The Music Lover's Guide to Austin
The essential sounds, sights, and settings of Austin music
11:35AM, Fri. Mar. 3, 2017
So your plane just touched down and the pilot said, “Welcome to Austin: the Live Music Capital of the World.” Now you feel obligated to check out some of this vaunted music culture that everyone’s talking about, but you don’t want to waste your time doing the wrong thing. Don’t worry, we got you. Here’s a guide to the sounds, sights, and settings of Austin music.
Other mandatory Austin music photo ops include a pair of statues depicting two of the city’s most legendary citizens. Blues guitar sorcerer Stevie Ray Vaughan was honored with an oversized bronze likeness on the south shore of the Colorado River (near South First & Riverside) in 1994. When he’s not watching over joggers and dogs playing fetch with their humans, SRV doubles as a rain measurement tool – when water gets up to his shoulders we’re in trouble. More recently, a statue of outlaw country paterfamilias Willie Nelson was erected outside deluxe concert venue ACL Live at the Moody Theater (Lavaca & Second), where public television mainstay Austin City Limits is filmed. Unfortunately, the statue's made out of bronze so you can’t say, “He looks stoned.”
RED RIVER CLUB CRAWL
Among the densest live music strips in the country, Red River Street – between Sixth & 10th (plus one block east on Seventh) – offers a stroll through the nucleus of live music in Austin. Mohawk, Stubb’s, Cheer Up Charlies, Sidewinder, Beerland, Elysium, Swan Dive, Barracuda, and Empire Control Room present local and national bands on any given night, and their close proximity allows you to see bands and artists at several different clubs in one evening. The area is such a hotbed for live music that the City of Austin designated it an official cultural district in 2013. It's not without its problems, though: Rent hikes have forced numerous club closures, tangles with new residential properties have resulted in strict rules for how late clubs can play music, and an increase in crime is a shared concern of both club owners and Austin Police.
For a taste of historic Austin, on Red River & Sixth, you can see the long vacant building that once was Emo’s – Austin’s most famous club for underground heavy music throughout the Nineties and Aughts – which is now a large concert hall on East Riverside unrelated to the original business.
Welcome to the “Record Store Capital of the World” (patent pending). Austin boasts an impressive selection of recorded music emporiums brimming with vinyl and the curious characters who buy and sell them. The three most prominent, can’t-miss shops are Waterloo Records, End of an Ear, and Antone’s Records – each boasting a vast selection of new and used “rekkids.” Meanwhile, a slate of boutique stores satisfy all the music nerd niches with their specialties including Breakaway Records (soul), Exploded Records (electronic beat music), Big Henry’s Vinyl & Gifts (blues), Mindzai Art & Vinyl (hip-hop), Encore (metal), and Groovers' Paradise (vintage country, rock, and soul). If you’re in need of turntables, speakers, amplifiers, and other audio accessories, Austin boasts two world-class shops: the museum-like Sound Gallery and high-fidelity specialists Whetstone Audio – both also stock a killer selection of vinyl records.
Words like “iconic” and “legendary” are subjective, but no one will fault you for using them to describe these longstanding Austin institutions:
The Hole in the Wall, near the UT campus, was a favorite stage for Austin heroes like Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley, and Doug Sahm, and it remains a proving ground for local bands to this day. South Congress Avenue trendsetter Continental Club – in business since the Fifties (though it’s been a music venue since the Seventies) – remains the gold standard for music venues, an eternally hip joint where the best of the best play on the regular, which in recent history has included Junior Brown, James McMurtry, country supergroup Heybale!, and – at least twice – Robert Plant. South Austin’s music living room? That’s the Saxon Pub on South Lamar – a haven for singer-songwriters, roots rockers, and folkies for the last quarter century and a local home for Stephen Bruton. Meanwhile, Antone’s tops the list of Austin’s most historic music spots. Opened in 1975 by blues patron Clifford Antone, the club was a second home to legends like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed and fostered the development of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr.
GET SOME GEAR
Whether you’re suffering from a broken string or you want to come home with a new guitar, Austin possesses a plethora of high-quality music instrument retailers. There’s too many to list here so we’ll hit you with a few favorites. Switched On Electronics on East Cesar Chavez is regarded as one of America’s finest emporiums of vintage synths and analog audio gear and has proven to be a popular shopping spot for touring musicians including Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead. Strait Music and South Austin Music are time-tested favorites. Meanwhile, the most coveted selection of stringed instruments and amps reside at Austin Vintage Guitars near Red River & 41st. Forgive us if you find yourself drooling over a ’62 Strat, muttering: “She will be mine, oh yes, she will be mine.”
GO HONKY TONKIN’
Boots – check. Cowboy hat – check. Wranglers – check. Now you’re ready to go dancing. The national dance of Texas is two-steppin’ and there’s two essential spots to learn and enjoy the art. The Broken Spoke on South Lamar is the oldest dance hall in Austin – Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys even played there. They offer free two-step lessons on Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8:30-9:30pm, and great country & western swing music when the sun goes down. Younger crowds flock to the boot-scuffed dance floor of the White Horse on the Eastside, a popular spot where whiskey flows freely and some of the best bands in town perform nightly. Just stand near the stage and someone will take you for a spin. Free dance lessons are offered here, too, including Cajun, swing, and two-step; check the White Horse calendar for specifics.
Austin’s equivalent to Bourbon Street isn’t the hotbed of original music it was in decades past. Presently, it’s overrun with DJs and cover bands, but “Dirty Sixth” does offer some worthwhile places to hear bands. Flamingo Cantina is Austin’s reggae headquarters, a vibey place to hang that brings in great bands of local and international provenance. EDM is an increasingly relevant genre on the party strip, and you can groove to original DJs at underground bunker Barcelona or Vulcan Gas Company.
TASTE THE SOUND OF AUSTIN
If we were to recommend one restaurant significant to the history and soul of Austin music, it would without a doubt be Threadgill’s. It was there in the original North Lamar location in the Sixties that Austin’s cultural big bang occurred via the rednecks and hippies hanging together. Original owner Kenneth Threadgill (1909-1987) hosted music, and its scene gave birth to the music career of a college student named Janis Joplin. In 1981, Eddie Wilson bought and reopened Threadgill’s as a restaurant and music venue. The second location, just south of the river, prominently displays Austin’s music history with innumerable portraits of Austin musicians and concert posters from Wilson’s bygone concert hall the Armadillo World Headquarters.
TO THE EAST, MY BROTHER
In recent years, Austin’s Eastside has exploded with music offerings beyond the Latin music clubs that once populated the area, before gentrification dramatically altered the landscape. (Club owners are now struggling with a second-wave gentrification with massive rent-hikes in this sought-after neighborhood.) Much of the best sounds in town can be heard east of the highway, and many of the bars have neighborhood feels. We recommend the soul/R&B hidden gem Skylark Lounge, essential punk club Hotel Vegas, bike metal lair the Lost Well, groovy lounge Stay Gold, and the Hard Luck Lounge, where you can drink in a giant backyard while listening to an eclectic array of bands.
If DJs and dancing are your musical entertainment of choice, we’ll point you in the direction of some interesting places where you're sure to have a good time. Barbarella rages loud with big crowds almost every night. The Red River nightclub rolls with staple weekly events including Tuesgayz – a queer curated mix of indie, electro, and dance music – and Grits & Gravy Thursday, spinning records from the Fifties through the Seventies. Also essential: Elysium reps everything from goth/industrial to drag nights, Volstead is a popular dance/DJ spot for Eastside imbibers, and Kingdom on Fifth is becoming ground zero for touring EDM acts in Austin.
SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN
If church ain’t your thing, but drinking beer and gambling on where a hen will take a dump is, we’ve got some ideas for your Sunday in Austin. You can take part in the ancient Austin tradition of Chicken Shit Bingo while listening to genuine honky-tonk music at north side relic the Little Longhorn Saloon or down south at C-Boy's Heart & Soul every week. Today might be your lucky day – (splat) “Hey #32! I won $200!”
READ THE CHRONICLE
If you want to know about the best live music happening in Austin while you’re in town, check out the Recommended Shows page of The Austin Chronicle. Our music writers won’t do you wrong. You can also find a complete listing of clubs and events in our print edition (available almost everywhere you look) or on our website.
All right, we hope you have a nice time in Austin. If you bought one of those tie-dye T-shirts that says “Keep Austin Weird” don’t forget to throw that tacky thing in a dumpster on your way out of town. Nobody from here wears those. Thanks for the good times – now get out.
Katie Walsh, March 3, 2017
March 3, 2017
Welcome to Austin, Daniel Johnston, Stevie Ray Vaughan statue, Wille statue, Mohawk, Stubb's, Cheer UP Charlie's, Sidewinder, Beerland, Elysium, Swan Dive, Barracuda, Empire Control Room, Waterloo Records, End of an Ear, Antone's Records