Faster Than Sound: Jackie Venson Solos

Local blues hero goes solo to cut costs, city polls on use of $12 million earmarked for the arts, and the U.S. State Dept. blocks Palestinian artist Dirar Kalash from the Fusebox Festival

Jackie Venson last week at the Native Hostel, which hosted some 200 attendees – many of whom wanted a photo with the guitarist (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Last week here and on Facebook, local soul force Tameca Jones detailed considerable debt upon returning from her first big opening dates. Despite multiple overseas experiences, Austin blues star Jackie Venson faces similar unplanned expenses of over $10,000 following full-band dates in 2018. Despite a nearly sold out Paramount Theatre album release show Friday, the Austin native is jettisoning the expense of a backing threepiece.

"I'm now a DJ with a guitar, but with original music," summarizes the singer in her genuinely cheerful sarcasm. "If people don't like it, they can suck it. If you really want me to have a band again, write a check for $20,000 and send it to Jackie Venson."

The guitarist tried out her new live format during a busy weekend. Last Thursday at Native Hostel, the newly anointed soloist played an intimate listening party for new LP Joy. Longtime drummer Rodney Hyder then joined Venson for a surprise set the next night at Cheer Up Charlies. Both solo and duo iterations will carry the 29-year-old's upcoming dates around the U.S. and Europe.

Onstage, she wrangles two samplers to control the rhythm tracks. The multi-instrumentalist also recorded all her own backing instrumentals and triggers them live. That allows the shredder flexibility for her trademark solos.

"It's at least three times harder than playing with a band," says Venson of her new set.

She finessed the technique last fall, clocking nine-hour practices nonstop. The intensity matches her classical studies at Berklee College of Music. While accepting her Austin Music Award for Best Guitarist in February, Venson noted she first picked up the instrument just eight years ago.

The artist altered the new collection for a label that then balked on releasing it. December single "A Million Moments" came out on Austin/London outlet Big Indie, which celebrated with a kickoff for the imprint's concert series at Antone's. Both the Fifth Street venue and the Continental Club offered time-honored routes for Jones' and Venson's career development. The two continued up through the Black Fret patronage program, ACL Fest bookings, and eventual opening dates for Gary Clark Jr.

For her upcoming dates, Venson's prepared a polite response to after-show complaints about the solo setup.

"There's always scragglers in Jimi Hendrix T-shirts telling me that I need to get real players," says Venson. "But Hendrix was the ultimate experimenter. People told him he shouldn't use distortion."

City Surveys Where and How to Help Arts Spaces

Last November, voters approved a $12 million bond package for "creative space acquisition and improvements." At the monthly Music Commission meeting on April 1, members expressed confusion over the legal requirements for the funds' use. Utilizing an online survey, a joint working group from both the Arts and Music Commissions hopes to send City Council a clear message of community needs.

While the "$12M Bond for Creative Space Community Survey" can be found on the SpeakUp Austin website, Music & Entertainment Division Manager Erica Shamaly expressed concern on Monday that only six out of some 100 recipients had marked "music industry" as their primary creative focus. She says local arts nonprofits have long been more organized for advocacy than the for-profit network of musicians and music venues.

"It's a cultural shift in our [music] world to make sure that people participate," explained Shamaly. "With development pressures and affordability issues being what they are, the margins are pretty much exactly the same whether you're for-profit or nonprofit."

In a February memo, a coalition known as Supporting Preserving Austin's Creative Ecosystem (SPACE) pushed for the bond money to aid already-existing arts organizations. This could conflict with the mayor's previously announced desire to "do something big or grand" with the money. In line with the SPACE memo, I therefore recommend ranking "City to purchase, renovate, improve, and equip more than one existing property to be used for various cultural and creative arts and music" above construction of a new city-owned Cultural Center. I'm also ranking all the "Live Music & Entertainment Venue" selections as most important on the list that follows it in the survey.

City staff plans to clear up the legal parameters of bond fund use at a joint Arts and Music Commissions meeting before the end of June.

Experimentalist Denied Visa for Fusebox Festival

The U.S. State Department denied a visa to Dirar Kalash ahead of the multi-instrumentalist from Haifa, Israel, performing next week at Austin's Fusebox Festival, which booked him in partnership with Arab.AMP, a California-based platform for the work of Arab experimentalists. The multimedia arts gathering runs April 16-21 citywide.

Kalash, who holds an Israeli passport, says he presented invitation letters from the long-running annual festival, which is supported by official city, state, and national-level funding.

"The rejection was immediate," he emails. "While travel restrictions are the norm for Palestinians, it is still shocking and unbelievable."

In an online statement, Fusebox noted: "Considering our current government's practice of unchecked discrimination against visitors from multiple countries, including Palestine, it is very clear that Dirar's country of origin played a major factor in the decision not to grant him a visa."

The rejection cuts Kalash's plans for projects with stateside artists. Palestinian-American Mike Khoury, a former Kalash collaborator, fills in the performance spots on April 17 & 18 at the Museum of Human Achievement.

"Lots of Palestinian musicians succeed in overcoming hardships imposed by such restrictions, but lots more still can't," adds Kalash. "That has a huge impact on their creative processes, and one can sense it in the music. Music breathes through movement, and there is still a big lack of that even between cities inside Palestine, not even speaking of crossing the Atlantic."

Tee Double at 2019's Austin Music Awards tribute to MC Overlord (Photo by David Brendan Hall)


Local hip-hop vet Terrany Johnson, aka Tee Double, faces high medical costs for recent kidney failure and continuing treatment. Founder of Urban Artist Alliance, Johnson has served on advisory boards for Black Fret and the Austin Music Foundation. On his GoFundMe page, he writes: "Your help will ease the burden of not knowing if bills will be paid or if my treatment will continue."

Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records, a forthcoming documentary on the legendary underground Chicago label, offers an LP by the same name for Record Store Day. On April 13, End of an Ear and Waterloo Records offer exclusive editions of the soundtrack, available in only six U.S. cities. The vinyl and book include VIP tickets to see the movie, along with a Q&A/live performance by Ministry and Cold Cave on April 19 at Fair Market.

Following Spoon's Britt Daniel guesting in an encore for Jenny Lewis two nights earlier at the same venue, Lucinda Williams' show Monday at the Moody Theater offered a trip down memory lane for each track off 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Blowing out a P.A. fuse – which was then followed by a fire alarm interrupting the show for 20 minutes – local pit stops included Seventies flea markets on the Drag and getting told by a Hole in the Wall owner that the venue "had enough chick singers for the month."

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