I'll Be Home for Christmas

With the holiday season comes an inevitable and familiar blanket of mood and emotion that settles onto society like a wintry snowstorm, bringing sentimentality and depression, joy and melancholy, hope and despair to stand off in quiet conflict. Nowhere are these emotional extremes more evident than in the public houses. Bars morph and turn tenuous during the holidays, reflecting with each opening of the door the flickering moods and shaky resolve of their inhabitants. Here someone cries in their beer, there another offers the world a toast and a Merry Christmas. It's a strange and touchy time, and for those whose job it is to accommodate and entertain the seasonally afflicted, it presents a challenge to their duration.

Every person faces his or her own holiday season on their own terms, dealing with the joys and hardships in the best possible manner, some just hoping to survive -- biding their time until the wreaths have all been taken down and the Christmas trees are on the curb waiting to be recycled. Likewise, every live music venue in Austin confronts the downtime of the holidays as best it can.

Saxon Pub

photograph by John Anderson

Two weeks before Christmas, on a Thursday night, the spirit of the season in all its conflicting glory has already settled into the Hole in the Wall. The Elvis shrine above the club's tiny stage is decorated with tiny lights, and the heater whirs and vibrates the length of the bar, radiating warmth into the bellies of the L-shaped configuration of regulars perched on their stools. Tomorrow, the tree goes up for the annual Christmas party, where it will be duly decorated and Santa will make an appearance to hand out small bundles of toys and candy to the children of the neighborhood and of the patrons. Co-owner, talent booker, and bartender Debbie Rombach gets to work at 9pm, an hour late for her scheduled interview. She's been baking.

"There are 18 people on the payroll this year," she says. "About five years ago, I started baking for everyone, cookies and those little pecan pie things. That's a lot of baking. It's killing me this year."

Tired and apologetic, Rombach nonetheless puts a positive face on Yuletide side effects. Happy to be at work, the longtime local scenster says she's looking forward to the brightening faces of the kids at tomorrow's party, noting an overall good outlook for the immediate financial future of her bar, whose placement dead on the Drag would seem to make it a target for abandonment over UT's long holiday break. Which is not actually the case.

"Because of the broad base of people we get around here, it's a more lively, happier atmosphere. I've been in some bars that are horribly depressing around Christmastime, and we do get some people who seem sad. But it's generally a pretty good feeling here."

Because a greater part of the Hole in the Wall's musical calendar is comprised of local bands, one might also assume that this might pose a problem around the holidays, what with busy holiday schedules and seasonal travel. The solution, according to Rombach, is good old-fashioned perseverance.

"It seems like every band is missing a member," she says. "Someone's out of town so they can't play. I try to aggressively book the music to bring people in -- as best I can, anyways."

That's a problem everyone in the local club scene faces around the holidays. Across town, just the other side of the river at the Electric Lounge, the barstools are not so full, but it's early, and the venue will likely fill as the evening wears on and the music starts. Though the Hole in the Wall relies on revenue from live music, they also have a substantial base of regulars who come in just to set a while and imbibe. People don't come to the Electric Lounge to hang out, they come for the bands, which poses a serious problem during the last half of December.

"There's a great dearth of touring acts," says the club's co-owner and talent buyer Mike Henry. "Not that many people are gonna tour this time of year, and even less of them are gonna come to Texas. So, you really have to depend on the locals. And the local scene, a big chunk is taken out of it 'cause a lot of people leave town or go on vacation or go home or they don't want to play because it's the Christmas season."

Unlike the Hole in the Wall, the Electric Lounge isn't open every day, but rather only when a band is booked. When times get lean, they close the doors, and during this leanest of times, that happens pretty often. Henry says his club will most likely be closed for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as well as many days leading up to it, with exceptions coming on the nights of regular shows like the Poetry Slam on Tuesdays and the Asylum Street Spankers on Wednesdays. In the midst of this drought is New Year's Eve, which offers a mixed blessing to music venues.

"Within the confines of this period, New Year's is a bright spot," says Henry. "It's not one of our best shows of the year in terms of the draw, but it's still a great night. There's so much competition, it's not a linchpin you hang the year on. It's the feast that'll get us through the three weeks of famine, definitely."

Further south, where a bar is an extension of the home as much as a place frequented for entertainment, the Saxon Pub is a whole different scenario. Its location all but insulates it from the comings and goings of the school kids, and its regular clientele, even more ever-present than that of the Hole in the Wall, are generally securely in place. Just as the Electric Lounge will rely on the appeal of black-hat country local Dale Watson on New Year's, the Saxon Pub plans on featuring southside stalwart Omar and the Howlers. It's a tradition going into its sixth year, and it's generally a good night for the club. They'll also be open on Christmas, albeit not until the evening, whereas they usually open the doors every day at 11am. For the Saxon, Christmas is usually a good night.

"For years, Rusty Weir has done a Christmas show, and we get a good crowd," says Joe Ables, proprietor of the South Lamar pub. "Lots of places are closed. When you're in South Austin you can't close, because these people would have nowhere to go. Get them out of their routine and you get in trouble."

Business for the Saxon during this time of year is unusually good, according to Ables. So far, January has proven the pub's most profitable month. In fact, January '98 was one of the best months in the club's history, which Ables puts down to consistent, quality booking and a faithful supply of regular customers. His problem isn't getting people into the club, but rather keeping an eye on them once they're there -- especially on New Year's Eve.

"We get kind of scared around New Year's because a lot of amateurs come out," he says. "There's nothing worse than an amateur drinker in South Austin, where all the pros are. But we're very careful about overserving, and on New Year's Eve we're extra careful. There really are a lot of people who go out who don't have much experience drinking."

Hole in the Wall

photograph by John Anderson

As usual, the local Safe Ride programs have their work cut out for them, especially when you add to the New Year's equation the show at the Austin Music Hall: Robert Earl Keen. With the exception of this show, Direct Events marquee venue takes a different approach to the holidays. Starting in mid-December and continuing through Christmas Eve, the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar sets up shop in the Austin Music Hall, offering live music as well as an alternative for Christmas shopping. According to Direct Events' president Tim O'Connor, it's a wise answer to the absence of touring shows, which the venue largely relies on.

"There's a downtime between that first weekend of December through Christmas, and it's hard to sell tickets," says O'Connor. "People are thinking about their budgets, presents, and parties they have to go to, that kind of thing. We designed [the bazaar] over the years to have some alternative use for our facilities. ... It's definitely the maximum use of that space."

Faced with a similar situation, Liberty Lunch takes a different tack. Immediately following Suicidal Tendencies' December 14 appearance at Austin's premier live music venue, through the third week in January, only one square of the club's calendar is filled. They'll have Brave Combo and the Diamond Smugglers for New Year's, but their doors will be closed the rest of the time. That's a long time for any business to be without business, but in the absence of alternative uses of the space, there's really no choice.

"Most people over the holidays, if they go out, they want to go to a nicer, secluded, crowded-type bar, be it your neighborhood Hole in the Wall or Continental Club," says the club's co-owner J'Net Ward. "They'd rather go there than to a larger place. Which is why the Austin Music Hall does the Christmas Bazaar. Venues of our size, they're harder to fill. You just don't know. Major roadshows aren't available, and local guys, you don't know if they're gonna draw. Will people show up or will everyone be at company parties?"

The reality of having one show in a month would seem to place great importance on that show's ability to pull the club through, but this happens every year, and venues plan accordingly. Closed doors mean they don't have to pay staff, utilities, or talent, so damages are kept to a minimum and the time is used to prepare for the return of the music, which generally doesn't happen until late in January, or even the beginning of February.

Another problem clubs face is the lack of available help. Bartenders and bouncers go home for the holidays, too, and for those who stay, those without family in town, it can be tough. Rombach has plenty of experience with the "first Christmas away from home" syndrome.

"I've coached a few people through their first Christmas alone," says Rombach. "Mine was a long time ago and it's a tough thing. The first time I didn't go to my parents' house for Christmas, I had five roommates, all of whom were gone. I was waiting tables here on Christmas Eve, and at the end of the night they forgot I was cleaning up in the game room and locked me in. It was the second night I had ever worked here. It had been a horrible Christmas and now I'm locked in a bar and I can't call anybody. I just sat back there and cried for a couple minutes, before the clean-up guy came in and was like, 'What are you doing here, Debbie?' and I was like, 'Everyone left and I didn't know who to call.'

"That was a tough one, but they got better after that."

For those local clubs that do stay open to compete for the thinned-out and student-free population, a change in the face of Austin is noticeable. For many, 'tis the season exactly because things have died down. More elbow room and less noise means it's time to come out and enjoy the respite.

"It goes back to the foundation of the scene, I think, the people who have always been here and always will be here," says the Electric Lounge's Mike Henry. "Most of them are around over the holidays, so it kinda becomes like family again. You don't get the periphery type audience, people who just stop in for one night to see what's happening or to see some touring act. These are the people who are here because they love Austin and they love Austin music. In a weird way, it's kind of like coming home for Christmas, except this is home."

In this long and uncertain stretch of cold (ahem) winter days, there's one thing that everyone questioned agrees on: People drink more during the holidays. Whether it's because people have more time on their hands, more problems to forget about, or more reason to celebrate, people will find the monetary reserves for a bit of the Christmas cheer. This gives the advantage to places like the Saxon Pub and the Hole in the Wall, where libations and a stool are as much an attraction as music.

"A lot of people have time off, so they're allowed to have more hangovers," Ables says.

"I think people drink a lot more," Henry agrees. "It's a time when people kind of take a breath after working their ass off all year of doing whatever it is they do. It gets quieter, sort of a ghost-town-y feeling. One of my favorite things about working in the bars is, when you get off work at four in the morning, the town belongs to you. It's just you and the other people that work in the bars. You go to whatever restaurants are still open and get served right away. There's no one on the streets, there's no traffic.

"Over the holidays, it's like that all day. It kind of feels familiar, kind of melancholy. And of course it's punctuated by rampant celebratory eruptions. Party your brains out, you know. We work all year so that other people can party, and over the holidays we get to let loose a little bit. ... I like it a lot, except for the fact that it's hard as hell to run a bar this time of year. All of our friends can only drink so much, though God knows they try."

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