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Black Fret kicks off year with VIP gala and passionate performances from Ben Kweller and friends

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Ben Kweller Photo by Jon Shapley
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Lauren Hammonds, Vince Cotroneo, Thomas De Luna, Kelly Toomey Photo by Jon Shapley
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Jacob Stetson, Taylor Ellison Photo by Jon Shapley
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Alex Ott, Carrie Ott Photo by Jon Shapley
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Heather Alden, Ish Kundawala Photo by Jon Shapley
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Dawnerin Wilkinson, Dennis Wilkinson, Linda Wilkinson Photo by Jon Shapley
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Rodrigo Vazquez, Dahlia Vazquez, Hannah Archibald, Mark Archibald Photo by Jon Shapley
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Deborah Ramaker, Paula Fracasso Photo by Jon Shapley
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Kim Vickery, Heather Wagner Reed, Lanny Vickery Photo by Jon Shapley
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Amelia Hinds, Aaron Robertson, Michael Worchel, Beth Weiler Photo by Jon Shapley
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Rorey Walsh, Andy Liddell, Kelly Moody, Ryan Moody Photo by Jon Shapley
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Graham Wilkinson Photo by Jon Shapley
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Emily Bell Photo by Jon Shapley
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Maribeth Ford, Tina Romero Photo by Jon Shapley
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Tim Wilkins, Ryan Picchini, Hayley Picchini Photo by Jon Shapley
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Beth Weiler, Michael Worchel, Amelia Hinds Photo by Jon Shapley
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Mike Cooley, Jacki Bauer Photo by Jon Shapley
Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1938
Nakia Photo by Jon Shapley
Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1983
Kurt Wheeler Photo by Jon Shapley
Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 2224
Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1236
Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1395
Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1193
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Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1205
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Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1579
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Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1727
Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1754
Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1938
Ben Kweller at Gibson in Austin 1983

Passionate, energized, spirited, fervent — pick an adjective, and it was present in its purest, most distilled form on Saturday, January 18, when local music nonprofit Black Fret hosted its 2014 kickoff and member drive at Gibson Guitar Showroom. Black Fret bills itself and its members as “patrons of local music,” and its aim is simple: raise $1,500 per individual member; nominate local artists worthy of patronage; give members access to exclusive, intimate performances from those artists; and then award $10,000 grants to those deemed most worthy of support.

Now, Saturday’s VIP gala felt far from intimate. But the bright neon lights of Gibson’s Guitar Showroom provided a celebratory backdrop to the hard work of Black Fret founders Matt Ott and Colin Kendrick. The two have strong ties to the Austin music community going back decades, and they founded Austin Music Foundation 12 years ago. But their desire to “get money directly in artists’ hands so they can create their art for a long time,” as Ott told CultureMap Austin Saturday night, really came to fruition in 2012.

Black Fret wants to “get money directly in artists’ hands so they can create their art for a long time,” says co-founder Matt Ott

Influenced by such other local nonprofits as Impact Austin, Ott and Kendrick ran their Black Fret idea by musicians, industry veterans and passionate fans alike, crafting a multitiered strategy that appeals to all points on the live-music spectrum. “When you get musicians and people who love music together, magic happens,” Ott said. “And when we declare that local music is truly art, that’s when the light bulbs really turn on: local music can be supported by the traditional patronage model that’s worked for hundreds of years.”

That fact was on prominent display throughout the evening. In between passionate speeches by Ott and Kendrick, along with personal appeals from corporate sponsor Kurt Wheeler of Dell and acclaimed alternative-rock producer Tim Palmer, four artists graced the stage with precisely the kind of invigorating performances to which Black Fret aspires.

The first surprise guest of the night, rootsy singer/songwriter Graham Wilkinson, laid down some smooth, brooding tunes that highlighted his effortless mix of folk, blues, reggae and pop. Next up, local firecracker Emily Bell and her five-piece backing band, including longtime collaborator and love interest John Evans, made the showroom truly rock, kicking out uptempo, swaggering jams sprinkled with Americana flavor and a heavy helping of irresistibly kinetic stage energy.

Saturday night, four artists graced the stage with precisely the kind of invigorating performances to which Black Fret aspires. 

The extended break after Bell and company’s hard-driving set allowed the crowd to get truly loose thanks to libations from Tito’s, Shiner Beer, Colorado Gold Distillery, Topo Chico and more. By 8:30, however, the buzz in the air for the evening’s second surprise guest was palpable. With a circle forming around the room’s grand piano, the crowd cheered when The Voice semifinalist and beloved local belter Nakia broke into “Private Party” as his opening song before exhorting everyone in attendance to follow their dreams at all costs.

But even Nakia’s star power gave way to the heart-swelling verve of Ben Kweller’s impassioned set. The local troubadour drew the most adoring crowd of the evening, firing through classics like “Wasted & Ready” while vehemently strumming his well-worn Epiphone acoustic guitar within an inch of its poor life. Kweller dedicated his opening number, “Commerce, TX,” to Wilkinson, who beamed with pride. But it was that song’s chorus about how “It’s gonna take a lot of time/Before I can cross that finish line” that seemed to resonate with the evening’s vibe.

Of course, Black Fret’s stated finish line of increasing membership from approximately 75 members to more than 100 in one evening was within sight by the event’s end around 10 pm — meaning the organization’s 2014 goal of awarding 10 $10,000 grants by the end of the year is equally attainable. Ott expects the first pool of grant nominees to be announced by March, with a seven-month listening period to follow before the recipients are announced in November.

“That’s where the fun part happens,” Ott said. “We’ll have at least 10-12 incredibly intimate house parties and semiprivate shows every two to four weeks — outdoor amplified events until 10 pm and then indoor acoustic sets that go as late as 2:30 or 3 am sometimes. Black Fret members will vote on artists that entire time, so this is not an organization where you donate money and then forget about it — you pay your annual dues and then are directly involved with where your money goes. And the more people that sign up, the more grants we get to award.”

Even Nakia’s star power gave way to the heart-swelling verve of Ben Kweller’s impassioned set. 

Ott also made note of the strong business relationships that will also be an inherent part of Black Fret’s process. From nomination to dispersal of funds to one-year mentorships after the grant year, local producers, studio owners and managers will have a say in artists’ successes, adding an element that goes above and beyond the involvement of artists and fans.

“We have a real window of opportunity here,” raved Stuart Sullivan, owner of Wire Recording and an acclaimed producer who’s worked with Willie Nelson, Sublime, Meat Puppets and Austin cult faves The Hickoids. “All of us in the music business are in this game together, especially as things shift from a commodity-based economy to a support system like Black Fret’s. If this model is successful, it will be copied. But this job is not for anyone with weak knees — that’s why Colin and Matt are perfect for it. They’re not just dabblers; they put time and energy toward looking into the future and believing without fear in what they see. I’ll follow anybody that can do that.”

As Kendrick and Ott both said at various points during the night, Black Fret is about elevating local music to its deserved status as the ultimate bridge between having fun, supporting the arts and building community — something that’s more unique to Austin than nearly anywhere else.

“I’ve lived here since 1978, and Austin is the biggest small town in the world,” Ott finished. “Honestly, there’s no downside to that. And it’s exactly the kind of wonderful, magical thing we want to put to work for Black Fret.”

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