Forget everything you’ve been told about Austin’s music scene.
The 6th Street bar district is not the city’s epicenter for vibrant live music. That’s where non-discerning college kids go to hear guitar players still learning how to wield their axes grind out takes of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” The venues that make Austin the “Live Music Capital of the World®”—outside of the SXSW and Austin City Limits festivals—mostly dot the perimeter of the capital city’s downtown. Bohemian South Austin. Rocking Red River Street. No-man’s-land North Austin, where each Sunday afternoon for the last 10 years, at a dive called Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, you can eat free hot dogs and place bets on where a chicken will cop a squat, while premier honky-tonk practitioner Dale Watson croons in between sips of canned Lone Star beer. Spots like these are the ones frequented by people in Austin who know where to go to find good music.
The brilliant thing about the live music scene here is that you can experience it every night. Pick a night, any night, and the Continental Club on South Congress Avenue in South Austin will blow you away. Some of the finest musicians in the game hone their chops there, among them stalwarts Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry (son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry). Their Wednesday night double bill is a must.
The storied Continental opened in 1955. First it was a private supper club. Then it was a burlesque club. Now it’s a destination for roots, rockabilly and retro. “In a city that has seen so many changes over the past years, it’s refreshing to walk into the Continental Club, which is sort of a time capsule of what Austin used to be like,” owner Steve Wertheimer says.
You don’t have to drive far to hit a score of other killer venues in South Austin. You’ll be glad you have the extra space when a stranger you’ve befriended at one show wants to hitch a ride to the next. Two sure things for that second set are Threadgill’s and the Broken Spoke.
The Broken Spoke is where you go if you’re looking for genuine country amidst a flock of two-steppers. Tight jeans low on your boots. Pearl in your shirt buttons. Perhaps a stain around the brim of your Stetson to show you didn’t just take it out of the box. That’s how the crowd did it back in the day when Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys played. That’s how the crowd does it today, when Alvin Crow is on the bandstand, stroking his fiddle. “We have cold beer, good whisky and good-lookin’ girls to dance with,” Broken Spoke owner James M. White says. “What more do you need?”
OK, OK, maybe pure country isn’t your thing. You need a little rock to temper the drawl. The convergence of the two is how Threadgill’s made its bones. Back in the ’70s, it was called the Armadillo World Headquarters. The cosmic-cowboy craze was in full effect. One weekend Willie Nelson might be playing, on another weekend The Clash, and on another Sun Ra.
Inside, on the walls of the renovated haunt, providing visuals for the diners, are vintage psychedelic concert posters. Outside is a performance space less ambitious in the scope of musicians it purveys than the Armadillo, but still a mainstay for eccentric acts like countrified hippies, the Gourds. Enjoy the fire pit, room for folding chairs, and a bar with a line that’s long but fast. Because in the morning, you’ll be back to atone for your sins at the Sunday gospel brunch.
Another important amalgamation of cultures occurred at Antone’s. The blues club was a unifier for blacks and whites in the ’70s and ’80s. Owner Clifford Antone ran the place like a playground for his heroes, blues assassins Muddy Waters, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. But Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Los Lonely Boys have also dropped buckets of sweat there. “Clifford opened a club in downtown Austin at a time when downtowns were dying all over the country,” sister and current proprietor Susan Antone says. “The uniqueness of what became a first-class blues club led in many ways to so many other clubs opening there.”
The club has since relocated and is in a high-traffic area of downtown. And while the blues is only a fraction of what’s played today, you can still routinely catch 97-year-old boogie-woogie piano player, Pinetop Perkins, pouring out his heart. Of course, there are alternatives to the raucous side of Austin’s live music scene. The Long Center for the Performing Arts, located on the banks of Lady Bird Lake, hosts programming for that special night out, like when you want to put on cashmere and plunk down 100 bucks to see Leonard Cohen or Tuvan throat singers or the Austin Symphony Orchestra. But included in that hefty admission is a view of the cityscape that is downright hallucinatory.
By now it’s the witching hour. There’s no other place to be than Red River, the street that runs like a wayward son north of 6th Street. At the end is Mohawk, where rock bands on the cusp of the mainstream get loaded on cigarettes before commencing their post-midnight set behind a pair of Ray-Ban® sunglasses. This is where you can say you saw the next Pitchfork “it” band first. Because once that band amasses a following, it will graduate down the street to Austin’s definitive rock arena, Stubb’s. Some people go there for the barbecue, fashioned after the namesake, a Lubbock-born cotton-picker and Korean War vet named Christopher B. Stubblefield. Some people go there for the hotshot touring bands on the outside stage. Most people go there for both.
Say you just got your Tiguan and you’d rather marvel at it in your garage. There’s always Austin City LimitsSM, the live-music TV show after which the festival took its name. You know, the show that comes on PBS® late at night, with the lit-up backdrop of Austin.
It’s filmed in a studio on the University of Texas campus. You have to know someone to get tickets, or you line up well in advance of a taping and hope there are extras. With this risk comes reward, though. Music from the best of the best, both local and national. “After 35 years, we’re the longest-running music show on American television, so we’re probably on our third generation of artists and viewers,” executive producer Terry Lickona says.
Soon Austin City Limits will move into a studio in the new W Hotel, smack dab in downtown. But that’s how it goes in Austin. Things are always changing, sounds are always going in and out of style, musicians get big and move on as new ones arrive in town. Who knows, maybe in a couple years 6th Street will really be alive with the sound of live music.
- Das Auto Magazine