Chronicle Live Music Venue Guide


Photo outside of Steamboat.
photograph by John Carrico

Location, yes. Situated smack dab in the middle of Sixth Street, Steamboat sits in the heart of chaos every Friday and Saturday night when the Capital City police department cordons off Austin's answer to Bourbon Street and lets revelers run wild in the streets. Like the Black Cat, Flamingo Cantina, Mercury, Babe's, and Ritz, Steamboat is an outpost for live original music -- most of it local -- in hostile, cover-band/shot bar territory. The club's tall, Cathedral-like doors open into a cavernous, limestone-forged fortress that has stood its ground since long before college students replaced Mexicans and prostitutes as the main traffickers on Sixth Street.

But if location is everything, then acoustics are everything else, and as such, Steamboat has perhaps the best natural acoustics of any club in Austin. Whether it's the sand-colored limestone walls, or the mile-high ceiling -- 28 feet from the wood floor -- few guitar players ever sounded better than they do on the Steamboat stage. No doubt this is why more than a dozen framed posters of Austin's greatest guitar heroes are anchored into Steamboat's stone walls: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, the ARC Angels, Chris Duarte, Ian Moore, Billy White. And if the fact that SRV cut the posthumous live recording In the Beginning at Steamboat seems like the most notable landmark in the club's long musical history, think again. That honor belongs to Christopher Cross.

A Houston-based singer-songwriter who didn't like the way the demos for his debut were turning out, Cross moved to Austin around the time Steamboat crossed Sixth Street and landed in its current locale -- 1979 (20 years in May) -- to work on an album that remains this city's best-selling and most successful commercial release. Having worked up material at the 'Boat, Cross later had his album release bash there as well. Again, however, far from being the most recognizable act to play Steamboat, the club counts performers as diverse as Sonny Bono, Todd Rundgren, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Los Lobos, and even the late, great Bill Hicks among its clientele roster.

In fact, owner Danny Crooks and longtime doorman/temple guardian David Cotton both claim that prior to becoming Steamboat (originally there were two locations, the other being on Burnet Road), the lot on which it sits hosted live music when there was little more on Sixth Street other than the Driskill Hotel, whose namesake also erected the building that now houses the 'boat. Great location, acoustics, and sightlines, the 500-person-capacity club lays claim to a live music legacy that stretches back the better part of this century. Say, when it was an open-air jam space for day laborers, were the acoustics as good as they are today? --Raoul Hernandez