Free Week Venue Crawl

Handicapping new live music venues

Hot boxing at Frank
Hot boxing at Frank (by Shelley Hiam)

Free Week’s become like South by Southwest – overwhelming. Since scheduling can be equally tricky given stacked bills in rooms citywide, last Friday I chased new clubs rather than bands I hadn’t seen. Walking past a shuttered Emo’s on Red River was beyond sad, but the live music mushrooms springing up all over Austin ensure our continued Capitol status.

Hotel Vegas, on the East Sixth Street strip that’s already usurped Red River as the heart of Friday and Saturday night in Austin, topped the bill, so Elvis’ confrontational post-punk acted as the evening’s starter pistol. The anti-R.E.M. (in frontman mostly), Elvis sounded like hell via the room’s P.A., but that’s not the point of Hotel Vegas, a cross between the Bates Motel and Blue Flamingo of 1990s Sixth Street/Red River. It’s four walls and a floor meant for nothing but DIY punk/rock and as a two-room cinder block on a new main drag (1500 E. Sixth) it’s perfect. Tiny – White Denim there tonight sold-out in a heartbeat – but dive heaven nonetheless.

Jazz by Chicago’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble last February got KUT’s Jay Trachtenberg and myself to the ND at 501 Studios, one block east of the highway on the corner of Brushy and East Fifth. Now motored by the folks that brought you the once indie-rific Electric Lounge – note the KNNAC reunion there January 27 & 28 (Sixteen Deluxe, Sincola, Gomez) – the ND has received an upgrade since then, the room reminiscent of Ruta Maya with its corner stage, vast floor in front of the stage, and upstairs seating. Andrew Duplantis (Son Volt) led Sin Pelo through a tough set of roots-tinged rock, the sound strong for a venue with such a high ceiling.

Skinny’s Ballroom, just around the corner from the Convention Center at 115 San Jacinto, was easily the nicest venue of the evening, comparing favorably to the ever tony Lambert’s, which we hit next. A long rectangular room with ample seating at the bar and on the floor, Skinny’s also sports a big bay window looking out onto the street. That made for cozy couch surfing on the inside and from the sidewalk doubled as a peak into the venue’s musical goings-on. Under the six mini chandeliers that served as a stage umbrella, Schmillion put on a tight, punky set, Skinny’s sonics matching the overall ace space.

Before heading to Lamberts, my companion and I stopped in at Frank. As with Girl in a Coma there two nights earlier, a line to get in stretched around the corner. An hour later, after Magnet School matched its shoegaze boom to Lamberts’ mega P.A., we were finally able to get into Frank (407 Colorado Street). Around the corner from Antone’s in the heavily trafficked afterhours district, Frank’s hot dog charm has made it a destination bar already, but live music-wise, its oblong layout boxes in a barely elevated stage, making it impossible to see anything unless you're right up front, which also messes with acoustics in the back. A Soldiers Thread likewise sounded like a thousand indistinguishable SXSW bands.

That said, I'm dying to return to Frank under less sold-out circumstances. After all, we never tried the frankfurters.

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Free Week venues, Hotel Vegas, Elvis, ND at 501 Studios, Sin Pelo, Skinny's Ballroom, Schmillion, Frank, Lamberts, Magnet School

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