Faster Than Sound: The Fall Music We Always Talked About

Music columnist returns to two major venues and a new one

Khruangbin at Stubb’s (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The last time I walked up Second Street with my boyfriend, we were headed to our self-mythologized "last show before," the March 2020 Austin Music Awards.

On Sept. 15, entering the Moody Theater before Big Thief came onstage, we observed the multilevel crowds and bought drinks with our masks on. Then, we went back out on the patio to stare at each other nervously from across a table. "Have you been to something inside with this many people?" he asked me.

I hadn't.

Despite both being long-vaccinated, his bartending at a Downtown venue, and my attendance of mostly outdoor shows weekly for work – a few indoors during those few summer dates before the Delta variant interrupted – this was the largest crowd our eyeballs had taken in in one fell swoop. With the last week of summer, the robust, tempting, and largely maskless return of the live touring economy that music industry pros always promised for fall has actually arrived.

Just in time, Texas clubs reached a cease-fire with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission under slippery protocol: Concerts require recent negative COVID-19 tests across the board and accept vaccination proof as an alternative, always mentioning the cards second in the infographic. With October weekends reading like a directory of area festivals (ACL, Utopia, Old Settler's, Levitation), this reporter figured she'd tentatively reenter the big leagues.

Wednesday: Big Thief at ACL Live

I forgot how gorgeous indoor music can sound, and some others may have, too, as the Moody was remarkably quiet and free of phone screens for the opening numbers of Big Thief. An initial swath of unreleased songs ranged heavy dissonance to country twang after opening "Ingydar." Arranged in a semicircle, the Brooklyn-formed indie folk band connects to Texas by Wimberley-raised guitarist Buck Meek, whose solo work lands on Austin label Keeled Scales.

The evening offered a window into the masterful songwriting process of singer Adrianne Lenker, beginning with the unlikely opener of Steve Fisher, a regular of Kerrville Folk Festival, where the bandleader and Meek volunteered during early years of music-making. Lenker said she "couldn't possibly say how much [she'd] learned in the last nine years of knowing him."

After the cheers and cameras emerged for midset familiars, the artist offered verses and choruses which she explained arrived fully cooked in dreams. Starting solo, the band chipped in halfway through, like a very public, beautiful-sounding practice. Lenker then applied her precise, slippery-sounding pen to a John Prine tribute called "Once a Buncha Times." I'm still thinking about (and listening on YouTube to) new breakup ode "Change," which, because it's a Lenker work, also feels like a statement on mortality and the necessity of tragedy for growth.

In the unreleased encore, she sang: "Change, like the sky, like the leaves, like a butterfly/ Would you live forever, never die?/ While everything around passes?"

Thursday: Khruangbin at Stubb's

Khruangbin fans at Stubb's (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Pandemic postponed, then expanded, then completely sold out – hype around Houston trio Khruangbin mutated into a four-night run following the band's debut Austin City Limits taping. An excited onlooker found the thesis statement before the wash of opening notes: "I've been waiting to see these guys for a year and a half!" The historic progression matched the unlikely impact of third album Mordechai, an internationally minded, unplaceable 2020 listening comfort for many. (Including myself – I made my first vaccine-toting trek back to the dirt at Stubb's for it.)

There is something pleasantly uncontemporary about watching such a large group hang on for such long, mostly wordless jams. The endless groove leaves audiences to exclaim for every subtlety – the return of a familiar riff after an extended swirl, or a cheeky clink of plastic cups between bassist Laura Lee and guitarist Mark Speer. Appearing like stoic, stylish mannequins in press photos with drummer Donald "DJ" Johnson, the live band animated in bobbing up and down while trading guitar parts, or Speer's stoner-y quotation of Pee-wee's Big Adventure ("Do you remember anything? I remember the Alamo").

After, audiences spilled into nearby hubs like Cheer Up Charlies with the inflatable cows tossed out during finale "Time (You and I)." Certifying the Khruangbin phenomenon – a DJ friend asked me for a video of the groovy song, which he plays regularly at weddings, and a co-worker told me fellow Houstonian Bun B watched Saturday from Stubb's VIP area. Combine the Khruang fans with weekend tour stops from Bully and Sylvan Esso, release parties from prominent Austinites TC Superstar and Molly Burch (and the fact that almost no one wears masks anymore) – Red River felt Before Times buzzy.

Friday: Sasha & John Digweed at the Concourse Project

Inside the Concourse Project (Photo by John Anderson)

Just past a QuikTrip and not much else on Burleson Road, I pulled up to a nondescript boxy building muffling the quintessential bump of house music. In a lot shared with nightclub Mala Santa, parking attendants direct to a massive nearby field, off road with temporary lights like a music festival and an eerie sealed-up fireworks stand. RealMusic Events' search for ample, danceable space – a rare commodity in Austin – led the EDM event producers to a warehouse near the airport. With aviation-themed title the Concourse Project, the indoor-outdoor hub will host the promoters' annual Seismic Dance Event come November.

After launching major patio shows in June, the Concourse Project hit a snag rolling out indoor programming earlier this month. The venue canceled an opening night with Diplo the day of, citing issues with "new Austin special event provisions in regards to COVID-19." No vaccine or COVID-19 test checks were in place last week. The Concourse Project website says the owners "agree wholeheartedly" with such measures, only holding off because of state orders.

A pink-lit hallway, smelling of fresh construction, leads to a huge, 15,000-square-foot main hall with a sound system fit to fill it. Super-high ceilings hold an impressive light show, while prominent British DJ duo Sasha & John Digweed oversaw from a 10-foot-high table along the back wall. Without safety checks, I only zoomed around briefly in my KN95, but accumulating dancers and friend groups in light-up suspenders didn't seem to mind.

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Live Music, Moody Theater, Big Thief, Buck Meek, Adrianne Lenker, Steve Fisher, Sasha & John Digweed, Concourse Project, Diplo, Laura Lee, Mark Speer, Donald "DJ" Johnson, Bun B, Stubb's, Khruangbin, Cheer Up Charlies, Bully, Sylvan Esso, Molly Burch, TC Superstar

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