Photographs by Sophia Lawson
The rollout of vaccinations and the removal of COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings have begun to offer Texans a light at the end of an unprecedented tunnel; this is especially true for musicians. The coronavirus, seemingly working in tandem with racial injustices that made global headlines in 2020, created a particularly harsh set of circumstances for Black musicians, who were already struggling for resources and recognition before the pandemic. For many, the past year presented an undue burden and an opportunity to champion lasting reform in the live music industry. Black musicians have for years dealt with a lack of dedicated venues for their music, infrequent attention from festival bookers, and a dearth of Black venue owners, promoters, and label executives; the pandemic only compounded those hardships.
“The financial stability of artists in this city has been dropping yearly, and the pandemic brought that reality to the forefront,” Austin DJ Confucious Jones says. “Black music in Austin was already holding on by strings due to a lack of citywide support, and the shutdown made it worse. My wish is that coming out of the shutdown the city as a whole continues its inroads towards supporting Black music.”
Now, as live music venues start to reopen and fans appear eager to ditch virtual performances for the real thing, artists like Jackie Venson and Black Pumas are primed to build new momentum in 2021. Venson has dozens of tour dates lined up across the United States, and Black Pumas have several festival and European tour dates on deck for the late summer and fall. On Sunday, May 15, Venson performed her solo side project, Jackie the Robot, in front of hundreds sitting outside at Radio Coffee and Beer in South Austin. The performance came on one of those magnificent spring nights in Austin with temperatures in the 70s and the outdoor lights twinkling like stars.
Two weeks later, amid an unprecedented run of five sold-out shows at Stubb’s Amphitheatre, Black Pumas gave a crowd of both new and old Austinites the kind of electrifying performance that is quickly placing the band on a path to sit among Austin music greats like Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Gary Clark Jr.
Both performances offered a glimpse of Texans’ deep appreciation for the magic of live music. Here’s hoping the “new” normal for Black musicians is more rewarding than the old.
Toward the end of the band’s set, Adrian Quesada’s guitar solo during “Colors” took the 2,000-plus crowd into rarified air, carrying the live music legacy of Austin into a post-pandemic, post-George Floyd future.
Austin-based Jackie Venson has become one of the capital city’s most buzzed-about artists over the past year, in part by challenging the white male gatekeepers of Austin’s live music scene. Midway through 2020, when Venson was asked to perform for ACL Radio’s Blues on the Green event, she turned down the opportunity until ACL Radio host Andy Langer added Black artists to the lineup. It was the kind of solidarity that Black musicians will likely be forced to rely on post-pandemic until institutional remedies like the Black Live Music Fund are implemented. She performed to a sold-out—and spaced-out—crowd at Radio Coffee and Beer on May 15.