- The Live Music Capital of the World is filled with individuals seeking nirvana
When the music industry descends on Texas’ capital city each March for South by Southwest (SXSW ), countless musicians, publicists, journalists and record company reps share one goal: to have what folks call an “Austin moment.”
SXSW is a drunken, tattooed equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival. Entertainment biz flunkies and iPhones are ubiquitous, but musicians, like the filmmakers at Sundance, make the convention a major and worthwhile event. The festival, which began in 1987, features more than 2,000 musical acts of all stripes, filling Austin’s 100-plus music clubs for five solid nights, and is now bookended by a film festival and technology conference.
An “Austin moment” is the transcendently blissful feeling that sweeps through the body as one experiences the perfect blend of artist, crowd, vibe and timing. This feeling isn’t necessarily unique to concerts in Austin; it is, though, unique to live music, and Austin stakes a rightful claim as the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
The key to Austin as a music lover’s destination is that thousands can experience their own moments all over the city at the same time, and these moments come year-round in a town strewn with musicians, artists and live-music venues.
AUSTIN WAS FOUNDED in 1838 and now boasts about 1.2 million people in its metropolitan area. Besides being the longtime home of the University of Texas and the Texas state capital, Austin rode the high-tech wave to become the fastest-growing large city in America.
Long known for its vibrant live scene, Austin boasts a range from folk to country to ethnic to rap and reggae; you name it, Austin has it.
The city’s early German, Swedish and Mexican settlers brought their musical heritage with them. Bars featuring music attracted Custer and his soldiers when they were stationed in the Texas capitol after the Civil War. By the 1880s, German music halls were lining Pecan Street (present-day 6th Street).
In the 1920s, Austin became the home to several jazz venues. Blues pianist Roosevelt Thomas “the Grey Ghost” Williams was a big part of the Austin blues sound. During the 1930s and ’40s, country and classic Big Band music took the stage. Trumpeter Nash Hernandez founded an all-Hispanic band in 1949, playing Big Band, country and Tejano music and opening the door for many Hispanic musicians. The Nash Hernandez Orchestra, led by Ruben Hernandez, Nash’s son, continues this tradition today, and the band now includes non-Hispanic members as well.
In the 1960s and ’70s, rock ’n’ roll took center stage, while country, Tejano and folk also grew in popularity. Austin City Limits, the PBS television show, began as a series in 1976 and continues strong today as the longest-running music program in the nation. ACL was filmed at KLRU studio 6A on the University of Texas campus for 36 years and is now filmed at the state-of-the-art Moody Theater downtown. Willie Nelson was the debut performer on the show’s pilot, which was filmed in 1974.
Blues and rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan made Austin his home during his rise to fame in the 1970s and ’80s. Vaughan’s group Double Threat released its debut album, Texas Flood, in 1983, shortly before Vaughan died tragically in a helicopter crash. A memorial statue in Vaughan’s honor stands at the head of Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake).
AUSTIN WAS RECENTLY voted the No. 1 place to live in America for the third year in a row — based on afford- ability, job prospects and quality of life. It’s listed among the top 15 cities in the United States to visit. And it ranks No. 4 of the best large cities to start a business. (On a related note, Texas recently took the top spot in a study of the best states for female entrepreneurs.)
While the invasion of technology companies has certainly changed the character, and skyline, of Austin, the town maintains its status as an artistic and liberal enclave along the lines of Eugene (Oregon), Berkeley (California) or Madison (Wisconsin). According to stats from the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, Austin has the sixth-largest number of artists per capita in the United States and has the most highly educated populace among the largest 50 U.S. cities. It boasts the highest per capita bookstore sales in the country and the most movie screens per capita in the country.
Temperatures are mild, with an annual average low temperature of 58 degrees, but summer can be hot and sometimes muggy, making a tube float down the Colorado River dividing downtown from south Austin a popular local pastime. Average rainfall is only 32 inches, meaning 300 days of sun annually.
One could spend a week in Austin simply exploring Texas history. The pink marble Texas State Capitol Building is worth a visit, but it’s even better to look at from the outside at sunset. The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library resides on the University of Texas campus.
The true draw of Austin, though, is the music. The number of venues where all manner of live music is played nightly is utterly out of proportion to a city Austin’s size. (One eye-popping study concluded that roughly 70 percent of Austin residents support live music at least once each week.) Dozens of clubs bump against each other in a downtown only a few blocks in diameter and easily navigable on foot. State office buildings and restaurants intermingle with rock clubs like the Mohawk and the legendary blues joint Antone’s.
Any given evening, world-class bluegrass, country, rock, soul, R&B, blues or punk musicians take the stage somewhere in Austin, and much of the time the musicians are at least part-time locals.
Willie Nelson might be most famous for bailing out of Nashville and developing his out- law mystique in south-central Texas, but acts as diverse as Lucinda Williams and the Butthole Surfers have spent time in Austin to experience some of the Texas voodoo. Roots-rocker Joe Ely calls the city home, as does singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, pop-rock group Spoon and Western swing icons Asleep at the Wheel. Janis Joplin lived here, as does Shawn Colvin. The 13th Floor Elevators plied their psychedelic rock here in the ’60s.
Local success stories Bob Schneider, Shakey Graves, the Gourds, Tish Hinojosa, Shinyribs, Fastball, Timbuk 3 and Gary Clark Jr. have all enjoyed wider acclaim after honing their chops in the city’s venues.
Any tour of Austin’s night life must start on 6th Street, a dense stretch in the heart of downtown about halfway between the parallel-running Colorado River to the south and the state capitol to the north. Maggie Mae’s and Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar top the list of recommended venues.
The area known as Dirty Sixth, from Congress Avenue to I-35, has a rightful reputation as the place where mistakes (and sometimes misdemeanors) are made, but you can avoid the worst of it by visiting only the street’s essential bars — places like Midnight Cowboy, Easy Tiger and Casino El Camino. Leave Coyote Ugly and the Aquarium to the college kids.
While 6th Street is the epicenter, with a majority of the city’s clubs either sitting on 6th or an adjacent offshoot, there’s also the nearby Red River District, a five-block edgy entertainment swath that includes Cheer Up Charlies, Empire Control Room & Garage and the Mohawk. The Parish, in the Congress Avenue District, is located in an inconspicuous upstairs room just above Bat Bar and the Voodoo Doughnut storefront, and is widely regarded as the city’s best venue for sound.
Then there are the iconic venues like the Broken Spoke on South Lamar, an old- fashioned honky tonk that’s been aroundsince 1964; Threadgill’s on North Lamar, where Janis Joplin was once a waitress and performer; the retro Continental Club on Congress Avenue, the granddaddy of local music venues, which opened in 1955 as a swank supper club; the Cactus Cafe, a small, intimate venue on the University of Texas campus that opened in 1979 and is known for showcasing top international acoustic acts; the legendary Poodie’s Roadhouse, in Spicewood, a staple on the country circuit since 1997; and Hole in the Wall, on the famous Drag across the street from UT’s campus, where everyone from Doug Sahm to Don Henley to Black Joe Lewis to Nanci Griffith has performed on the storefront stage.
What are we forgetting? Plenty. The Little Longhorn Saloon (where you can play chicken shit bingo), the Historic Scoot Inn, the Elephant Room, the Saxon Pub, the White Horse, Donn’s Depot, the Victory Grill in East Austin (once part of the chitlin’ circuit, a collection of venues featuring African American entertainers), and Nutty Brown Cafe and Amphitheater, just outside the city limits.
Then there are the festivals. In addition to SXSW each March, there’s the Austin City Limits Music Festival, a two-weekend event in October that brings together more than 130 acts from all over the world; the Old Settler’s Music Festival, now in nearby Dale, Texas, which caters to blue- grass, roots rock and Americana each April; Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic, which features a star-studded lineup headed by Nelson himself (and, of course, fireworks); and, for something completely different, the Republic of Texas Biker Rally, the state’s largest motorcycle gathering that attracts thousands of bikers each May for live music and a parade down Congress Avenue.
Food is a major component of traveling to Austin. It’s just as important to pace yourself through the wonders of Tex-Mex, barbecue, seafood and assorted Southern specialties as it is to pace yourself through a night at the music clubs. Stubb’s BBQ, near the east end of 6th Street, combines the best of both worlds, with some of the tastiest beef brisket in town and an outdoor amphitheater.
Margaritas are a staple of Austin cuisine, so either be prepared to order a specific brand of tequila or let the bartender use his or her best judgment — because asking a Texas bartender what type of tequila is available can result in an hour-long answer. If you have the cash, just ask for “top shelf.” If you’re on a struggling rock ’n’ roller’s budget, the well tequila somehow tastes better in Texas. All types are welcome.
“People are more interested in Austin than ever,” says Joe Pagone, general manager of the three-year-old Hotel Van Zandt, a music-themed boutique property that’s witnessed occupancy growth aligned with Austin’s boom. “People are seeing that it’s a great place to live, but also a great place to travel. It’s increasing occupancies and increasing revenues and increasing travel into the market.”
And there are more hotels coming to respond to the increased demand, including the new East Austin Hotel, a modernist property that features collaborations with local artisans and makers.
Lufthansa also recently announced new nonstop service between Austin and the airline’s Frankfurt hub.
But not everyone is happy about all the development. “Austin’s community has a love-hate relationship with growth and change,” says technology journalist Laura Lorek of Silicon Hills News. “Everyone loves the Austin they moved to or grew up in. The city has changed so dramatically during the past 10 years, and the result of rising real estate prices downtown has driven many long-time businesses out of business.”
Ben Rubenstein, a lifestyle blogger and founder of Opcity, notes that traffic is also an issue: Austin now ranks as the 14th most congested city in the nation. “Austin doesn’t have good public transportation,” Rubinstein says, “and the roads weren’t designed for this many people.”
Austin city leaders are grappling with affordability and traffic problems to accommodate the influx of people. “The creative community of writers, musicians, artists and all of the weird funky stuff that made Austin great,” Lorek says, “must remain for Austin to continue to be a highly desirable place to live.”
Nevertheless, the future looks bright. “It’s viral marketing that takes place in Austin,” says Angelos Angelou, who spent 12 years as vice president of economic development for the Austin Chamber of Commerce and is now owner of Angelou Economics.
“People are so enthusiastic about the quality of life and what the city offers,” he adds. “I don’t foresee a downside.”