The Austin Music Awards’ Ecstatic Experience
Thirty-four awards and six musical sets in 211 minutes
In a metropolis where music does the talking, words buoyed the 2017/18 Austin Music Awards as loud as its potent soundtrack. Last Wednesday night at the Moody Theater, they proved an oral flash mob, putting bons mots to the last half-century of auditory ephemera. Even notoriously loquacious bar etiquette couldn't drown out testimony to our musical wellspring.
Bidi Bidi Banda's Selena fanatic Stephanie Bergara and the three sisters rocking Tiarra Girls spiked emotions early and hard in back-to-back acceptance speeches, the former marveling at a "minority-fronted" cover band catching on as quickly as its subject and the latter choking up the Friends of Margaret Moser contingent by calling out their gardenias as tribute to the late under-18 champion.
"Que sera, sera," finished one of them, life and death and music suddenly transformed into a power trio.
Adam Torres' high, sweet voice matched those before him, percussion master Thor Harris passing his hands over taut surfaces that rumbled like a spring shower behind three violins meshing with house band keyboardist Michael Ramos' trumpet and musical director Charlie Sexton's guitar. Uplifting and mournful all at once, Torres' fleeting moment of chamber folk fed seamlessly into Phoebe Hunt's Indian-Americana. She and husband Dominick Leslie duetted her fiddle and his picking into a classical pop also begging more than one tune.
That goes triple for David Ramirez capping the Borderless Love set with a Crazy Horse kick. "Ain't it funny how the future looks like the Stone Age," he snarled with Neil Young's trademark ire, emphatic and turned up as he and Sexton cut loose some electricity.
Toni Price supplied her own wattage, peppery crown of hair a beacon over a bright blue blouse and gold lamé skirt. Inducted into the Hall of Fame for three decades of "blood, sweat, and soul" at the Continental Club, as put by AMA co-emcee Rick McNulty of KUTX, the boozy blues diva shone brighter than a cache of semiprecious stones.
"You're beautiful," she grinned upon exit. "I love you. Call me."
"Women are here and they're taking over," nodded queen AMA emcee Laurie Gallardo, now two-time winner of the Austin Music Awards' Radio Personality plaque.
Next Hall of Fame enshrinement went to the Fuck Emo's, who went deep into the gratitude: clubs, labels, even frontman Russell Porter's kid onstage ("great grades and awesome hygiene"). Best Bassist George Reiff appeared posthumously in the person of his brother Mike Reiff, whose familial resemblance and equally endearing humility drew more lumps of the throat.
"Agent of change," someone cried as Third Root stormed the stage in the AMAs' first full hip-hop set. If only Clifford Antone were alive to witness what the blues begat, that sizzling beat transformed into a full-blown storm of rhythm and words. The rap trio, two MCs and Sir Chicken George behind the steel wheel, bum-rushed seven mic wielders by their third stomp, including Eric Burton, Riders Against the Storm, and Bavu Blakes. "Soul force," it's called, and it claimed its rightful spot at the Austin music banquet on Feb. 27 during the AMAs.
"Music is the weapon of the future," professed Fela Kuti through Best World music promulgators Hard Proof afterward.
"When you walk into a club and see a tip jar, it doesn't mean the musicians are volunteers," pointed out Mayor Steve Adler later.
Jimmy LaFave's son Jackson LaFave collected Musician of the Year and Hall of Fame honors for his dearly departed dad with mad charisma and energetic poise. Michael Fracasso, John Fullbright, and Phoebe Hunt then set said honors to growling, keening, Woody Guthrie-booming roots muscle, the Okie middleman of the grouping at one point pounding distinctly Jerry Lee Lewis on the stage-right Baldwin. Best Male Vocals slam dunk Guy Forsyth described it thereafter while calling out the local pastime.
"Looking for the ecstatic experience," he proclaimed.
Lucinda Williams, inducting "badass free spirit" Liz Lambert in honor of "badass free spirit" Margaret Moser, gave exactly that facing off with Charlie Sexton on the thick, Southern blues of "Essence" and "Joy," the guitarist making his instrument scream like a jackknifed semi. Force of nature and badass free spirit, Williams rumbled the Earth's ecstatic core.
Special guest Fiona Apple bristled next with Sexton and Davíd Garza giving form to the superstar's amelodic folk-blues, rattling intensity à la Nina Simone and Rickie Lee Jones. Crouched in shadow, Apple grimaced cathartic grit. It proved a far cry from what Best Songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard illustrated as the simple art of rhyme.
"John the Revelator with 13th Floor Elevators," he chortled.
Equal tribute followed when Alejandro Escovedo presented the Townes Van Zandt Award to one of the Lone Star mystic's rides in his hitchhiking days, Joe Ely. Escovedo led a string quartet on "Silver City," and John Hiatt materialized to perform "Cold Black Hammer." When the songs' author took center stage on "Dig All Night" and "Fingernails," which brought back both guests, the Ely effect fired on all cylinders.
Ely's standing ovation earlier, the only one during the swift, three-and-a-half-hour sprint through 34 awards and six musical segments, proved prescient to no one's surprise. The Black Angels' Molotov cocktail of psychedelic dread and dual guitar sirens matched Ely's lightning rod presence in an all-too-brief closing set. Drummer Stephanie Bailey's hair-raising tribalism, guitarists Christian Bland, Jake Garcia, and Kyle Hunt's buzzing, electro-shock drone, and Alex Maas' doom vox discharged three swift songs with apocalyptic finality.
"We were the first generation to make Austin weird," boasted final Hall of Fame entrant Robert "Beto" Skiles out in front of his four-decade Latin jazz juggernaut Los Fairlanes. "We're the original weird."
Crackling, poignant, joyful, any AMAs' weirdness only feeds Austin's greater ecstatic experience.
Full photo gallery: austinchronicle.com/photos/the-36th-annual-austin-music-awards.
And catch several of the winners, plus Hall of Famer Roky Erickson, next Saturday, March 10 at SXSW’s free show at Auditorium Shores.