Austin superstar and women’s and LGBTQ rights advocate Gina Chavez brings passion, heart and the power of music to Austin City Limits.
By Cy White, Photos by Cy White
It would not be a stretch to call Gina Chavez a legend. Her renown locally as an Austin staple and nationally as a powerhouse performer and advocate for women’s and LGTBQIA+ rights has afforded her the superlative. What does that mean in terms of her performance at ACL? Let’s just say it’s one of those shows you have to see to believe. I’m actually shocked (and having seen her, appalled) that she wasn’t invited to play on one of the larger stages. Her presence alone could’ve overflowed all three main stages and then some. Even her sound check was one for the ages. The chemistry with her band on stage and with the audience waiting in front of it is incredible. An overwhelming feeling of connectedness rubbing shoulders with the profound realization that you’re about to witness something spectacular.
Then the music starts. Chavez raises a thick drumstick in the air and strikes the bombo (a bass drum crafted from wood) with conviction. Any preconceived notions anyone might have had before this very moment are tossed out the window. Hers is a soft voice. She doesn’t have the vocal strength of a Celia Cruz or Nina Simone by any means. Her voice is pretty, strong but not rugged. But let’s be honest. Those who stay for her hour-long showcase do so because her stage presence just oozes confidence, energy and ferocious heart.
Lift Your Voice
At this point, the sun has decided to make its presence known. There’s a reason the BMI stage is smack-dab between the Miller Lite stage and Bumble’s water oasis. Not to be trite, but as soon as Chavez alights the stage, everyone knows things are going to get well hotter before they cool down. The opening song is the very araul embodiment of fire. The bombo thuds like your heartbeat. Ever increasing in power as Chavez sings with her whole chest. Every member of her band responds in kind. Energy. Seemingly endless energy. It just spills from the stage onto the shoes and limbs of every single festivalgoer in attendance.
One would never accuse Gina Chavez of being reserved. Particularly if they’ve ever seen her live. So it’s almost surprising that as her set continues she becomes more animated. A sunflower that blooms as the sun rises higher in the sky. She whips out her own guitar and seems to be having a friendly competition with her guitarist (who lives in his own universe on the right side of the stage). She shimmies and shakes, does a heel-toe dance the likes of which Chuck Berry would be proud of. She gets absolutely lost in the music, putting her entire body into her playing. She pulls what I call the “Prince face.” When the music would grab a hold of Prince’s soul, his face would contort, often openmouthed with eyes closed. Chavez has that sort of emotional hurricane go through when she plays.
Music & Love
And the band is there, not as backup, but as an extension of her musical vision. The Gina Chavez band is as important to the experience as the singer herself. The percussion section is crisp, each pound on the drums or heavy hand on the congas provides the pulse of the music, the reverberation of which ripples out to the audience. The keys and backup singers provide a melodious grandeur to underneath the percussive thump. The guitars…. Now, full disclosure, I’m a guitar person. It’s an integral part of my makeup. I never played myself, but it was always a large part of my life. So watching Chavez go toe-to-toe with her guitarist Crossroads style was most certainly a gift.
None of this would be as impactful if it weren’t the emotional weight of the music itself. Gina Chavez writes with emotion, raw and honest. When she dedicates a song to her wife, you can feel the heaviness of her emotions. There’s a slight catch in her voice when she talks about her wife. A feeling that resonates to all the lovers (and lovers at heart) in the audience. When she sings something anthemic, the crowd is with her. Dancing along, letting the spirit of the song give them wings. Hands raised, hips swaying, feet in constant motion.
Gina Chavez isn’t a performer. She’s an experience. When she hits the stage, all bravado and infectious energy, the audience is instantly transported far from the crowds and competing sounds of the other stages. Lifted from Zilker Park and basking in the glory of Chavez’s music. We become that “one nation under a groove,” connected in love and light and the power of music.