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"Death is everywhere"

– Depeche Mode, "Fly on the Windscreen," 1986


DON'T FEAR THE REAPER

Objectively, death is pretty unremarkable. After all, it happens thousands of times every day. It only means something when the scythe cuts close to home, which, musically speaking, happened plenty in 2006. It was nearly impossible to pick up a Chronicle (let alone write for it) this year without reading another Austin music-scene obituary. Others nearly became obituaries, like when World Burns to Death singer Jack Control was stabbed breaking up a fight outside the Parlor in January. Hank Williams, Jim Morrison, and My Chemical Romance all had it right. No one here gets out alive. We all march in the black parade. Losing local icons like Clifford Antone, Don Walser, and Ann Richards naturally spawned more soul-searching than usual, but the truth is, the Austin they represented increasingly belongs only to myth and memory. Enticing myths and fond (if fuzzy) memories, to be sure, but it's been at least a generation since the city has been either a cosmic-cowboy crash pad or fertile blues incubator. Today it's a stressed-out, thin-skinned metropolis that takes in more than 100 million music-related dollars annually and whose mayor screams bloody murder when The New York Times dares to label Austin merely the live music capital of the South instead of the world.

Perhaps the most significant passing of 2006 was not a person at all but the Back Room. When the 32-year-old club stopped scheduling music in July, it was Austin's ruling rap venue as well as master of its metal domain, one of the very few live-music spots regularly patronized by blacks, whites, and Hispanics (sometimes even on the same night). Maybe even more than Antone's death, the Back Room's demise officially closes the book on the Seventies ideal that placed a higher premium on musical kinship than box-office receipts, back when artists and venues could afford to operate in the red. The new model is Stubb's (site of James Brown's final local performance in May), where a band's first sold-out show is just the first step along the path to a prime spot at the Austin City Limits Music Festival or Lollapalooza, and money pours in all around. Good thing, too, because it gets more expensive to live here every day.

In an irony worthy of Randy Newman, a major reason it keeps getting harder for local musicians to pay their rent is Austin's runaway success. SXSW once again shattered its own attendance records, as performers from Morrissey, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Beastie Boys to Wolfmother, KT Tunstall, and Arctic Monkeys, aided by several thousand of their closest music-biz friends, stirred up the usual weeklong blizzard of springtime hype. (Who's Tapes 'n Tapes again?) Its fall counterpart, the ACL Music Festival, managed to do SXSW one better by keeping the forces of nature themselves – heat, lightning, rain – at bay, albeit barely, and although the most elemental force of the entire weekend was Austin duo Ghostland Observatory's jaw-dropping breakout performance. Our Palm School Choir ran a close, joyous second. Punks and indie rockers even enjoyed their own day in Waterloo Park at December's Fun Fun Fun Fest.

The local music economy was robust enough to convince the (Inter)National Association of Music Merchants and Percussive Arts Society to move their annual conventions here. Both the Austin Music Hall and Stubb's announced multimillion-dollar renovations scheduled to start next year. Woody's South, Beauty Bar, Emo's Lounge, Continental Club Gallery, and Mohawk opened for business. Sweatbox Studio and KOOP radio survived a catastrophic February fire. One Tuesday in October, Austin shoppers and merchants coughed up a cool $50,000 for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, a sum promptly doubled by grants from two Texas foundations. About three weeks later, a crowd of 43,000 bundled up against the autumn chill and stood screaming in Zilker Park for the first-ever Austin visit by a little band called the Rolling Stones. The Stones, who know a thing or two about cheating death, obliged by tailoring the set to their surroundings (or at least Texas) with Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly covers.

Individual achievements proliferated like Stones T-shirts the next day. Kinky Friedman had enough voters saying "Why the hell not?" to poll a respectable 12% on November's gubernatorial ballot. A MySpace surge sent the Octopus Project to the Coachella festival. Graham Reynolds, Britt Daniel, and Friends of Dean Martinez broke into the movies, scoring A Scanner Darkly, Stranger Than Fiction, and Fast Food Nation, respectively. Car Stereo (Wars)'s "Ghostface Observatory" mash-up was the blogosphere's surprise summertime hit. James Hand finally played the Grand Ole Opry. Voxtrot and Okkervil River couldn't sneeze without PitchforkMedia.com reporting what kind of sneeze it was and whether they covered their mouth. (Voxtrot yes, Okkervil no.) The Pacific Northwest was especially kind: The Black Angels spent most of the summer atop Seattle/Internet station KEXP's playlist, and What Made Milwaukee Famous re-released 2004 hookfest Trying to Never Catch Up on Death Cab for Cutie indie launching pad Barsuk. Patrice Pike narrowly missed the top five on CBS' Rock Star: Supernova and enjoyed a hero's welcome at ACL. The Arm, Meat Purveyors, Yuppie Pricks, and Rubble called the whole thing off, but no breakup lasts forever – just ask Stretford, the Chumps, Dead End Cruisers, or Scratch Acid. Meanwhile, Blue October outsold every other Texas band combined.

Somehow, there was plenty to laugh at this year. Mayor Will Wynn made his runway debut as a pajama model. Willie Nelson had a Brokeback Mountain moment with "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other)." Jerry Jeff Walker sued a record label for releasing covers of his songs. Sound Team's flame-broiled YouTube response to a negative Pitchfork review got more buzz than their album. And the TABC tried to start busting people for public intoxication before they even left the bar. That idea, thank God, was laughed right out of town. "For laughter frames the lips of death," Kentucky-born poet Allen Tate once wrote. "Death frames the Singer and the Song." And so, in 2006, it did.


THE DEPARTED

Julie Burrell, jumpin' jazz singer

Jay Clark, Wurlitzer wizard

Bobby Doyle, piano man par excellence

Bill Ellison, original Uranium Savage

Freddy Fender, true Texas Tornado

Charlie Fitch, Sarge Records founder

Jack Jackson, glorious graphic artist

Mileah Jordan,Renaissance woman

Kim McLagan, Ian's better half

Carl "Fast Black" Miller, Longbranch dance machine

Rocky Morales, top Texas tenorman

Billy Preston, sideman to the stars

Jesse Taylor, West Texas wildman

Cindy Walker, songwriter supreme

David Zettner, part of Willie's family

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Christopher Gray, June 29, 2007

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Christopher Gray, June 22, 2007

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Clifford Antone, Don Walser, Ann Richards, Back Room, NAMM, Sweatbox studios, HAMM, Rolling Stones, Octopus Project, Car Stero (Wars), Lollapalooza

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