Playback: Nancy Fly Waves Bye-Bye
Pioneering Austin booker Nancy Fly retires, and ATX gets a hip-hop festival
By Kevin Curtin, Fri., Aug. 15, 2014
Instead of another concert tour, Nancy Fly's booking herself a long vacation. The Austin tour booker, an invaluable conduit for local musicians working the road, retires this month after 36 years. In that time, the Nancy Fly Agency has represented homegrown favorites including Don Walser, Ruthie Foster, Grupo Fantasma, Carolyn Wonderland, and Redd Volkaert.
"Who I've worked with has always been a matter of passion," said the 66-year-old Texas native. "There've been some really good bands that I passed on because I wasn't into what they were doing."
When she relocated her business here from San Antonio in 1988, Fly wasn't aware of any other female tour bookers.
"The male [national] agents treated me like dirt," reveals Fly. "They were very dismissive and sometimes demeaning."
Today, she's thrilled to see more female agents and says pure diligence helped her become successful. Never routing arena tours for superstars, her independent agency instead played an important role in the village, getting contracts for the artists who needed them most.
"Nancy took me in when I first came to Austin and brought me from house concerts up to the next level," remembers Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster. "She's great at recognizing where you are, not just as a musician, but as a person, then helping you get to where you want to be."
Fly admits that the life of a mid-level agent has a soul-killing element to it.
"Rabbit starvation is where it takes more energy to hunt, kill, dress, and cook the rabbit than what you gain when you eat it," she explains. "Working with young bands, we had to go through rabbit starvation. They'd start out making $100 to $300 a night, and by the time they left us for greener pastures, they were making $5,000 to $7,500. The nature of the business is that doing a good job gets rewarded by losing your client to bigger agencies."
That unfortunate reality isn't why Fly's leaving the game and shuttering her business. She admits her enthusiasm for going out to clubs and staying abreast with young bands has waned with age. So she's booked a final show: her own retirement party.
Monday's lineup at Saxon Pub serves as a revue of her clients and friends, with proceeds aiding Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers. HOME provides housing assistance for musicians in need, most recently to 85-year-old R&B dynamo Miss Lavelle White. Fly co-founded HOME and serves as president.
Nancy Fly's Retirement PartySaxon Pub, Monday 18
7pm: Beto y los Fairlanes
7:30: Javier Chaparro & Salúd with Mitch Watkins
8: Danielle Reich
8:30: Lost & Nameless
9: Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis with Warren Hood
9:40: surprise guest
10:40: Redd Volkaert & Floyd Domino
11:20: Guy Forsyth
12mid: Los Texmaniacs
Hip-Hop's Weird City
It's Friday night at Empire Control Room and MCs wait for P-Tek to call their name. A hip-hop open mic remains a parade of extreme characters, open to anyone who can scribble their name on a list and muster the ego to perform. The verbal gladiators are diverse in style and image, some boasting the swagger of a performer, others looking like they should be renting you a kayak. A few are cut-rate, many are impressive, one's horrible then suddenly great. P-Tek finally judges local wordsmith Hyder as the best and awards him a performance slot at the upcoming Weird City Hip-Hop Festival.
Austin's first hip-hop-focused music fest, running Sept. 26-28 on Red River, comes courtesy of Adam Protextor, who raps as P-Tek, KOOP radio host Leah Manners, and booker Aaron Miller. Together, they put on Spider House's weekly cipher Austin Mic Exchange. Hyder and fellow locals like League of Extraordinary G'z and Magna Carda prove key to the vision of Weird City: ATX acts billed closely to marquee nationals like Pharoahe Monch, Jean Grae, Guilty Simpson, and Black Milk.
"The stratification of hip-hop now is you have your giant acts and your indies, and there's not really a middle class," points out Manners. "Going to a South by Southwest show, you might catch Drake, but you won't catch an independent local right before him and that's what this festival is here to do."
P-Tek contends that Austin's hip-hop talent being overlooked remains the same reason it's special.
"Austin doesn't have a unified sound like Houston or Minneapolis, but that's our strength. We're not homogenized. That's why we call it Weird City. We have a conglomeration of everything weird. It might be fringe, but its good."
The road to Weird City hasn't been easy. Their fundraising efforts, which ended last Saturday, yielded just over a third of their targeted goal and reactions to the fest's Reddit announcement exposed racist attitudes toward the genre, with commenters connecting rappers to drive-by shootings and street fights.
"That's the voice that built Austin," sighs Manners. "That's the voice that built I-35 between white and black people, the voice that doesn't trust hip-hop promoters and still doesn't have an exclusive hip-hop club. The voice that blamed the hit-and-run during SXSW on a hip-hop artist."
"Rather than worry about that, we're gonna lead by example and show this is a positive community and that Austin has an audience that loves hip-hop," stresses P-Tek, who confirms that Weird City's biggest names are still to come.
The most appropriate smoke machine for a punk show is a 200-pack of Black Cat fireworks detonated in the center of a crowd. That proved true Saturday inside at Mohawk after Off!, when, through the fog, Impalers ripped expert level D-beat with equal parts precision and brutality. Multi-talented frontman Chris Ulsh (Mammoth Grinder, Hatred Surge, Power Trip) roared bloody murder into a microphone. The local quintet's short, pummeling set ended with the guitarist tomahawking his Les Paul onto the floor, breaking the headstock and ensuring there would be no encore.
› No, you're not just disoriented by the projectors. Empire Control Room really did move its stage and build new walls. Additional improvements are in the works for the Seventh Street venue, says owner Steve Sternschein. Look for enhanced sound and visual systems, more bars and bathrooms, and upgrades to the Garage stage.
› Reissue workhorses Numero Group delve into indie mellowness with a vinyl retrospective of slow-core trailblazers Bedhead. The defunct Dallas band with Austin ties by virtue of Trance Syndicate Records chipped in a 25,000-word essay for the lovingly curated 5-LP set, which will set you back $80 when it arrives Nov. 11.
› NPR-approved rockers Quiet Company return to Hill Country studio Orb, where they recorded forthcoming LP Transgressor with Blue October's Matt Noveskey, streaming an interview and live performance Saturday, 9pm. The event, brought to you by local music patrons Black Fret, gives fans a sneak peek at songs from Quiet Company's first album of new material since 2011's We Are All Where We Belong took home almost as many Austin Music Awards as Grammys residing in Ray Benson's Asleep at the Wheel trophy case.
› As the summer months draw to a close, so does the outdoor concert 'n' film series Sound & Cinema. Wednesday's final installment goes maximum sci-fi, pairing Steven Spielberg's alien-contact classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 9pm, with local experimentalists the Octopus Project, 8pm, on the Long Center lawn.
› Gary Clark Jr., who, in a recent Earache! posting divulged that Clifford Antone's last words to him were, "Hey man, play some Jimmy Reed" (see "Gary Clark Jr. on Antone's" at austinchronicle.com/music), drops a full-length live album via Warner Bros Sept. 23. The 2-CD collection doesn't find the local bluesman covering Reed, but it does have some Albert Collins and Lowell Fulson.