williams plus Willie and sons Lucas and Micah. In keeping with the health situation, all the ‘shows’ were home broadcasts by each artist, usually accompanied by an acoustic guitar. I thought enough to donate but because of the circumstances, the performances were understandably sad and low-key.
SATURDAY MARCH 21
Returning to Austin for our last full day in Texas, a thunderstorm rolled into town. After everything else that had happened there, God decided to put a cherry on top with a long hard piss it seemed.
I thought that I had already given up on Sixth Street but out of morbid curiosity, I had to see what was left of it. For the first time in decades, the street was open to traffic in mid-March on a Saturday night. One beer truck with a flashing neon sign sat parked, with nowhere to offload. Only one store remained open- a gift shop with just enough wood boarding open to let customers in. It was just as god-awful and depressing as I expected.
But as I walked to the West end of the strip, at San Jacinto, I actually heard some music and it didn’t sound like it was coming from a stereo- it was too loud and alive. Sure enough, as I peered into the window of the San Jac Saloon, there were two gents standing on the stage playing. The door was locked but inside there was a big sign with the singer’s name and Venmo account (@AaronNavarroMusic). One of the managers explained that they had been streaming shows there since Wednesday the 18th and would keep it going at https://www.sanjacsaloon.com/shows with the hashtag #CHANGETHETUNE and also via their Facebook page. Since I wasn’t allowed in (city ordinances and all), he was nice enough to open the door briefly, let me lean in and quickly snap a picture of that act. I stood outside and listened and watched from the window for a while and gave the singer a Venmo tip. It’s the least I could do- Navarro will probably be the last live music I see in a long time.
SUNDAY MARCH 22
Suffice it to say this wasn’t the trip to Austin we had planned about two weeks ago but nothing was the same for anyone now. As we traveled back, we marvelled at the non-existence lines at airport security and how empty our two flights were (the 2nd one had only 10 people total on it).
Technically, live music existed but you have to wonder, how is it the same without a live audience? And will this become the new normal for ‘live shows’ for now? Probably.
Regardless, I knew that I still wanna come back to Austin when everything eventually settles down and we can meet everyone else face to face again and stand in crowded bars and stare at a band across a room and step in beer and enjoy the communal experience with a bunch of strangers.
I started tearing through Patoski’s Austin book, reading about how Willie Nelson laid his roots there, how Austin City Limits started out, how crazed idealized hippies started up creaky little clubs. In an updated version of the book, I wondered what the post-virus chapter will be like. Hopefully, it’ll be somewhat uplifting.