The 38th Annual Austin Music Awards Deliver the Guy Clark Standard

“Stuff That Works” – GA floor, sleek runtime, winner sets, funny hosts

In the best sense of the word, communal defined the mood at the Moody Theater Wednesday night for the 38th annual Austin Music Awards. Typically the unofficial start of SXSW Music week, the homegrown fête this year instead became a moment for the local music community to come together after a shell-shocked week.

Your hosts for the 38th Annual Austin Music Awards, Chris Cubas and ... Jackie Venson? Yup, in the yellow ensemble. (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Hello Jackie! (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Austin Chronicle, SXSW, and AMAs dream team Nick Barbaro and Louis Black (r) (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

“They said cancelation, we say celebration,” announced the show’s producer, a determined Louis Black, onstage to open the ceremonies. “This is about our town and our community. We celebrate together, we mourn together, and we move forward together.”

That impulse held sway over the next two-and-a-half hours.

The show, now under the direction of Nedda Tehrany and musical director Michael Ramos, took a delightfully scrappier turn than previous years’ more gala-oriented emphasis, a ceremony without pomp, as befit the circumstances. Key to this proved a general admission open floor in front of the stage, which replaced last year’s table setup and allowed for mingling and movement in a space known for exactly that. Likewise, performances culled mostly from the night’s winning acts – with no special guests or even much in the way of mashups, a longtime AMA specialty – provided a much-needed shot in the arm for a reeling local populace.

Such intentional informalness made the show, in fact.

In that regard, the charmingly haphazard hosting by Chris Cubas and Jackie Venson led the way. The actual show and even the awards played second fiddle to the real-time gathering, with winners offering thanks not speeches through the emcees’ hand-held microphones, which replaced a formal podium. This tweak alone shaved 90 minutes off a traditionally four-hour show and kept the pace at a relatively quick clip.

The Well, who rocked the AMAs with old-school doom rock, may have been the only true heavy metal band to have ever performed at the Awards. (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Wild Child frontwoman Kelsey Wilson in her new guise as Sir Woman (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Jack Ingram as Guy Clark (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Best World Music winner Hard Proof worked to warm the crowd early, the ninepiece funk act setting a heavy groove followed by the wallop of Best Metal band the Well. Grupo Fantasma, taking home Best Latin and celebrating their 20th anniversary, continued to ramp up the energy throughout the first third of the show.

Wild Child’s Kelsey Wilson showcased her Best New Act, Sir Woman, delivering a powerhouse double shot of R&B pop in preview of an upcoming debut. Jack Ingram provided the other top highlight, as he presented author, filmmaker, and Americana activist Tamara Saviano with the Margaret Moser Award. As she exited, he wielded an acoustic guitar on what could have been the back-to-basics theme song for the evening: Guy Clark’s “Stuff That Works.”

Black Pumas singer Eric Burton’s humble and heartfelt gratitude (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Jegar Erickson stilled the room with a poignant tribute to his late father Roky Erickson (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Austin Mayor Steve Adler inducted Carolyn Wonderland into the AMAs Hall of Fame (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

In accepting awards for Best R&B and Band of the Year, Black Pumas frontman Eric Burton acknowledged, “Austin, Texas, has been the first place I felt like I found a home.” Equally poignant was Jegar Erickson’s introduction to the In Memoriam segment and a moving remembrance of his father. He brought the entire theater to a hush as he focused not on Roky Erickson’s musical legacy, but instead the psychedelic pioneer’s relationship with his grandson.

Kathy McCarty followed by celebrating another idiosyncratic Austin icon with a performance of the late Daniel Johnson’s “True Love Will Find You In the End,” with Rich Brotherton contributing lead guitar. Local Western duo Harry & Emmy then turned in a gorgeous, country-tuned tribute of Erickson’s “Starry Eyes.”

Mayor Adler’s induction of Carolyn Wonderland to the AMA Hall of Fame then addressed the elephant in the room. He acknowledged the city’s decision to cancel SXSW as “something that had to happen,” but emphasized “Austin is not closing” while urging responsible awareness from fans in the coming weeks. As if to make the point, Wonderland couldn’t accept her award out of caution for the cough she’d developed.

No Place to Fall: (l-r) Tameca Jones, Bill Carter, Charlie Sexton, Lolita Lynne, and Emily Gimble (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Bill and Ruth Ellesworth Carter made up for her absence in accepting the Townes Van Zandt songwriting award. The former strapped on a guitar and joined the Mayor’s House Band – Ramos, Charlie Sexton, and Gabe Rhodes, alongside Best Bassist Lolita Lynne, Best Keyboardist Emily Gimble, and Best Drummer J.J. Johnson – for a ripping rendition of the couple’s hit song for Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Crossfire.” Wilson and Best Vocalist Tameca Jones then joined the ensemble for blow out “Why Get Up?”

Spoon flew in specifically to collect their award (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Who better to rep Austin than Blackillac? (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The closing run of the evening surged with Blackallac (Best Hip-Hop) combining forces with Walker Lukens (Best Pop), and Big Wy’s Horns (Best Horns) leading the closing jam of Seventies hit “Everyone’s a Winner.”

Communal to the last, Austin’s music scene remained the central focus as one of its biggest musical ambassadors, Britt Daniel, revealed that Spoon flew into town from recording specifically to accept Best Rock Band in appreciation of the city that helped launch them. And although the night’s big winner, Gary Clark Jr., didn’t arrive in time to accept his five awards (Best Blues and Guitar, and Musician, Album, and Song of the Year), he materialized at the afterparty as the backstage opened up and the winners and fans came together.

For the 2019-20 Austin Music Awards, the simple act of gathering mattered more than any accolades.

Full show photo gallery here.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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