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How high up in the stratosphere can one Austin group ascend? Sky's the limit for the Black Pumas.
The local soul-rock septet, energized by the electric emotion of singer Eric Burton, became ubiquitous enough on 2020's national stage that when they were heard in a Super Bowl commercial collaborating with Lucius on a cover of the Kinks' classic "Strangers" it came as a shock to absolutely no one. Only getting booked to play the actual halftime show could up the ante at this juncture.
Pandemic hit the three-year-old band particularly hard, nixing international travel and a sold-out four night May run at Stubb's Waller Creek Amphitheater that totaled over 9,000 tickets, a historic and unparalleled local feat. Their momentum carried over into remote performances as guests on late night shows and a virtual appearance from ACL Live on the Biden/Harris inauguration telecast. Although they lost out on last year's Best New Artist Grammy to Billie Eilish, the deluxe reissue of their 2019 self-titled debut elicited three nominations for the forthcoming ceremony: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best American Roots Performance, the latter two relating to their anthem "Colors."
In other words, Black Pumas posted a third straight monumental year in a 12-months no one else would dare call "monumental."
Burton, Adrian Quesada, Stephen Bidwell, Brendan Bond, Lauren Cervantes, JaRon Marshall, and Angela Miller collected Austin Music Award honors along the way. 2018 saw them win Best New Band and perform at the show. Last year, they took home Band of the Year as well as Best Soul/R&B.
A rare feat: Austin's favorite band overlapping with one of America's favorite new bands. Enjoy it. – Kevin Curtin
RUNNERS-UP: ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Sam Houston & Blk Odyssy, Ley Line and Sir Woman
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"I use my lungs to rap y'all – simply can't risk that."
That's Megz Kelli on Twitter last summer shutting down Magna Carda's live performances. Even so, her acclaimed rapper/producer duo with Dougie Do now bags Austin's Hip-Hop Band of Year for the fourth consecutive year. The young, Black, and gifted pair stood amongst the tallest in an unprecedented year for Austin and the rest of the globe.
Amid COVID-19 precautions, the group utilized the musical downtime to turn up efforts in needed areas, including the Music Commission and the Black Austin Musicians' Collective. Kelli used her lungs to breathe life into a new project, developing and producing a substantial new literary magazine, Water, now on its second issue. They were consistently vocal following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
And let's not forget the music.
Following a loosie single dropped in March ("Untitled"), the duo released Coffee Table Talk, Vol. 2 last April, a brief but potent meditation on Blackness, jazz and Black classicism, and neo-soul offerings. Producer Chris Beale says a brand-new full-length is on the way, which he reveals took "most of the last year" to finish: "We're just adding the final [post-production] spices now. The new project is my favorite album personally so far." – Kahron Spearman
RUNNERS-UP: Blackillac, Deezie Brown, Kydd Jones and The Teeta
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Jackie Venson personifies perseverance by relentlessly ascending the music industry's creaky, overcrowded, and failing ladder.
The Northwest Austin native undoubtedly "Went Above & Beyond" during a year defined by despair and death. Unable to cast her trademark joy on physical audiences due to pandemic, the ever resourceful independent artist maintained a virtual presence at every juncture of 2020 (archived on Instagram @JackieVenson). This ray of light in a disaster area, presented free of charge, makes her the rightful and inaugural title holder of Best Livestreaming Artist.
Two volumes as Jackie the Robot zoom the former blues ensemble bandleader past even her pivot to a self-sampling solo multi-tasker and catapult the guitarist into future worlds, yet it's October's Vintage Machine that travels the farthest among a whopping five releases in 2020. Her third studio album delivers a batch of good vibrations creeping closer to pop without sacrificing instrumental virtuosity. Opener "Awake" explains its creator's commitment to fulfilling the dreams of her father Andrew Venson, former bassist of Austin R&B act Blue Mist.
Across 33 minutes, Vintage Machine journeys autobiographically, so musically that yields uplifting vibes in a downbeat year.
2020 feels like a seed for Austin's ever popularizing hometown hero. Rising star these past several years, her wicked guitar solos and radiating glow got everyone to take notice, but this contemporary era of stark division absolutely uncovered in Venson a palpable hunger to fight. Increasingly, she uses her voice for change – refusing to halt or conform.
"Instead of being silent, today I'm going to demand that my city, Austin, Texas, be better," Venson tweeted on June 2. "I hope you still believe Black lives matter when you're choosing lineups for the major Austin concert events and festivals, when you're picking out music and songs for your radio shows, when you're doing artist spotlights."
Strong billing greeted her on the livestream edition of ACL Radio's Blues on the Green, but she took a defiant stand for further diversity and wound up curating an all-Black Blues on the Screen herself in July. Venson performed only briefly during R&B singer Alesia Lani's set.
In November, she remedied that by debuting on PBS live concert long hauler Austin City Limits with an incredibly bold statement. A black dress stenciled with the names of 73 victims of police brutality reaffirmed the priorities of the only Black woman to win an Austin Music Award for Best Guitarist (2019). In the midst of actualizing a lifelong goal, she once again diverted attention to people in need.
Time to eliminate "rising" before "star." Jackie Venson is Austin's Musician of the Year. – Derek Udensi
RUNNERS-UP: Gina Chavez, Jake Lloyd, Walker Lukens and Mobley
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No local artist built as steadily to earn an Austin Music Award for Songwriter of the Year than David Ramirez, and 2020's My Love is Hurricane finally sealed the honor for the raw and real troubadour. The Houston native writes with unrivaled emotional grit, fearless in confronting his own doubts and struggles with a powerfully poetic lens that first found footing on 2015's third album Fables, then upended behind the bitingly brilliant We're Not Going Anywhere in 2017.
Hurricane swirls altogether differently again, though, bound to a relationship and self-revelations that emerged within it.
"I'd always thought my loneliness and depression was fueling all this music," Ramirez confessed to the Chronicle in July. "Then I opened myself up to this woman like I never had before and found I'm still able to stumble upon songs that have richness and story. That made me realize I didn't need to be sad or an alcoholic to write something that I found to be beautiful."
The songs still storm amid Ramirez's anxieties, but the underlying anchor keeps new balance, the songwriter rising beyond his own agonies and ecstasies. Once again, Ramirez proves one of Austin's most provocative and constantly evolving songwriters. – Doug Freeman
RUNNERS-UP: Eric Burton, Bill Callahan, Eliza Gilkyson and Jana Horn
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