(Sponsored by Luxe Refill)
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: ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Band of Heathens, Corey Baum (Croy & the Boys) and DJ Mel
Shutdown caught Alejandro Rose-Garcia in the midst of building out his new studio, lovingly dubbed Hello Gorgeous just southeast of Austin in Goforth. He then took advantage of the moment to offer up a revealing, endearing series with his bandmates and crew as they establish their new musical sanctuary.
"This is me wanting to film walking into this new house ... and all the songs and moments and time I get to spend in this building and really bring these people I love into it and hopefully make some really weird magic happen," he allowed at the outset of the series in April.
Through three half-hour mini documentaries interspersed with a pair of livestream performances, the troubadour unfolds his aptly titled new EP Look Alive, while geeking out on his recording equipment and process, and presenting freaky music videos and stellar impromptu takes of songs. Behind-the-scenes footage of touring the U.S. pre-pandemic, from L.A. to Levon Helm's renowned Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, can't eclipse thoughtful, sincere commentary on music making, his DIY ethos, and even artistic hardships wrangled by the Austin emissary known to the world as Shakey Graves. – Doug Freeman
RUNNERS-UP: Bud's Presents Live & Direct, Hotel Vegas' Hotel Free TV and Lost Well's Rock for Rent Safehouse
(Sponsored by Weird Homes Tour)
Luck Presents, the production company of Matt Bizar and Willie Nelson's grandniece Ellee Fletcher Durniak, offered a path forward as one of the first organizations to reset to the new livestream reality for live music. The crew quickly adjusted with the March cancellation of their SXSW-adjacent Luck Reunion to present the virtual event 'Til Further Notice and April's Come & Toke It. The pinnacle followed when they ensured Willie's annual Fourth of July Picnic continued in a time of artistic and basic need.
Hosted hilariously haphazardly by Nelson scions Lukas and Micah from the Luck clubhouse at the family's Spicewood movie-set town, the event combined live performances with a Charlie Sexton-led backing band before a two-hour recorded finale of superstars and the Family Band closing out from the Pedernales Studio. Production leaned into the meta-moment, with Robert Earl Keen fronting the band virtually on a TV, creating a screen of a screen ... of a screen, while stage footlights reflected on the television as if it were all happening in real time.
Not without its glitches, the stream provided crucial continuity of tradition, with a homespun and creative twist that added a new element to Nelson's hallowed show for fans. – Doug Freeman
RUNNERS-UP: A Night for Austin, Black Everythang Matters, Blues on the Screen and HOME Cookin' for the Holidays
Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin. Support the Chronicle