Playback: Biggest Austin Music Stories of 2016
Looking back on the biggest Music news headlines of the year
Death of Fun Fun Fun, Birth of Margin Walker
Fun Fun Fun Fest is now owned by real estate billionaires ... Welcome to Austin 2016! Transmission Events, Austin's most trusted independent concert promoters, fractured when owners Graham Williams and James Moody surrendered the company to investors Stratus Properties, who wanted to shift focus away from live music. In the divorce, Stratus got Transmission and ownership of FFF. Williams and other Transmission principals immediately launched a new booking concern called Margin Walker, which debuted November's FFF replacement Sound On Sound Fest. Stratus, meanwhile, initially planned to operate Transmission as an event production and sponsorship business, then gave up and terminated the remaining staff. Since then, they've been seeking a production partner to hold Fun Fun Fun Fest on Halloween weekend 2017.
Survive's Strange Ascent
No Austin band had a bigger year than Survive. The analog synth quartet, a cult favorite since 2008, was catapulted into living rooms worldwide via Netflix's retro sci-fi smash Stranger Things, scored by members Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. The duo's eerie thematics resulted in Billboard-topping soundtracks and a pair of Grammy nominations. Survive also dished a fourth LP, RR7349, with esteemed metal messengers Relapse Records. The band's newfound popularity fueled Austin's burgeoning synth scene, centralized around Radiohead-approved retailers Switched On Electronics and local cassette specialists Holodeck Records.
Steve Adler wants to be Austin's "Music Mayor," acknowledging in February the city's increasingly unaffordable environment: "We will not long be the live music capital of the world if we lose musicians – if we lose music venues." He ordered staff to develop a plan to stabilize our creative ecosystem and in June the 68-page "Omnibus" report arrived. Initiatives included streamlining ATX's complex entertainment license process, protecting venues from new developments, and examining ways to give venues in good standing rebates on energy bills and mixed beverage taxes. Some decried a lack of urgency – Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires equated changing city policy with "turning an ocean liner" – and, as of yet, no Omnibus programs have come to fruition.
Obamas Play SXSW
South by Southwest hasn't been able to lock in Bob Dylan for a keynote, but they booked the next best thing in March with Barack and Michelle Obama. POTUS sat for an Interactive Q&A, discussing technology's potential for civic engagement and earning a big laugh when he patted himself on the back for reducing the nation's unemployment rate, "Thanks Obama!" No festival got a bigger headliner in 2016. For her part, the first lady sat with female music figures, including Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott, talking international female empowerment and promoting the unfortunately awful all-star charity single "This Is for My Girls." In October, SXSW continued their executive branch collaboration with South by South Lawn, "a festival of ideas, art, and action" held on the White House lawn.
Antone's Immaculate Resurrection
Austin's "Home of the Blues" had been homeless for two years after short-order owner Frank Hendrix sold it to a business partnership that soon crumbled. Reforming around the nucleus of Lamberts and Arlyn Studios co-owner Will Bridges and biologist/explorer Spencer Wells, with Gary Clark Jr. and matriarch Susan Antone as key partners, the Home of the Blues reopened Downtown on New Year's Eve and has since tapped into the business' original spirit in remarkable fashion. Regular appearances from Clark Jr. and a surprise show by Buddy Guy made this the best of all imaginable scenarios.
Levitation's Bad Trip
Strongest lineup of any Austin festival this year, no one could have predicted Levitation 2016 would become a landmark clusterfuck. The musical campout was canceled less than 24 hours before gates opened due to adverse weather predictions, Travis County Emergency Services claiming responsibility. Save for a brief storm wreaking havoc on the grounds overnight Saturday, no rain fell during waking hours all weekend. Over a dozen bands, not including headliners Brian Wilson and Ween, played makeup shows, but a website glitch sold them out before many wristband holders could get tickets. Adding to the customer service nightmare, refunds took until midsummer to arrive. Worse still, the impending Transmission/Margin Walker split led to Stratus Properties suing Levitation owners for over $296,500 for unpaid organizational payments. This fall, Levitation was working to partner with local Live Nation affiliates C3 Presents to co-produce the fest, a deal that's still in the works even though they've pre-emptively canceled the 2017 iteration.
Austin Music Hall was demolished in September, ending the 20-plus year history of one of Austin's biggest concert venues. Opened in the mid-Nineties by then-king of Austin concert promotions Tim O'Connor, the rugged room was redesigned in 2007, resulting in disastrous acoustics. In 2012, O'Connor's Direct Events lost the AMH in foreclosure, but it continued to host big-name concerts, mostly through C3.
Badlands, a 12th and Chicon venue/hot dog joint catering almost exclusively to local bands, lost its lease this fall after two years in business. Shuttering brought about a public dispute, owners Shane and Shannon Howard claiming their lease renewal was usurped by Rio Rita's owners offering the landlord a larger sum for the property.
The Brass House, a Downtown jazz and blues venue, closed in October after nearly three years in business. Owners blamed "the rising tide of the Downtown Austin rental market."
Henry Gonzalez, a poster artist, muralist, and jack-of-all-concert-trades since the Seventies, died in February following a two-year battle with cancer. In recent years, Gonzalez had conserved local music history at the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture.
Louis Jay Meyers, veteran musician, booker, co-founder of SXSW, and general local music industry powerhouse, succumbed to a heart attack at age 60 on the first day of SXSW 2016.
Pete Mitchell, primo country guitarist who spent decades playing lead for Ernest Tubb, died in July at 74. He relocated locally in 1999 and played with James Hand and Alvin Crow, who called him "the Jimi Hendrix of country music."
John Morthland, the first American music journalist to interview the Rolling Stones, died in March at 68. The longtime Austinite, who'd written for Rolling Stone, Creem, and Texas Monthly, was also executor of buddy Lester Bangs' estate.
Paul Ray, Austin's all-time greatest deejay – a sage of R&B whose Twine Time soundtracked Saturday nights since 1979 – died in January at 73. The charismatic Ray also fronted Seventies favorites the Cobras and spent decades hosting the Austin Music Awards.
Lucky Tomblin, 72, a self-made lawyer who could only keep music as a side project (producing albums, owning a studio, writing songs), retired from law in 2001 and fronted an A-list country band until his death in May.
Mitchell Vandenburg, 30, and Chris Porter, 36, died on tour this fall when their shuttle bus was struck from behind by an inattentive trucker. Vandenburg, aka eclectic songman Chester Bumblecrumb, contributed bass and stage charisma to a plethora of local acts, including Starlings, TN. Porter, formerly of Back Row Baptists, had a burgeoning solo career.
John Winsor, the extraordinary multi-instrumentalist who played in Sounds del Mar, What Made Milwaukee Famous, Carry Illinois, and worked behind the board at the Mohawk, left Earth by his own hand in March at age 33.
X Games? More like ex-games! The extreme sports fest left Austin due to ESPN's need to hold the event in July, clashing with Austin's triple-digit summer weather. Gone with it are the big shows it brought since coming to town in 2014, including Kanye West and Metallica.