"It's a hard honor, but it's an honor to be here tonight."
On Saturday night at Beerland in Austin, those were the only words rocker Ted Leo could get out without stammering or choking up. He and some of the city's most beloved punk bands packed into the popular dive bar for a night to celebrate Esme Barrera, 29, a leading light of the local music scene, murdered in her home early on January 1.
Barrera was a huge fan of Leo, and the two had met and kept in touch at Austin shows through the years. That connection, along with Barrera's admirable life (a special education assistant at a local elementary school, a counselor at Girls Rock Camp Austin, an employee at beloved Waterloo Records, an enthusiastic booster of local bands) prompted Leo to return to Austin for two memorial shows at Barrera's favorite club.
Playing with a quiet, exposed-nerve intensity, Leo started the late set with a cover of The Pogues' "Lullaby of London," with lyrics like, "May the wind that blows from haunted graves never bring you misery," casting a we'll-get-through-this spirit that many of Barrera's friends felt was necessary after a month of mourning.
"One of the things that was needed was for everyone in the music community to come together and just celebrate her," said Kelsey Wickliffe, a close friend and former co-worker, "because after going to her funeral and other memorials I'm ready to celebrate the person she was. There's been such an amazing response by so many people, and many of them barely knew her if at all, because of what inspired her and motivated her to be the person she was. It shows how kind and generous a person [Leo] is that he would come here for this. She would have loved that."
Barrera's murder remains unsolved. Austin police say the lead suspect in the killing committed suicide on January 12 but the investigation remains open. The circumstances prompted remembrances from all over the music world. Leo jumped on board for these shows to cover her funeral expenses, Kathleen Hanna lauded her work with young women in music, and former At the Drive-In member and fellow El Paso native Jim Ward returned home from his Australian tour to grieve with friends.
About halfway through the later set, Leo played a new song bound for a compilation in Barrera's honor, with a lyric — "No I don't believe in God, and I don't believe I should, but I'd like to live as if I could" — that offered a glimpse into what many gathered in her honor were wrestling with.
"The night is all about the kind of person she was, how every time you met her somewhere she was always up, happy, and pro-you," said Ray Colgan, singer of Austin soul-punks the Crack Pipes, who ended the night with a set that included "Makeout Party," a song that Barrera recorded backup vocals for. "She wasn't Pollyanna, but when you encountered her she was a cheerleader for life. She was an unusually positive force to everyone she knew."