I only heard about Black Fret in the last few months from a colleague that is a member. The organization is a charity based in Austin in its third year whose primary purpose is to give money to promising local musicians. More detail can be found in the recent Pitchfork article or the Black Fret website. It's an intriguing model, and while I am not a member at present, I was lucky enough to be invited to this year's annual ball.
Event: Black Fret Ball
Venue: Paramount Theatre
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 10 December 2016
The format of the event was that over four hours, almost every band that was nominated for a grant this year and was able to attend played two songs, and in between sets the organization's founders talked to the audience, introduced other guests to help present the major grant winners, and displayed videos about the organization. Since the bands barely had enough time to make an impression, I won't be assigning scores, but I'll write a brief review of what I can remember.
The night started with Golden Dawn Arkestra in their typical fashion: just as at their regular concerts, they started from the back of the crowd and worked their way to the stage while playing whatever instruments they could carry. The appeared in the largest configuration I've seen yet with fifteen members, including four horns players and three dancers. They played "Sama Chaka" and "Stargazer" from their new album and did an awesome job of it. Their otherworldly psychedelic funk jams always bring a smile to my face.
Leopold and His Fiction: The weirdly dated look of the frontman put me off immediately, but I tried to withhold my judgment until I heard their music. The first song was a tolerable, low-key affair with a decent picked guitar part, but they went quickly downhill with the second number. It was a clichéd rock song with lots of wankery and grotesquely sexual maneuvers with guitars.
Magna Carda: A hip hop outfit featuring a sizeable live band. The combination of good lyrics, a strong frontwoman, solid beats, and proficient musicianship made for a winning combination. They won a major grant later in the evening.
Carson McHone: A country singer/songwriter with a good voice and a standard backing band. The music was decent and she was inventive enough to carefully avoid too much cliché. One of her two songs was "Dram Shop Girl", which appears to be getting some attention. She also won a major grant later in the evening.
Harvest Thieves: A weighty Americana or alt-country band. I particularly liked the keyboardist/mandolinist's contributions, but the group wasn't particularly exceptional otherwise. The other memorable aspect was that they had an incredibly tall extra electric guitarist that I could swear I've seen somewhere else before.
Ray Prim: A self-described "singer soulwriter", but in truth he and his band landed in a nebulous space between a variety of genres. I appreciated that I had a really hard time trying to figure out what labels were appropriate. Prim was a strong frontman, and his two backing vocalists were nice additions even if I'm not sure how much the second one added. (This may be the first time I've seen a band with any number of male backing vocalists that did not play instruments.) The musicianship was just as solid as the vocals, and I thoroughly enjoyed the contribution and energy of the keyboardist, the violinist, and the violist. The rhythm section was similarly on point. This was one of the strongest performances of the night, and I wasn't surprised at all when they won one of the major awards.
Calliope Musicals: I'd been meaning to see this band all year and I finally got my chance. They are a delightfully bizarre blend of indie rock, folk, psychedelia, an art project, and a party band. The B-52s might be the best reference point, but even that isn't a perfect comparison. There were multiple dancers in various costumes, and the primary lead instrument was an electric xylophone. (I didn't even know that existed.) Their extremely high energy was enchanting.
Daniel Eyes and the Vibes: A fairly generic rock man-band quartet that didn't impress me.
Wendy Colonna: A decent singer-songwriter with some soul vibes and a full band. She didn't particularly stand out to me, but she won one of the major grants.
Dana Falconberry: The frontwoman/guitarist/vocalist was backed by two further women on banjo and keyboards, both of whom also sang. I loved their ethereal folky sound, the well-crafted harmonies, and the complex layers produced by just three musicians.
Swimming with Bears: An indie/alt rock band that was somewhat promising although not quite a standout. They won a major grant, though.
Suzanna Choffel: Another singer-songwriter with a good voice and a basic band. She had some soul, but was a little bit more in an indie rock vein. She was joined by the xylophonist/keyboardist from the Golden Dawn Arkestra, which was a great addition. She won one of the first major awards of the night.
Bee Caves: This band has been on my radar for a bit, and I was pleased to find their live set was actually better than my impression had been from their recordings. They made a decent mix of Americana, rock, and psych. Their sound was a bit hazy and transcendent, but fairly well grounded. They also won a major grant.
The Peterson Brothers: They won a major grant right before they started their set. The two brothers played guitar and bass and were backed by a drummer and a percussionist. The four of them put down some great grooves. The bassist had incredible skill and the guitarist was surprisingly creative with his solos. The two of them managed to keep me interested despite their lengthy jams that could've easily bored me. For their second song, a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child", they brought out two additional guitarists: Eric Tessmer, who played in a rather generic style, and Jackie Venson, who was a welcome change of pace. As they played, various other musicians from throughout the night (along with the founders) gradually found their way on stage and it turned into something of an all-star jam.
Final Thoughts: I wasn't really sure what to expect from the evening, and I had some concern that so many bands in so little time would result in lengthy delays and bad sound. However, the night only ran about fifteen minutes past the scheduled four hours, and the sound quality was superb. While I know standards are high in Austin, and the Paramount is a particularly well-regarded venue, I'm still mightily impressed that the sound was that good for every single band. There were a couple bands in which the keyboards were too low in the mix, but that's literally the only complaint I could level on that front.
At first, the banter of the two founders between the sets annoyed me. There was a lot of self-congratulating and general hyping that in normal circumstances would really put me off. However, as the night wore on, I started to see the incredibly heartfelt and thankful responses of the musicians, and I realized that there's a reason why everyone is proud and excited about the organization. Furthermore, I gradually realized that the two co-founders were probably just nervous and under pressure, and they were simply trying to entertain a sizeable crowd while keeping things moving smoothly and speedily. Ultimately, I think they did good job of balancing humor, excitement, success, ambition, and a whole bunch of diverse personalities.
Hearing the major grant winners give short speeches of gratitude was occasionally highly illuminating. Several winners spoke of finally being able to release an album they'd been sitting on for a while but were unable to afford pressing. Others mentioned being able to record on more than a shoestring budget. Swimming with Bears were the most honest and memorable when they said they could finally afford hotels instead of sleeping in cars and showering at Planet Fitness. Their award was presented by Austin mayor Steve Adler, which was in itself a surprise. He claimed that he came to Austin in 1978 because the law school was the cheapest, but he stayed in town because of the music.
Each of those major grants is worth $17000, up from the $12000 awarded to the winners last year. In addition to the winners mentioned above, three further artists received awards but did not perform: Dan Dyer, Walker Lukens, and Nakia. The rest of the nominees still receive minor awards of $5000 each and remain eligible to be nominated again next year. (Winners have to sit a year out.) Three further bands were nominated but did not perform nor win a major award: Brownout, Sweet Spirit, and Name Sayers.
I left the night feeling overwhelmingly positive. I'm considering becoming a member. However, I was struck by one thing: some parts of this world have real public sponsorship of the arts. Musicians have access to grants, subsidized work and living space, publicly sponsored performance opportunities, and official networking systems directly from various levels of government. In a country or a state that valued such creation on a fundamental level, we wouldn't require membership-based organizations to fund the arts. Black Fret is an inherently classist institution in that the $1500 annual membership fee is prohibitive to working-class people. Undoubtedly, if Black Fret allows more artists to sustain productive careers in music, that means more music is more easily available to everyone, but the issue of privilege rears its head when you consider that only members can nominate and vote on the grant recipients, meaning the power of distribution is vested in the wealthy few. It's an odd microcosm of capitalism. While I obviously would prefer a true public solution, Black Fret bridges the gap and represents a clever middle ground of working within the capitalist system and doing the right thing with the means available to them.