A talk with Austin producer/musician Adrian Quesada
by Jeff McCord
Upon first hearing and seeing this song and video, I immediately rang up producer Adrian Quesada to find out how something so collaborative and sweeping in scope could come together in a shutdown.
“The initial idea came from Mayor Adler and his wife, Diane Land. There was a national mayor’s conference with about 10 cities that were going to get together and do their own song; uplifting, uniting anthems in this time of global pandemic. I believe Louisville, Kentucky did the first one and [Mayor Adler and his wife] approached me about producing the Austin version. We talked about it. Right around then, unfortunately, was when George Floyd happened. I made it clear that not only is everybody experiencing COVID, but there is a lot of racial injustice and systemic racism coming to the forefront now, things that have always been there. And I really felt like if we were going to do this, it would be important to not brush anything over. They agreed and they were great. So, yeah, I signed on. There was a team of project managers. it was Diane, another woman named Brittany Robinson, and my wife Celeste Quesada overseeing the whole project .”
So how did the song itself come about?
“Before I reached out to anybody, I put together a couple of demo ideas and then ran with one, because of the nature of it. I couldn’t really sit down with anybody to work. So I laid out all the music ahead of time. I had it mapped out in my head, more or less what I imagined it to be. And then I brought in singers and lyricists to help flesh out the whole thing. So all in all, there ended up being 10 writers that contributed at different levels, kind of a core songwriting team that came up with the main verse and hooks, and then the rappers that came up with their parts and then some other, you know, each section had their own writer, but the music was largely already laid out before anybody came on.”
How did you go about choosing your collaborators?
“It was a challenge for sure because I wish I could have gotten… I think there are forty-five musicians, just between 40 or 45. And I would have loved to have gotten everybody in the room. That would have been the most powerful thing. But that would not have been a responsible thing to do. It was a lot of wrangling, but well worth it. To us, diversity was huge, not only racial diversity, but also gender balance and just kind of making sure… you know, I wasn’t keeping a spreadsheet or anything, but I really felt like this is a moment to show a diverse cross-section of awesome musicians as diverse as the city can be. Sometimes the representation of the city is not that accurate. And we’ve seen that, especially in the last year, with Jackie Venson calling out Blues on the Green and things like that. So it was really key to me to make sure that was the case, even if it meant people that wouldn’t usually get together.
Logistics came after that. Did people have a way to record themselves? There were a couple of people who just couldn’t pull it off. I had input from various people. Graham Reynolds suggested bringing in [conductor and music director of the Austin Symphony] Peter Bay, who’s not frequently a collaborator of mine. I wish I could have had one hundred and fifty musicians literally representing every single genre. But it had to work within the context of the song. It was important for me to reach out beyond my frequent friends and collaborators to people that I haven’t normally worked with. I didn’t want this to be a window into my world, but more into the city.”
And the video?
“The team of Celeste, Diane, and Brittany oversaw the whole thing. And they brought in Spencer Gilliam from GSD&M, who was into the song and really wanted to help with the video. Some of it was shot professionally and everybody else was kind of filming themselves on the phone style and sending it on. That was the most responsible way to go about it. We had a couple of singers that were recording in my studio and we recorded them on a shoot. But I’d say 95 percent of it was people shooting themselves, and Spencer edited the whole video together. Funding for all of this was all raised by individual donors.”
How long did the recording take, from start to finish?
“Three months for the song. It was going to take about three and a half to four months. And then somebody told me Chicago finished theirs in three months. So I saw that as a challenge to wrap it up, and I picked up the pace.”
Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUTX
KUTX staffers recount their favorite shows at the great Austin venues we’ve come to know and love.
The shutdown was swift, merciless. The music just stopped. Live music was a huge part of all of our lives. Now it’s not. Our musicians and venues are really struggling to make ends meet, and more needs to be done right now to preserve all that makes Austin so extraordinary. (You’ll find links on how you can help included here). No one can say exactly when the music is coming back. In the meantime, we have our memories…
Aaron “Fresh” Knight
Ella Mai – Emo’s
If you would’ve told me that I would be spending the year in the house not attending live music shows in Austin, TX, I would’ve told you to shut up and get out my face. Nonetheless, here we are watching the Austin music scene dissipate before our very eyes. COVID-19 has hit the City of Austin harder than we ever could’ve imagined. The Live Music Capital of the World seems to be losing one live music venue after another. How will Austin move forward post-pandemic? With all that said, let’s give some praise to the venues we still have. One that stands out is Emo’s, which now resides on the forever redeveloping East Riverside Dr. The last show I attended there was Ella Mai back in 2018. I stood in a sold out crowd watching new R&B acts, Lucky Daye and Kiana Lede wow the crowd with live bands and smooth moves, warming it up for the arguable R&B Rookie of the Year, Ella Mai. The crowd was rapt as soon as Ella Mai hit the stage. That night Emo’s lived up to its reputation of being a tremendous music venue and one of the crown jewels in the Austin Music Scene. As one of the few venues that books Rap/HipHop and R&B acts on a consistent basis, from Maxo Kream, Big K.R.I.T, Playboi Carti, Roddy Ricch, and Tech N9ne, among others, Emo’s plays an essential role in the Austin music scene.
In December of 2019, with the Cactus Cafe still open and going strong, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott performed. While ushering him to the Green Room, he said in jest, “If you see the weed guy, tell him where I’m at,” with a twinkle in his eyes of someone much younger than his actual earth years. His show brought folks from every generation. It was heartwarming to see boomers and millennials sitting side by side. The following weekend was two sold-out nights with Patterson Hood, singer of the Drive-By Truckers. The room was packed. Unlike many nights in the Cactus where one could hear a pin drop, this was a buoyant crowd delighted by Hood’s music and jokes about growing up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I’ve heard so many performers say that the Cactus is like playing in someone’s living room, and that is the vibe you felt that night. For someone like Hood, who has played the big stages all across the country, you could tell he relished connecting with the audience in a way that few venues can offer. That is what I enjoy the most about the Cactus, how much the artists love playing the room. It’s a rite of passage, and for many more, a homecoming.
For over 40 years the Cactus Cafe has been the heart and soul of Austin’s singer-songwriter scene. Legendary songwriters Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Shawn Colvin, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett honed their skills at the Cactus early in their careers. Donate here.
Mike McCarthy Birthday Party – C-Boy’s
C-Boy’s Heart And Soul is the kind of unassuming, intimate space that allows its character and vibe to grow organically over time. Named for Austin blues impresario C-Boy Parks, the club opened in 2013 as the funkier sister to Steve Wertheimer’s Continental Club just up South Congress. Yet C-Boy’s has quickly felt like it’s always been here. It’s the sort of place you could spend an entire weekend at: taking in the kitschy, Valentine’s-Day-in-New-Orleans decor, listening to live blues and jazz spilling off the tiny stage, wandering upstairs to grab a drink in the Jade Room’s mid-century Japanese time-warp. It’s also been an important launching pad for national acts. A few years ago, a young Leon Bridges played a few shows there before rocketing to stardom. The same is true for Black Pumas, whose residency at C-Boy’s might be the smallest gig that band will ever play. The show I’ll always treasure there was a birthday celebration for Austin producer Mike McCarthy. The bands he’s helped foster the last few decades threw a raucous, crammed party. Spoon’s Britt Daniel teamed up with members of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead and A Giant Dog, slamming through an impromptu set that included a cover of the Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” and a punked-up “Paper Tiger.” I miss this kind of casual space where different generations of Austin music lovers can all congregate. C-Boy’s is a club that feels more like a home.
C-Boys has an online tip jar to raise funds for its employees. Donate here.
Man Man – Mohawk
The Mohawk has been the home of many of my favorite shows over the past decade or so: Superchunk in the freezing (for Austin) cold; The Breeders doing Pod and Last Splash on New Year’s Eve; Quiet Company doing an entire Weezer album; and so many more. But I’ll sing the praises of Man Man playing with Rebecca Black— yes, that Rebecca Black (“Friday”) — opening just last year.
Black played a surprising opening set — self-aware, funny, and with a bunch of her songs 10 times better than her hit — and then Man Man put on one of the best sets from them I’ve seen. It was my son’s first Man Man show, and getting to watch him experience the unending delights of their madness in that space was itself a thrill. The Mohawk is such a terrific venue — so many solid sight lines, great sound, and somehow the perfect-sized stage whether it’s a solo act or an eight-piece. And the staff is so good to every single person who comes in the door — all are welcome, indeed. Man Man (probably sans Rebecca Black) was supposed to be back this year — and I can’t wait until they do return.
As a former theater nerd and lover of all things “old”, I never mind sitting in those tiny bajillion year-old seats (ok, I exaggerate. Only like 100-year-old seats) to watch amazing performances from artists like Amiee Mann (where my bestie and I cried our eyes out from our balcony seats), Lucius (all other harmonies pale in comparison) and Rufus Wainwright (when KUTX was invited to film these performances). The Paramount is a treasure.
Paramount Theatre has a membership program where either a one-time donation or monthly donation will earn you year-round benefits. More information here.
Spoon – Antone’s
One of my favorite show experiences in recent memory was the secret Spoon show at Antone’s on January 17, 2017. It was a chilly night, so chilly in fact that our Assistant Program Director Jacquie Fuller lent me her warm puffy coat that she had brought to town when she moved back to Austin from Minneapolis. I was cozy in that coat, waiting in what I considered the “new” Antones, expecting a good show. What I didn’t expect was how great it would be to see Spoon in such a relatively small venue.
The band ripped through new songs from their record Hot Thoughts, which wouldn’t be released for a couple more months. I was 39 at the time, but that night I felt like I was 23, going to a small club watching an Austin band show off their new material. It was a reminder of the power of killer music in a killer venue — when everything hits at once, you get taken to a place outside of yourself, outside of time and space. It’s a feeling I understand because I live in a town where having that experience is the rule, rather than the exception — or at least it was before the pandemic. I hope we take care of our scene now so when we’re on the other side of this we can all gather in a small club and lose ourselves together.
Antone’s has a GoFundMe in support of the venue and its special family of artists. Donate here.
I remember playing shows with my band Sip Sip in the “food court” on East 6th & Waller when Old School BBQ still had their bus set up there, and just next door there was the former location for Cheer Up Charlie’s. I was never that enticed to enter until Cheer Up’s relocated to Red River and settled into the venue formerly known as Club DeVille. After that, I have a ton of great memories seeing friends play both inside (what I affectionately refer to as “the shoebox”) and out, with that iconic rock wall providing the backdrop for so many great shows. If I had to pick a favorite, it’d have to be Hikes playing the outdoor stage for a near sold out show. You could really feel the energy bouncing off the band onstage, into the crowd, and back to the rock wall for some unforgettable aural inertia.
Cheer Up Charlie’s has an emergency staff GoFundMe. Donate here.
I play drums with a couple of great friends in an improvisational instrumental rock band called Hand Signals. We don’t take it very seriously, but it’s an excellent chance to have a couple beers, break a sweat & move some air. We got invited to play an early evening show at the Carousel Lounge with our pals Superfecta on the Sunday before SXSW 2020 was supposed to start. We figured it’d be a fun hang, and the new parents in our crew could be home before the kids’ bedtime. Sunday evenings for folks my age might be the new Friday night. We had a pretty full room. There are few places left in Austin as funky & DIY as Carousel Lounge. I love playing “under the elephant”, setting up our own sound, helping other bands with their sound when mics start feeding back, creating a little community. It’s as if someone said: “Our uncle has a weird circus-themed room, let’s put on a show!” The beer is cold, the staff friendly, the circus-y vibes always funky , and the bathrooms are always just a little scary. Just like it oughta be.
Carousel Lounge has a GoFundMe to support its bartenders. Donate here.
Shortly before the lockdown, a friend’s sister came to town mid-week and wanted to hear some reggae. We headed to Flamingo Cantina to see the Mau Mau Chaplains. The band bills itself as “Texas’ premiere reggae cover band” and is largely comprised of veterans from Austin reggae bands of yore including The Lotions, Pressure and I-Tex. We got there around the 10pm starting time to find it virtually empty, and headed upstairs to the outdoor deck to breathe the fresh air, so to speak. There were probably 20 folks up there hanging out, praising Jah and enjoying the reggae tunes blasting over the mammoth sound system. When the band got started we went back downstairs. The band churned out one reggae hit after another, building their cascading riddims. By the end of the first set, Flamingo’s intimate, funky confines were packed with a diverse crowd doing some serious skanking. This was a reggae party, nourished by a beloved but under-appreciated venue now in its twentieth year. During this time of plague Flamingo Cantina is, of course, closed but the Mau Mau Chaplains still livestream on Facebook every Wednesday night at 8:30pm. In fact, the band’s frontman, Alan Moe Monsarrat, has a new album, Agriculture, dropping in November. Even during a pandemic, the riddims roll on…
Flamingo Cantina has a COVID-19 relief GoFundMe. Donate here.
I was excited to finally see Kamasi Washington, and view firsthand why his powerfully meditative sound was appealing a wider audience. But when March 8 arrived, dark clouds were forming. Just two days prior, SXSW had announced its cancellation (one
of the first major events to pull the plug), and while no cases of COVID-19 had yet been announced in the area, my wife and I entered the packed Empire Control Room that night with a little trepidation. The Empire is spacious but serpentine, and the Washington show was beyond sold out. Reaching any vantage point with sightlines to the stage required the breakthrough skills of a wide receiver. In we went. Washington and band took the stage without fanfare, and within minutes, the spine-tingling crescendos began to build. We settled in. Sound from the Empire’s PA was thunderous, the music thrilling, the air electric. But there was also the buzz of anxiety when the crowd started to close in, the muscle memory of all it took to get to our spot. The music won us over, but eventually, we wound our way back out of the Empire, leaving behind what would become our last live music experience. Hopefully soon, I’ll be plunging back in to the crowd to do it all over again.
Empire Control Room is fundraising by selling “care packages” with Sunday curbside pickup. More info here.
Rumors of lockdowns and closings had begun this week but weren’t official by March 13. I headed out to South Congress not knowing it would be my last live show until…well, still to this day. Even though SXSW had been cancelled, Chuck Prophet and his gang were primed to put on a no-holds barred show with the future an uncertainty. I spent time with the Continental Club’s (and C-Boy’s) proprietor Steve Wertheimer and Chuck pre-show down the stairs in the CC’s office and we speculated on what the next days and weeks might hold. It looked sad but no one expected it to be THIS sad. Then it was carpe diem for 2 hours onstage, culminating in this encore.
The Continental Club has an online tip jar to raise funds for its employees. Donate here.
The memories of so many shows at The White Horse now blur together, but those early days at the honky-tonk haunt are what define the venue. It isn’t a hipster haven, thank goodness; it’s real country, conjunto, plus a bit of jazz, rock and beyond. And the band who helped ignite that fire was Mike and The Moonpies. Holy hell, how they brought the thunder to the room and had ‘em dancin’ hard on that damn floor until it was time to get kicked out. On last night of their residency, around July 2013, the gang had a massive blow out before heading back on the road. Though tightly crowded inside, folks were two-stepping just the same. Near the end, as drinks were kicked over and the whooping got louder, the guys’ shirts werecoming off. Not quite the full monty, but judging by the generous rounds from well- wishers with bottomless tabs, that could’ve easily been the next level. Yet any White Horse afficionado will tell you that this would be The White Horse on any given night. All it takes is a band with a bit of fire, and loyal White Horse patrons craving that genuine ambience. It ain’t fancy, and that’s how they like it. And the magic needs to continue, come hell, high water or the damn plague.
The White Horse is taking donations to support its staff via Venmo: @WhiteHorseATX
Aretha Franklin – ACL Live
I went to see the Queen of Soul at ACL Live in 2014. I had low expectations. I knew she wasn’t in the best health and she was 72 years old at the time. Her voice was hit or miss for much of the night, but late in the show, she got around to one of my favorites, “Ain’t No Way,” and she became supernatural again. As I was wondering who would sing the soaring high falsetto harmony voice on the song, the woman next to me began fidgeting with her purse and then stood up. Suddenly this woman was bathed in light and had pulled a microphone from her bag – she was the one who would sing the falsetto! I lost my mind as she and Aretha sang the duet together. It’s the closest I ever got to the Queen. I can’t wait to have another transcendent concert experience.
The Hole in the Wall is a bar that everyone likes to talk about more than they like to actually spend money there. I know, I was one of the grumpy bartenders slinging T.W. Samuels there for years. I’ve seen literally hundreds of shows there, but one that stands out was Nick Hakim performing on its tiny front stage with maybe 20 people in the crowd. Beneath portraits of Waylon, Willie, and Townes that hang above the stage, Hakim’s tortured croon felt like it was meant to be nowhere else but within the decaying walls of the best dive bar everyone forgot about.
Hole in the Wall is taking donations to support its staff via Venmo: @HITW_STAFF
At SXSW 2007, I was pretty new to Austin and I landed a gig as a Stagehand at Stubbs for SXSW. I had no idea what I was getting into but I ended up setting up gear, meeting and watching performances from Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, Clash bassist Paul Simonon and Verve guitarist Simon Tong. I carried Mike Watt’s guitar to set up for his performance with the Stooges and I met Iggy Pop!! In many ways, that was my big intro to the magic of the Austin music world, and I’ll always have Stubbs to thank for that.
Stubb’s is selling merchandise with proceeds benefiting the venue. Shop here.
Yola – Scoot Inn
The last show I saw before Covid ruined all our communal fun was Yola on Saturday, February 8 at The Scoot Inn. And what a memorable night it was! I had family in town helping celebrate my birthday. Despite Yola’s Grammy nomination for Best New Artist two weeks prior to the show, no one knew who she was and couldn’t seem to ever get her name right. “We’re seeing Lala tonight?” “No, Yola!” “Yolo?” It was a perfect evening in East Austin, thanks to a combination of the weather, quick access to the bar, the reverent crowd and the awesome atmosphere of the sold out Scoot Inn. Everyone had a blast and by the end of the night, they all had remembered her name. It was great making memories with the family at the Scoot Inn, and I would not be surprised if our bar tab that night might have helped them defray a few shutdown costs. Can’t wait for them to reopen!
Virtually every Austin band you know and love has played Hotel Vegas, and at least one person in each of those bands has bonked their head on one of the stage’s notorious suspended monitors (a rite of passage, really). This cozy, dark dive bar, with personal touches from the stage’s famous cactus-studded desert backdrop to its sprawling back yard space, has been one of my favorite haunts for the last six years. When I was on-air until 11, going out to catch a midnight set somewhere was a regular affair. Often, that meant landing at Hotel Vegas, home to its loyal clubgoers as much as it is to the artists, bookers, and managers who give it its reputation for strong bills and high energy. One of the last shows I saw there was Nolan Potter’s Nightmare Band, who packed the venue at midnight in the middle of the week. To know NPNB is to be entranced by them — a twelve-piece medieval, psych orchestra whose music and presence is nothing like I’ve ever heard or experienced. Trust me, no one was having a bad time that night. Ending my night in a space of friends, great energy, and a set by one of my favorite bands is something I deeply miss, and I can’t wait to assuage that longing again.
Hotel Vegas is taking donations via Paypal to support its staff. Donate here.
This past July NPR Music stations, including KUTX, reached out to artists for performances of their songs that will add to the national discussion of race and equality. We believe music has the power to bring us together and make help make positive changes in our communities. Check out all Songs for Change submissions below.
Kydd Jones: Vocals; Bomani Ray Barton, Guitar – Captured from a safe distance by Michael Minasi at Rosewood Park July 2020
Inspired by the American civil rights protest of 2020, ATX rapper and hip hop artist Kydd Jones performs a set of two recently released singles “Rubber Bullets” and “Goblin” and the unreleased “James Baldwin” at Rosewood Park. Read more about the Northeast Austin Park and it’s place in Austin’s racial segregation history here.
Rubber Bullets by Kydd Jones
Don’t shoot me down
I’m on solid ground
And I can’t breathe
With you on top of me
Who care no one listening
You hate it here but you love it
You over visiting
Who’s knocking at my door
Christian Dior at the christening
Lost my religion still fitting in
Holy grails on my kit just to kick it in
Thinking you good then you Consequence no coincidence
Nigga you guilty till proven innocent
My niggas catchin’ sentences for being black with blemishes
So we reenact the images of the Watts riots, cause we are past remembering
They killin’ us like we are fast forgetting
Tried to protest, had to be cheetah fast for sprinting
Rubber bullets speeding past with ignorance
Racist ass you ain’t have a hint you is
Don’t shoot me down
I’m on solid ground
I can’t breathe
With you on top of me
Y’all wanna be civil or want civil war?
I feel like George Floyd when I feel the floor
If they don’t kill us all they gone kill some more
Treat it like picking straws
Nigga shit is short
Who wanna be BLACK in America?
The dying breed
The oldest people science see
My sign read
Get off my neck I can’t breathe
Mother got too many sons
At night she can’t sleep!
Quarantine in my quarters
Got me thinking outside a
Foreign scene in these borders
Death numbers double like chorus
Couldn’t make this up in Sephora
So I rig it up, and record it to rigor mortis
Nigga big it up, ‘cuz big wood like sequoias
How you fools boo when it’s for us?
Get money – still and average joe in a fedora
Man, I’m the biggest spill in the thesaurus
My niggas real, darker than seal, will kill a walrus
Every time I count it feel you euphoric
I had to count you out, did feel you for it?
How Ima give you the wheel and steer you towards it
Niggas ready to squeal couldn’t hold it in like a corset
The stimulus didn’t stimulate her situation
You really gotten thick in yo incubation
James Baldwin by Kydd Jones
Mind state in a state of mine with no state of mine
Fuck all them
Crime pays why wait in line
Why wait in line
Why you stalling
They thought they knew me
CDG hearts on my sleeve
I hit Lil bih she starting tweaking
None was felt
My lil dog he say them streets made him
I been running out of friends n
Treat this like this was the end
The only only summer
I had to manifest my dreams
Where were you
Didn’t even have the strength
Didn’t even need no friends
It was all me in the end
I was way too lost in space to jot it down
People around the town they say his shot is gone
Hate to stir the pot and then reopen wounds
We open soon
In store fronts
Another cloudy night
Who knew I’d tour this soon
I could afford the shoes
But yo the mortgage due!
Musicians: Kydd Jones: Words, Vocals; Guitar: Bomani Ray Barton
Credits: Cameras: Michael Minasi; Edit: Michael Minasi; Audio Mix: Jake Perlman; Producer: Deidre Gott
Songs for Change featuring Kydd Jones, The Dears, Fantastic Negrito and more on NPR Music Live Sessions
Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUTX
NPR LIVE SESSIONS – PRODUCED BY JULIA REIHS/KUTX
In the midst of the recent social justice movement spurred by the killing of George Floyd, Austin musicians have urged their city to examine racism embedded in the music scene itself. KUTX Multi-Media Producer Julia Reihs connected with Mélat, native Austininte and former KUTX Artist of the Month (February 2018).
“First off we got the name ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ because we had more live music venues per capita than anywhere else. So it really had nothing to do with the music, it was really just about the space. And what ended up happening is the space did not go to everybody – it went to the white guys with the guitar.”
“When I finally did start making music, I never saw myself represented in things like ACL and SXSW. I figured I had to go to L.A. or New York or someplace where I saw myself reflected. People don’t expect R&B to come from here. They don’t really see Black people coming out of Austin like that in general.”
Lucky for Austin, Mélat stayed and carved out a new space for R&B in the Austin music scene that did not exist before. She has played ACL Fest, SXSW and was named “Break out Artist of the Year” in 2018’s Austin Music Awards. But she still witnesses the covert racism that affects artists of color and skews tastes away from hip-hop, rap and R&B genres.
“Racism in Austin isn’t quite over. It’s systemic. You don’t realize that what you’re saying and what you’re doing is actually continuing to push people out and not allowing for space. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been called a hip-hop artist. It’s like – this is not my space to take – especially people who do hip-hop and rap – it’s hard for them to even get these venues because there’s a preconceived notion about what type of crowds they bring in. It’s all based on preconceived notions, stereotypes.”
“Being quiet about it – it isn’t going to work anymore. I have to find a way to incorporate my activism into my everyday life, into my art, into my existence, into all of it. Hopefully in just doing what I’m doing and saying where I’m from and telling my story, it shifts perspective for another little girl or a little boy or person who doesn’t necessarily see themselves reflected in our city.”
Produced by: Julia Reihs
Additional footage by: Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon and Spectrum News
Featured songs by Mélat: “Happy Hour” and “After All”
Mélat in KUTX Studio 1A 2.9.18
How Cheer Up Charlies is working to stay afloat during the shutdown, with a little help from their friends
By Annie Lyons
A quick look at Cheer Up Charlies’ calendar of past events reveals all the Red River bar values. There’s everything from a monthly LGBTQ storytelling showcase to an evening of Texas sex education with comedy and drag performances to a neon rainbow ‘90s country night that features all things Dolly. And, of course, there’s countless concerts highlighting local artists.
Since opening in 2009 — first as a food truck and then as a bar one year later — Cheer Ups, decorated with whimsical murals and a neon sign outside with a shining grin, has made its name as a place that welcomes and celebrates Austin’s LGBTQ community. Yet it’s never conformed to any one definition. When co-owner Maggie Lea describes her and co-owner Tamara Hoover’s vision for the venue, she speaks of a creative community space where like-minded folks can gather for all types of programming.
“‘Everybody’s space’ is what we called it. You don’t put a label on the type of people that come through your doors, and everybody feels comfortable, hopefully,” she says. “We wanted to be a place that can function as a live music venue or a dance club or a speaker panel space or a storytelling night or a literary night.”
Like all Austin music venues, the Red River bar shut down in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lea, who has been undergoing cancer treatments since August 2019, had coronavirus on her radar long before most of the American public; her doctor’s office was taking the risk seriously by early February with people wearing masks to protect the immunocompromised. Before any U.S. cases had been publicly confirmed by the end of that month, some of her nurses had already asked her if she thought South by Southwest would still happen.
So when the festival was cancelled on March 6, she wasn’t shocked — but it was a devastating blow nonetheless.
“South By is our main source of income. We taper that money throughout the rest of the year to supplement months that are slow or winter months, summer months where there’s not a lot of people in town,” she says.
Hoover and Lea took the next steps when the state officially closed bars on March 19. They enacted mass layoffs so that their staff could get unemployment benefits and successfully applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. And when their staff approached them with anxieties over rent and bills as they waited for their first unemployment checks, Lea created an emergency staff fund via GoFundMe, which recently surpassed its goal of $18,000.
“Tamara and I have been through so much as far as moving locations, tons of upheaval and changes within our leases … all kinds of stuff. We’ve been doing this a long time. So it honestly was just like, ‘Okay, what else can you throw at us?’ I guess we’re going to close it, but we’ll just figure it out,” she says.
But for all the changes the pandemic brings, the Cheer Ups community remains vibrant.
Frontman Connor McCampbell and dance choreographer/performer LB Flett of synth pop performance group TC Superstar can’t help but beam when they recall their favorite memory on the Cheer Ups stage: the May 2019 release show for their album R&D.
“It was kind of a once in a lifetime show. Cheer Ups was the perfect place to do it,” Flett says.
They remember audience members standing on tables for a better view as a line wrapped around the block outside the venue. Other Austin musicians and friends joined them on stage for the songs they feature on as the band played the whole album start to finish. “Just a beautiful energy,” McCampbell adds with a smile.
TC Superstar is known for their elaborate choreography, technicolor visuals and high-concept albums. The group has always had that certain something that perfectly fits the Cheer Ups ethos. Since their inception, they’ve become homegrown favorites on the venue stage and believe they’ve played there more than any other spot in town.
McCampbell sums it up simply: “It just feels like home base.”
The affection is mutual.
“I always worked when they played because we were so busy when they would come in,” says bartender Kathee Lozano. “That was the one kind of guaranteed band (where) if you saw that they were playing or they were headlining, you knew it was just going to be a huge night. It was going to be all hands on deck and good vibes all around.”
Flett remembers brainstorming ways for the band to stay engaged with their fans in lieu of live shows.
“At the same time, we were also noticing that a lot of people were struggling. A lot of good local businesses were struggling, and specifically, the ones that have always helped us out — which are our local venues,” she says.
They soon settled on the idea of a series of livestream concerts titled “Tip Your Bartenders.” Each show would spotlight a different venue, and viewers would be encouraged to donate to the corresponding staff emergency funds. Cheer Ups was a no-brainer for the line-up and the first venue they approached.
How do you do a socially distanced livestream when your concerts regularly feature five instrumentalists and three dancers?
“Sometimes constraints lead to creativity,” Flett laughs.
Taking advantage of Instagram Live’s split-screen feature that allows other users to join the stream, they developed a variety show of sorts with Flett and McCampbell acting as MCs for a litany of guests. (The pair are roommates and could safely record together.)
The April 23 “Tip Your Bartenders” show for Cheer Ups featured performances from Daphne Tunes, Blair Howerton of Why Bonnie and Aaron Chavez of both TC Superstar and Volunteer Astronauts, as well as Flett and McCampell doing TC material with another one of the group’s dancers, Emily DiFranco. Bartenders from Cheer Ups also made appearances to give drink mixing demonstrations, including Lozano, who whipped up her own creation: a creamy peanut butter and jelly shot.
Mccampbell jokes, “It was kind of a bummer, ‘cause it was always like, ‘Oh, you made this awesome drink!’ We’ll toast with our cheap beer that we have here.”
About 300 people tuned in to the livestream, well surpassing the capacity of Cheer Ups’ indoor stage. Lea estimates the event raised about $1,000 for the GoFundMe.
Lozano says the GoFundMe was integral in helping her make rent, and the fundraiser exceeded her expectations.
“I thought it would have been really, really cool, even if it wasn’t raising money for us, but the fact that it went to our GoFundMe — it was just really sweet and selfless of them,” she says.
Part of what makes Cheer Ups special to the Austin music scene is the venue’s tendency to take a chance on new talent in town, like when TC was first starting out.
“We have spent a lot of time capturing incubator type bands, like local bands, right from their start, giving them their first show or their first time to be on stage,” Lea says. “We don’t charge room fees and stuff, so I think it allows all kinds of people in the creative class to get their foot in the door.”
She thinks this generosity is part of the reason so many people decided to give back to the venue and feels grateful for any support while the bar remains closed.
When bars were allowed to open on May 22 for Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, Lea and Hoover held off, not wanting to rush. They instead spent their time deep-cleaning, investing in personal protection equipment and figuring out how Cheer Ups can safely continue to function.
It’s expensive and time-consuming to thoroughly sanitize the space, Lea explains. For instance, they’ve completely redone some of the floors behind the counters to make every surface cleanable.
“Bars are meant to be gathering places; it’s meant to be about the atmosphere, the vibe and the buzz of people gathering,” she says. “Part of being at a bar is to not always feel so clinical and sterile.”
They began aiming to reopen the first week of July as a patio cocktail bar, taking advantage of their recently remodeled outdoor space and garden. (“Our plants are thriving,” Lea jokes.) Masks would be required at entry, among other restrictions, like only allowing one person at a time to use the restrooms inside.
But on June 26 — hardly a week before their scheduled reopening — their plans crashed to a halt when Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order requiring all bars to shut down that same day.
Now, it’s a waiting game. Bars can’t technically reopen yet under state mandates. But it’s a frustrating burden placed on owners to decide the right thing to do. Open too early, and you risk harming your staff and community members. Open too late, and you risk closing permanently.
“It’s just kind of been a struggle deciding when to open because of the mixed messaging and the onus on small businesses to decide what the rules are,” Lea says.
She and Hoover worry about the financial costs to reopen piling up too high the longer they stay closed. Most of their PPP loan was used to pay for things like rent, utilities and TABC taxes for the months they’ve been closed — things that the festival revenue could’ve made up for.
Lozano says she knows Hoover and Lea would never directly put their staff at risk by reopening prematurely. And her co-workers, who she describes as family, are the “type of people that are always going to wear a mask or face covering to the grocery and just stay at home as much as possible.” Still, she feels nervous at the prospect of eventually returning to work given the number of COVID-19 cases.
“I can almost guarantee that none of our staff will get sick at the bar, but I am worried about other people because … you can’t totally control how people act when they drink in a social setting,” she says. “But at the end of the day, it’s worth it for me to go back … because even though I’ve only been there two years, that company and that family just means so much to me.”
“It’s a welcoming, supportive community, and it’s kind of one of those things like if they’re a friend of yours, they’re a friend of mine.”
Reopening also sparks the existential question: As a place that thrives on community gatherings, what can Cheer Ups be during the pandemic?
“At this point, I don’t know,” Lea says. “I think we’re stuck to just selling alcohol. It sounds really cynical, but we’re like, are we just selling drinks to make ends meet?”
“We definitely had a sense of where we fit in before the pandemic. And I think nobody can speak in past tense terms about stuff like that — we have to reimagine where we fit in in the future.”
This summer, that looks like cultivating community in every way they can, like supporting the Black Lives Matter protests and finding new ways to celebrate Pride.
Lea says that in the past, Cheer Ups has always tried to reject “rainbow capitalism,” referring to when corporations co-opt Pride for profit, in favor of a more DIY approach.
While those events couldn’t happen this year, Lozano believes the Austin LGBTQ community still came together during the month, especially considering the original Pride’s legacy of protests led by Black trans women.
“Even if we can’t be at the bar celebrating Pride, I feel like we’re all still doing our part from home,” Lozano says. “I know that the rest of our staff has just been spending a lot of time and energy donating, petitioning, protesting and sharing information virtually, and just trying to support the Black Lives Matter cause and especially highlight queer Black people.”
Hoover and Lea collaborated with different artists to sell t-shirts, splitting the proceeds between their reopening costs and various Black Lives Matter groups, with a focus on Black LGBTQ organizations. So far, they’ve raised over $7,600 for BLM causes.
“I can’t say more about the type of community that we have built for eleven years,” Lea says, “including all of our previous employees and anybody that’s ever put in time and effort and their passion into our space, I think it shows that we have a very large, robust network of people who understand us.”
“(Cheer Ups) makes a lasting impression on the next person that walks through the door and the next person after that.”
TC Superstar would agree with her. It’s places like Cheer Ups that make the Austin music scene feel like home for McCampbell and Flett.
“As much as we’ve toured around the U.S., not to throw shade on any other cities, but there is not a music scene I’ve seen out there that is like ours and how close-knit it is,” McCampbell says. “The pandemic scared me a lot, even just with the initial cancellation of South By, knowing what that does to businesses here. But I have a lot of hope. I think we have a wonderful community. People here look out for each other.”
The venue’s latest merch offering says it all. In bright letters, the t-shirt reads: “The Best Little Gay Bar/Not A Gay Bar/Is It A Gay Bar?/Lesbian-Owned Music Venue-Danceclub Whatever-You-Need-It-To-Be In Texas.”
And for those who love Cheer Up Charlies, the space is exactly what they need it to be.