AUSTIN (KXAN) — As more than 20,000 spectators trickled into Q2 Stadium for Austin FC’s inaugural home game June 19, Austin-based singer-songwriter Aaron Stephens geared up for his biggest performance yet. Stationed on the pitch mere feet from Matthew McConaughey, he performed a funky guitar rendition of the National Anthem — no pressure, he said.
“I was so excited. That there’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of,” he said. “Honestly, Matthew McConaughey was like, over there, and like, I was just a little nervous too, you know, ’cause you definitely want to perform that song right. That’s a very important song.”
But when it came to tackling one of the most notable songs in the nation, Stephens said he wanted to put his own spin on the National Anthem, all while paying tribute to a fellow Texan.
“I think I saw Gary Clark Jr. play, play slide, but it was a little different than the way I did it. So I was like, I think I’m gonna, you know, try the slide version,” he said. “I like the way he did it with that sound. I feel like it’s very Texas blues.”
Stephens and fellow Austin singer-songwriter and guitarist Jackie Venson took part in league history as the first artists to perform at the home opener. Venson’s manager, Louie Carr, was familiar with Stephens’ work and advocated for him to join Venson in the opening day performances.
Seated at the piano, Venson performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referenced as the Black National Anthem, before heading down to Antone’s Nightclub off E. 5th Street for two nights of sold-out performances.
The performance was just one highlighted component of having Austin FC’s first ever home game on Juneteenth, said James Ruth, the team’s vice president of marketing.
“When we saw the schedule come out, and when we realized that our home opener was on Juneteenth, I mean, it was something that we were honored by. We were honored by the opportunity to make something that was such an event for Austin also an opportunity to highlight this important kind of milestone in this important moment,” Ruth said. “And to be able to collaborate with somebody like Jackie on making sure that we honor the day, while having our first home match, was an exciting opportunity.”
In the weeks and months leading up to Austin FC’s home opener, the league has detailed its efforts to include elements of Austin’s cultural legacy and influence in this historic season. Local artist Chris Rogers’ ‘Whispers of the Heart’ mural will grace fans for a few months, before fellow Austin creatives unveil the next iterations.
The team has also employed the help of Austin staple restaurants in feeding fans, including Easy Tiger, Pluckers Wing Bar and Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ.
“I think for us, our biggest opportunity is to be a flag bearer for Austin,” Ruth said. “You know, I think in a lot of ways that transcends soccer — that transcends being a sports team.”
And for Austin FC fans well versed in the city’s iconic music scene, Ruth said they can anticipate spotting some familiar faces at upcoming home games. Keeping in trend with the tradition launched Saturday, June 27’s home match against the Columbus Crew will kick off with a performance of the National Anthem by Austin Latin-folk singer, Gina Chavez.
“We’re really excited for her to take center stage and, you know, for it to be an element for every Austinite that’s coming into that stadium to see and be curious about who’s going to take the guitar for the next iteration of the National Anthem,” he said.
While Austin FC is a soccer team, Ruth added he also sees it as an opportunity to marry together all of the quintessential elements — the food, music, artistry, cultural legacy and people — that make Austin the city residents know and love.
“It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a responsibility,” he said, adding: “I think we want to be a cultural institution here as much as a sports team.”