Given that Wednesday’s 33rd annual Austin Music Awards at the Convention Center Ballroom ran a good four and a half hours, it seems the shifting of some presentations to last week’s separate Industry Awards event didn’t necessarily mean for a swift night at the main show. But judging from the size and response of the crowd as the celebration hit full gear in its final two hours, Austin seemed plenty happy with the changes.
It helped that the final two musical segments were brilliantly conceived and presented. The “Return to Austin High” segment featuring notable musical alumni from the city’s historic namesake school brought out brilliant performances from the likes of indie sensation Shakey Graves, hip-hop artist Phranchyze and jazz saxophone master Elias Haslanger before childhood pals Gary Clark Jr. and Eve Monsees took the stage together to drive it home with blazing bluesy rock ‘n’ roll.
An earlier themed set, titled “Viva La Diva,” had featured performances by Gina Chavez, who received multiple honors including Album of the Year in the final award presentation later, as well as Tameca Jones, Sunny Sweeney, Nina Diaz, Jazz Mills, Sunny Sweeney, Dana Falconberry and Carson McHone. But the show-stopper was the final set of the night, a stirring tribute to the late Austin keyboardist Ian McLagan of the Small Faces and Faces.
McLagan’s longtime Bump Band mates Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Jon Notarthomas and Don Harvey all took part, with a handful of A-list locals also paying their respects. Alejandro Escovedo joined in for “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” a Kinks song he recorded with McLagan last year for the ALL-ATX benefit CD, and Patty Griffin sang a beautiful rendition of McLagan’s poignant “Never Say Never Again,” which she’d sung with him on David Letterman’s show a few years ago.
The bill had promised a special guest, which turned out to be Little Steven Van Zandt. The E Street Band guitarist and “Sopranos” actor came aboard for the Small Faces classic “Tin Soldier” and stuck around for a grand finale that included the Faces’ “Stay With Me” and “Ooh La La,” the latter of which featured most of the evening’s performers crowding onto the stage and singing along: “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger…”
The other reason the McLagan segment, and the whole evening, worked so well was the addition of a house band that would be the envy of any city in the world. With guitarist Charlie Sexton as bandleader, the rhythm section of bassist George Reiff and drummer Conrad Choucroun locked in step all night, with Michael Ramos providing essential keyboard support.
The authority of their presence almost demands a return next year, though this year’s model will be hard to top. The awards show has hosted many memorable moments in the past, from Townes Van Zandt and Daniel Johnston appearing on the same bill at the old Palmer Auditorium in 1990 to Bruce Springsteen crashing the party at Austin Music Hall in 2012. But no show ever felt as dialed in to the city’s musical identity as this one did. It’s only Wednesday, but the Music Awards easily will go down as one of the highlights of this year’s SXSW.