Words by Blair Waller
When it comes to tackling a subject or debate, I like to begin with data. Numbers don’t lie and they don’t tell the full story, but they’re a solid starting point. The topic here is how Austin ranks amongst the best as a music town. When Googling “Best Live Music Cities in the US,” various articles ranked Austin as follows: #2, #4, #3, #3, #3, and #3. When I did “Best Live Music Cities in the World,” the results were even more impressive: #2, #8 and #2. I’ll leave it to you to figure the means, medians and modes, but the results are clear – Austin is truly “The Live Music Capital of the World.”
I realize this is a foregone conclusion for most, but it might not be for those outside of Texas who see many big name acts skip Austin for the likes of the obvious – LA and NY on the grand scale and Houston and Dallas the sure-stops nearby. But Austin isn’t like that. It has it’s own style going on. It’s weird as we all well know.
So how did this once sleepy town in the Texas Hill Country roll its way to being the “The Live Music Capital of the World”?
The scene started in the late 1800’s in the German Beer Gardens and Halls. Then in 1933, singer Kenneth Threadgill opened the venue bearing his namesake, featuring the finest in folk and country. The country scene continued in 1964 with the opening of the Broken Spoke, housing legends Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills and up-and-coming young buck Willie Nelson. Meanwhile, over on the east side of town, venues such as the Victory Grill, began what was called the “chitlin’ circuit,” hosting many of the big name jazz and blues artists like Ray Charles, B.B. King and Duke Ellington.
One of the more defining venues in this history was the opening of the Vulcan Gas Company, which changed its name to the famous Armadillo World Headquarters in 1970. Over the next decade, the Headquarters hosted acts from the 13th Floor Elevators to Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa to The Talking Heads, ZZ Top to Bette Midler and Stevie Ray Vaughn to Blondie. At one point, in 1977, The Clash teamed up with Joe Ely to play a transcendental show, capturing one of rock’s most iconic photos – the cover of London Calling. Another quintessential snapshot came when Australia’s AC/DC played their first show on American soil under “The Dillo’s” roof. During its 10-year tenure, the venue gave birth to terms like “The Austin Sound”, “Redneck Rock” and “Cosmic Cowboy” – each adding a unique layer to the city’s music scene. Adding to this veneer was the fact that during that time span, the number of Lone Star beers sold was 2nd only to the Astrodome. The venue was razed in 1981 but the stage had been set for the 30 years (and counting) that followed.
Alongside the rise and fall of the Armadillo was the establishment of Antone’s on 6th Street in 1975. Most notably, the venue was critical in the rising of Stevie Ray Vaughn and other world-class blues talents. A few years later, venues like Club Foot, Raul’s, the Continental Club and Dukes Royal Coach ushered in the punk era. Bands such as The Skunks and The Violators brought a derisive clash to the already varied scene that preceded it. Even the most well known punk band at the time, The Sex Pistols, had a contribution to the scene.
Music venues then emerged. Many came and went and many stayed and are here today. Each spot contributed to the scene Austinite’s experience today. We see concerts year round as well as host events like SXSW, Fun Fun Fun Fest and Austin Free Week. It’s a scene unique unto itself.
This week, LIVIN Austin pays tribute to the finest music venues in Austin. They come in all shapes and sizes, hosting the widest variety of musical sounds around. If a band wishes to make a name for themselves in their particular genre – whether it be country, rock, blues, jazz, punk or a combination of the above – they’d be well advised to come through Austin. Here are the places you’ll find them.
We’ve divided the finest music venues in Austin into 3 subcategories: Large, Medium and Small. Creative, isn’t it? There is some overlap between the groups with an admitted fuzzy distinction between each. The basic idea is this: where you see a particular band, many times, makes all the difference. In other words, there is a difference between seeing, say, The Black Keys at Saxon Pub in 2002 vs. at the Erwin Center in 2013. The former would be life changing while the latter would be pretty-to-kinda cool. The location depends largely on how big or popular they are at the time, and there is little correlation between the quality of the band and the size of the venue. That’s why you have to be diligent with your musical acumen as a small up-and-coming band playing at a tiny venue isn’t going to smack you upside the head from the Life & Arts section of The Statesman. I digress slightly but you get the idea.
OK, now we’re ready to rock.
Austin’s Finest “Large” Venues
As prefaced a moment ago, biggest is not always best. However, that’s not to say you won’t see some great bands at their respective heights playing some damn fine tunes. These tickets will be mostly on the pricier end, requiring that you purchase tickets far in advance and probably see more than a few people you know. Having said that, they’re still in Austin and we don’t exactly have any professional arenas like the American Airlines Center in Dallas. That’s usually a good thing.
Upcoming shows: Little Hurricane, Blondie, JJ Grey & Mofro, Cyndi Lauper
Had Forrest Gump been from Austin instead of Alabama, I like to think he would have said him and Jenny went together like BBQ and music. That’s what Christopher “Stubb” Stubblefield created when he opened his doors in the 70’s. All the Austin greats “played for their supper” here – SRV, Willie – but also the likes of Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, George Thorogood and John Lee Hooker. Today, it’s a hub for the headliners of SXSW and an excellent spot to catch an ACL sideshow.
Upcoming shows: Andrew Stockdale (of Wolfmother), Pentagram, Tricky
Had this article been written a couple years ago, Emo’s would have found itself in a different category. Since relocating from downtown to East Riverside, the venue can now house far larger acts in their warehouse-style setup, complete with 4 different bars and Evil Kneivel graphics.
Upcoming shows: Robert Plant, Cheap Trick, Belle & Sebastian, Buddy Guy, Steve Miller Band
Admittedly, it’s not a large venue but tickets are either expensive or impossible to get. Usually, you have to win them or have an “in” somewhere (like knowing the fire marshal as a friend of mine did once). The stage and the acts it attracts are reverential due to the history and the usual taping for ACL Live. It’s interesting to note that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced it will release the archives from nearly 40 years of the show’s tapings to the public. Might be worth a trip to Cleveland for that. (Not really, but you thought about it for a half second, right?)
Austin’s Finest “Medium” Venues
This category is what I believe is the sweet spot. This is where you’ll find high quality acts in a relatively intimate setting, potentially right before they become big (or burn out and fade away which is great as well in the music world).
Upcoming shows: Jimmie Vaughan, The Psychedelic Furs, Reverend Horton Heat, Tribal Seeds
At the ripe age of 25, after dropping out of UT because of a marijuana arrest, Clifford Antone opened this “Chicago Blues” club on 6th Street. The venue quickly became paramount in the burgeoning Austin music scene as it hosted legends like Fats Domino, B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, to name very few. We’re now in the midst of an interesting chapter in the club’s history as it closed its 6th Street doors and opened anew on East Riverside. While larger, the new venue still has that “Chicago club” feel with a balcony overlooking the stage and pool tables and a charming dirty feel in the walls (I say this in the most endearing way possible – honest). I have little doubt this spot will be integral as the city develops and grows on the Eastside.
Upcoming shows: Mikal Cronin, The Octopus Project, Dirty Beaches, Mudhoney
A relatively new kid on the block (Red River, that is), this spot opened in 2006. It has quickly become one of if not my favorite venue in Austin. Sporting 2 very different stages, one intimate indoor and larger terraced outdoor, Mohawk attracts many of those bands you might not know now but you certainly will in the years to come. Always a great, eclectic crowd.
Upcoming shows: The Possum Posse, Kevin Lovejoy Trio, Dirty Bourbon River Show
Known mainly for it’s culinary chops, this West 2nd Street venue is a great spot to see an intimate show. They have a good chance of attracting some of the more mellow up-and-coming acts.
Austin’s Finest “Small” Venues
While the above might be the sweet spot, these venues are what truly make the Austin music scene special. What they lack in big name acts, they make up for with consistency and uniquely-Austin charm. They are spots that you’ll stumble into on a random Tuesday evening and catch a casual show you won’t soon forget.
“The granddaddy of all local music venues, the Continental Club has enjoyed a coast-to-coast reputation as the premiere club for live music in Austin since 1957.”
“Billboard magazine listed the Cactus as one of fifteen “solidly respected, savvy clubs” nationwide “from which careers can be cut, that work with proven names and new faces.””
“Since opening we’ve hosted some of Honky Tonk, Rockabilly, Rock, and Outlaw Country’s most respected artists including Rosie Flores, Wayne Hancock, Ray Wylie Hubbard, The Nortons, John Evans Band, Bo Porter, Leo Rondeau, Roger Wallace and some of Austin’s finest including Mike and the Moonpies, Jim Stringer, Crooks, The Austin Steamers and many more.” Their take on cover charges: “Instead of handing us $5 at the door why don’t you buy a band CD or a t-shirt or a shot of T.W. Samuels for those talented musicians that are pickin’ away on our stage? We like supporting the live music that makes Austin so damn great and that’s why we hardly ever charge a cover. In those rare instances that we do, we promise it’s for damn good show.”
“A club that provides a welcoming, comfortable community space … an escape from the intensity of downtown Austin that provides high quality musical entertainment and free parking!”
“Located in the heart of downtown Austin in the historic district of 6th Street, The Parish is arguably the best indoor live music venue in Austin that offers the highest quality production for artists and events alike. With a 450 capacity, The Parish has hosted musical legends such as Pete Townshend, Slash, and Perry Farrell as well as independent artists such as Grizzly Bear and Yeasayer. It is an all-genres venue that provides an intimate, live music experience for all music fans.”
“All aboard! One of Austin’s most unique nightspots is housed in an old Missouri-Pacific train depot. Real train cars serve as seating areas, and the ladies restroom is a real caboose! … Featuring live music six nights a week Donn’s Depot is the venue of some of Austin’s most talented musicians … Donn’s depot bridges the generation gap with its diverse range of musicians and musical genres, ranging from swing, country, and modern folk/pop.”
“WELCOME to the Hole in the Wall, friends! What took you so long? “
“Rock & roll club seeks bands, fans, and hangers-on for all-out orgy of loud music and cheap beer. Also have liquor, pool, and arcade games. Must love music.”
“Opened in 1990, the Saxon has hosted well over 22,000 musical performances. On any given night you might see a major celebrity from the film or music industry either having a beer or sitting in on stage jamming with the locals. It is also known for booking some of the greatest music legends around, performing in an intimate atmosphere that Kris Kristofferson likened to “playing in his own living room”.
“As different offshoots of jazz come and go in the popular music sector, the Elephant Room has remained the home of traditional jazz in Austin since 1991. They are not impermeable to fancy; the influx of world music and the occasional jump blues band to the Elephant’s schedule belie the abundance of jazz talent in Austin, but the club continues to provide the essentials — jazz.”
From Frommers: “In spite of (or maybe because of) its out-of-the-way location and bizarre circus theme — complete with elephant and lion-tamer murals and an actual carousel behind the bar — the Carousel Lounge is a highly popular local watering hole. You never know what will turn up onstage — this place has hosted everything from smaller musical acts to belly dancers.”
From The Guardian: “The Victory Grill opened in 1945, back when E 11th Street was the heart of Austin’s “Chitlin’ Circuit” – a name used to describe the network of clubs across the country that welcomed African American performers at a deeply segregated time. Johnny Holmes, a booking agent and band manager, opened the Victory Grill to serve black soldiers returning from the second world war and it quickly became a hotspot for blues and jazz. Over the decades, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Etta James and Janis Joplin all performed here. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Victory Grill is a museum as much as a live music spot, but it’s worth stopping by for their Monday-night blues jams and to take in the vibrant murals on its west-facing walls. Make sure to call ahead as the music schedule varies.”
That’s basically a brief history on where we are and how we got here. Now strap on your boots or lace up your Chuck Taylor’s and experience the music of Austin.