‘Twas the Ides of December and all through the town, all the creatures were stirring, making glorious sounds.
For the ninth installment of our monthly series, in which we visit a half-dozen local music hot spots on a single evening, we worked a couple of popular seasonal events into our itinerary. We also checked in at Austin’s premier downtown concert hall, both upstairs in the main theater and at its new street-level club venue. Two other local institutions rounded out an evening spent right in the center of the city. Here’s what we heard:
4:45 p.m.: Carson McHone at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Thursday was the second day of this long-running local holiday tradition, which continues through Christmas Eve at the Palmer Events Center. Shoppers buzz through booths from vendors carrying all manner of gift-oriented arts, crafts and more around a stage area that includes seating for around 100 plus plenty of additional space for standing and/or dancing.
We caught the latter part of the second set; Bazaar acts generally play an hour, take a half-hour break, then play another hour. (Shows are at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. daily.) A rising star on Austin’s Americana scene in recent years, McHone sets her high-and-sweet country singing against sharp twang and rock support from guitar, pedal steel, keyboards, drums and bass. She has at least one more big holiday ace up her sleeve: On Christmas Eve, McHone presents her fourth annual Songwriters Night, with a big list of locals playing two songs each at the White Horse.
6:10 p.m.: Mrs. Glass at the Driskill Bar. We’ve stopped in at the Driskill once before during this series, in part because the city’s grandest old hotel is a consistently reliable place to go to catch some of Austin’s best talent at the dinner hour. A coincidental connection between our first and second stops: McHone and Jordan Webster, who performs traditional blues under the name Mrs. Glass, both were in the 2014 inaugural class of Project ATX6, an organization that helps bring six Austin musicians to international music festivals every year.
If you heard Mrs. Glass from across the Driskill Lobby without seeing Webster tucked into the corner by the bar’s piano with his acoustic guitar, you might well mistake him for an old-school blues singer who’s been at it since the mid-1900s. That’s how well he has the vocal stylings of the sound down. At the Driskill, the air often buzzes with countless conversations between patrons who keep the bar busy at happy hour, but Mrs. Glass provided a gravitas in the midst of it all that kept everything grounded.
7 p.m.: Invincible Czars & Panoramic Voices at Blanton Art Museum. Music often finds its way into special events at the UT campus-area Blanton, especially during the holidays. The Invincible Czars, well-known for their creative Nutcracker Suite performances, teamed up on this night with the Panoramic Voices choir for an hourlong program that touched on classic carols but also took the audience to places where no Santa has gone before.
“Deck the Halls” mashed into the crowd-participation footstomp-clap rhythm of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”? Check. A tender original Christmas song by Austin’s own Nakia, leading the way as a guest singer? Got it. A splendid rendition of Velvet Underground linchpin John Cale’s gorgeously melodic tune “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”? Sure. Another notable guest for a couple of numbers was Taylor Muse, lead singer of Austin rockers Quiet Company, who had their own show a little later in the evening downtown at 3Ten. Speaking of which…
8 p.m.: Beth Chrisman at 3Ten. Quiet Company’s gig was as the headliner for this all-local show presented by Austin mayor Steve Adler, though Adler wasn’t in attendance. We caught opening act Chrisman, a singer-songwriter who first gained notice with all-female acoustic trio the Carper Family. (Soulful vocalist Jai Malano, featured in the second installment of our series back in May, bridged the bill between Chrisman and Quiet Company.)
Chrisman’s set featured original material and well-chosen covers, including a classic Bob Wills tune as well as Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free,” a poignant response to the digital devaluation of music. Chrisman is clearly well-respected by her fellow local musicians, given that her upright bassist for the night was Kevin Smith, most commonly seen in Willie Nelson’s band. Electric guitarist Doug Strahan also offered tasteful support throughout. Chrisman stuck to acoustic guitar for this 30-minute performance, though she’s also an accomplished fiddler whose talents made her a ringer in the 2016 Project ATX6 class.
8:45 p.m.: Bright Light Social Hour at ACL Live. It’s a short hop up the stairs from 3Ten, which made its debut this year as a street-level nightclub beneath ACL Live, to the venue’s Moody Theater showcase room where two top-drawing local acts were sharing a bill on this night. Latin-infused pop-rockers Los Lonely Boys filled the headlining spot later, but we caught a few songs from psychedelic adventurists Bright Light Social Hour, who got the crowd in the spirit with a set that gradually built from mystic moods to high-voltage energy.
They also used the opportunity to debut a brand new tune that they said they’d written just two weeks ago. When the first words were, “If you build it … We will tear it down,” there was no mistaking the song’s motivation. Playing mostly in shadow but with swirled color patterns projected behind them, Bright Light Social Hour cast a spell that lingered well after we’d left the building and headed on toward our last stop. Which was…
9:25 p.m.: David Ramirez at Antone’s. Nearing the end of its first full year since reopening in a new location on East Fifth Street, the legendary Austin blues haven has gradually broadened its scope to included a wide range of local talent, and this night was a perfect example. A big crowd turned up to welcome Ramirez back from a tour, and although the crowd was lively right up until he took the stage, they showed great respect for his songs by turning almost completely silent as he began to play.
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Commanding the room with just an acoustic guitar and his emotionally rich vocals, Ramirez opened with a 9-11 song called “Goodbye America” that was clearly chosen for its relevance to the here and now. But while Ramirez won’t shy away from getting political, his music resonates mostly on a personal level, as subsequent songs such as “Too Far Away,” “Stick Around” and “Harder to Lie” attested. The show was being recorded for a potential future live release.
Join us again next month for “One Night in January” — date to be determined.
One Night, By the Numbers: 4.6 miles driven (from Point 1 to Point 6, not including to and from home). Parking: $12 ($8 Palmer Events Center, $4 street meters downtown). Around 1.5 miles total of walking to venues. Admission charges: Free at Driskill and Blanton. $8 at Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. $10-$12 at 3Ten. $23.50-$35 at ACL Live. $16-$20 at Antone’s.