Black Cougars Bring Live Music To Austin After A Tough Year


From the green room of Stubb’s BBQ, a narrow corridor lined with light strings leads to the stage. Any other night, the glowing amber rope would only be an accent to guide performers through a dimly lit passage. But last Wednesday, when Black Pumas performed the first show at full capacity in Austin since March 2020, it felt like a track for the revival of live music in a city where it means everything – where the statues of Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan stand in the city center. , a stage with an orchestra greets travelers at the airport, and music normally fills over 250 venues every night.

Backstage before the first show at a sold-out five-night booth, the Black Pumas team stood in a circle of solidarity, holding translucent plastic cups of tequila for a toast and moment of reflection. “It’s been a hell of a year,” guitarist Adrian Quesada said, looking at his bandmates. “We’re about to do a whole show like Pumas do a whole show, and I’m ready,” sounded back-up singer Angela Miller. “Let’s drink this!” shouted leader Eric Burton. It was both a farewell to a difficult year and a warm welcome to the bright future the Pumas have carved out for themselves, even in the midst of a brutal time for the entertainment industry.

With Quesada in the lead, the group walked in single file down the hallway to the stage as the Beatles’ “Because” sounded over the sound system. At the first glimpse of the group, a sea of ​​waiting fans erupted into cheers, and the Pumas took their places on a stage bathed in red light. The moving organ and cymbal crescendo that opens “Next to You” floated through the sweaty Texas night, and the Black Pumas kicked off the show like they never missed a beat.

Burton strutted across the stage like he owned, his body moving smoothly to the beat of the music. Her magnetism and exuberance are the focal points of the show, but it’s all integral – the steamy guitar solos of Quesada, the mellow vocal layers of backup singers Lauren Cervantes and Angela Miller as they dance in sync, the vibe of the Lush touches from JaRon Marshall and tight sound. rhythm section by bassist Brendan Bond and drummer Stephen Bidwell, who form the backbone of the music. The Black Pumas are not yet the biggest group in the world, but they have such a huge charisma that no stage seems too big.

By the second song, “I’m Ready,” Burton broke through the crowd barrier to mingle with over 2,000 fans tight side by side. The intimacy and crowd size seemed surreal after months of small gatherings of close friends. But live music possesses a magic that turns strangers into siblings, transporting people away from the outside world and even the thoughts in their minds, and in a moment in time, connected to each other. Like Burton said RS before the show, “I take the stage with the motivation for camaraderie – it’s just a conversation.” The arched canopy over the Stubb stage jutted out into the night like a church spire as Burton preached the Pumas gospel to the faithful, promising them ascension to a higher plane. “It sounds a little grand, but for real it’s that transcendent feeling where you’re suspended in time and space,” Quesada says of playing live.

It was a long overdue moment of catharsis. Wednesday’s show originally sold out in the fall of 2019, before the pandemic hampered an entire industry and imposed a moratorium on Austin’s core identity. Spectators started arriving at the gates of Stubb’s more than two hours before the gates on Wednesday, and at 6:30 p.m. the line wrapped around the block. Mother and daughter Maria Andrade and Rebecca Wood were among the first on the scene and said they were “very excited” that live music is back as “it is a path to your soul”. Pablo Martínez, 20, the first visitor to Austin, drove over a thousand miles from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, just for the show. He says he “fell in love” with Black Pumas after watching the live session of the band’s hit song “Colors”.

As the doors opened, Martínez and the others joined the crowd of music lovers tumbling down the orange dirt sloping down the shores of Waller Creek, which runs through the heart of Austin. “There is something magical about the land out there,” Stubb CEO Ryan Garrett likes to say. His statement is rooted in fact, since Stubb’s owns the land it stands on, a rarity for a location and a big factor in the business resisting the pandemic. Despite this, Stubb’s was still forced to put all but six of its staff of 110 part-time and full-time employees on leave last year.

Black Pumas frontman Eric Burton greets fan Rebecca Wood and the rest of the crowd at Stubb’s on Night One from their booth of five sold-out shows.

Roger Ho for Rolling Stone

With the return of music, Garrett plans to “bring everyone back to work – from production staff and stagehands to sound technicians to lighting engineers, bartenders and security personnel.” Garrett himself started at Stubb’s as a short-term cook and worked as a bartender, waiter, restaurant manager and room manager at the club. “I did everything there was to do,” he says. He has kept in touch with the employees and says they overwhelmingly want to return to work. Sure enough, on Wednesday Gilbert Villanueva was back at Stubb’s huge iron gate, where he worked for 15 years, checking IDs and slapping neon paper wristbands. In its time, Stubb’s hosted Iggy Pop, Blondie, Metallica, even Bob Dylan. Although renowned artists might be able to sell more tickets in a larger venue, Garrett calls his club the “notch in the belt” that musicians want.

Stubb’s may have been the first to open the doors, but other locations in Austin aren’t far behind. All over the capital of live music, clubs have sold-out dates in the books. A dozen or more of the city’s important locations are located in the Red River Cultural District, a few blocks southeast of the Texas Capitol Dome. Cody Cowan, the executive director of the nonprofit behind the neighborhood, calls it “one of the latest live music destinations” and defines himself as “the one who tries to keep the party going.” Citing Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans alongside Austin, Cowan says these cities represent “the four contiguous live music experiences that remain in the country” – that is, places you can go. on foot in several places in a concentrated area. According to Cowan, “the moniker of the capital of live music was created by non-musicians for non-musicians,” but he says he recognizes the truth “that there is something special about music to Austin “.

A 2016 report estimated that music had an impact of $ 1.8 billion on Austin’s economy, including its effect on tourism. But more than just the return of the live music industry, the reopening represents the return of the community. Cowan sees this as “a healing moment” that has real therapeutic benefit for artists and music fans who frequent shows as a medium of expression and a way to connect with friends.

One block north of Stubb’s, independent mainstay Mohawk resumed limited capacity broadcasts over the weekend and expects a return to full capacity at some point this summer. The club’s booker, Austen Bailey, says the shows respond to a “primitive instinct to come together” with “people crowded together, tossing beer on top of each other”. The Mohawks’ slogan is “All are welcome,” and Bailey says the club is a “community gathering space where all these weird bands come together under the banner of music.” Next to Mohawk is Cheer up Charlies, a bastion of the queer community and a popular hangout for dances, DJs, and some of the city’s most exciting local performers, where the crowds have already started to return. There’s also the gothic and industrial-focused Elysium, metal-focused Valhalla, and many more on the streets. “Everyone is desperate to go back, because every show is mind-blowing,” says Jack McFadden, talent buyer at ACL Live, the venue for the famous Austin City Limits TV show, founded in 1974. ACL Music Festival , which Black Pumas will play in October, sold out in record time when tickets went on sale last month.

Musicians like Jackie Venson, another of Austin’s rising stars, have been eagerly awaiting the return of live music. “Driving downtown last year, no one was out at night,” she recalls. “It was so wild to see a huge city go dark at 7:30 am.” Now, with people walking Red River Street as the music emanates from the clubs, the native Austinite says it “feels like home again, finally back to the Austin that I recognize.” However, she also sees it as an opportunity for a change in the music scene. Following a summer focused on fairness and justice, Venson, who is black, has conducted a conversation in the press and on social networks, inviting places to take advantage of this moment to improve the diversity of their reservations and commit to fair remuneration for performers.

By later dates of Stubb’s five-show series, the Black Pumas were equally tight musically, but had fallen into an even more relaxed groove on stage, making eye contact and feeding off each other’s energy. In an instant on Sunday night, Burton backed up and mimed a basketball shot at Cervantes, who leaped up to receive it as the two cracked. Like every night, Burton finished the set by leaning into the crowd for an a capella chorus of “Colors”, a creepy moment – maybe because it’s their most anthemic song, or just because that the sound of a thousand voices singing in unison has not been heard for a year.

The Black Pumas perform at Stubb's in Austin, Texas on May 26, 2021.

“I take the stage with the motivation of brotherhood,” says Eric Burton of Black Pumas.

Roger Ho for Rolling Stone

As a reminder, Burton appeared at the back of the room, ordering 2,000 heads to swivel and find him in the spotlight, where he began a solo acoustic cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”. “I felt like I belonged / I felt I could be someone,” he sang, in lines that could sum up his life story. Within months, it went from the streets on the Santa Monica Pier to sold-out world tours. Burton’s vehicle to get there was Austin, TX: Long before they sold Stubb’s or performed at the Grammys, the Pumas were racing little C-Boy’s Heart and Soul.

The Black Pumas have become one of the city’s proudest musical exports, and with the advent of the return of live music, it just seemed like they were back where it all began. “I was a musician with nothing,” Burton adds. “This city put me in such a position where what I was doing was validated. Austin saved my life.

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