The Austin Chronicle

Shoreline Sounds

By Christopher Hess, May 21, 1999, Music

The Pier

photograph by John Carrico

As the mercury takes up its long-term summer residence in the thermometer's penthouse, Austinites begin the annual tradition of spending all their waking hours seeking respite from the heat. If you're inside, it's gotta be air-conditioned. If you're outside, there damned well better be some water nearby. Here at our little bend in the Colorado River, we have two good-sized (though man-made) lakes at our disposal, one -- Lake Austin -- right in town, and the second -- Lake Travis -- just outside. What do you do when the fish aren't biting, the Jet Ski's become a horrible bore, and there's no one left on the water to marvel at the speed of your boat or the depth of your tan? Why, head for shore and hear some music, of course.

Lakeside establishments have long been only marginally, even laughingly, considered music venues. Out at Lake Travis, waterside joints like Carlos 'n' Charlie's and Sam Hill? have hosted live music for a long time now, and closer in on Lake Austin, Mozart's, The Pier, Ski Shores, and the new Jakes have all taken turns with booking bands as well. The music, especially out at Lake Travis, consisted largely of cover bands whose sole purpose was to provide background sounds for the buffed-up water-sports set, who are generally far too occupied with the rituals of seeing and being seen to consider the musical merits of some shmoe bellowing over a guitar. And you could always -- always -- count on hearing a rousing rendition of "Margaritaville" at least once per afternoon. To a certain extent, that seems to be changing.

No, you will not find a replacement for the Electric Lounge or Liberty Lunch out at Lake Travis or Lake Austin. Jamming their weekend schedules with little-known (or even well-known) musical acts runs counter to the business plan that keeps these local establishments afloat. Lakeside bars and eateries thrive on serving frozen fruity drinks and nachos and playing recorded disco and Jimmy Buffett. There are exceptions, however. Mozart's Coffee Roasters, on Lake Austin Blvd., offers live music on their lakefront patio Thursday through Sunday. The shows -- early -- are low key, from the beguiling Latin folk sounds of Correo Aereo to the small combo jazz ambience of Alamo Suite or the Trio. The Pier on Lake Austin, a ramshackle landmark for the past 60 years, fills their weekend rosters with the likes of Beth Black, Erik Hokkanen, and Leann Atherton, bringing some South Austin flavor to the waterside. Consider these the exceptions.

Mozart's illustrious neighbor, Hula Hut, no longer offers live music. Its other neighbor, Jakes, which has supplanted the Lodge at Lakeview, does offer music every night, from the well-honed R&B revue of the Atlantics to the "high-energy rock & roll" (read: cover band) of Reunion. Jakes is brought to you by the folks out at Sam Hill?, and while Jakes calendar is a bit more substantive than that of its Lake Travis sibling, the same forces are at work. Ski Shores, also on Lake Austin, offers music on weekends, often during the day, best heard and appreciated as you roll up to the pier in a boat or join in a game of volleyball. That's Lake Austin.

Out at Lake Travis, where water sports are more a way of life than a diversion, live, original music has long been even less of a consideration. We're talking cover bands -- period. The Oasis may have cornered the market on sunsets, but their music is nothing but a backdrop. This past Mother's Day at Sam Hill?, a young man named Dean Seltzer played his guitar and sang other people's songs (John Cougar, Jerry Jeff Walker, Matchbox 20) to the folks on the pier, all day long. Later, Ezra Charles' swing band danced them into the night. That's the way it is out on the "largest floating restaurant in Texas": waitresses in short shorts and tight shirts, big delicious frozen cocktails, and plenty of "Margaritaville." Beat the heat, indeed.

Sam Hill?'s biggest competitor, Carlos 'n' Charlie's, has long operated under the same philosophy, and to a great extent, they still do. House music blares from the speakers at all hours of the day, while patrons and staff look much the same as in any other Travis-side bar and grill. There's enough faux-thatch to shelter Gilligan and all his friends for three lifetimes on the island. Cover bands own the outdoor stage on weekends, often playing to a patio packed with people dancing all night long. During the day, it's a bit quieter out there, with folks like flamenco guitarist extraordinaire Teye and his trio of lovely dancers, Viva Flamenco, putting on a show for the sun-drenched boaters spilling in off the water. A nice respite from the noise and the techno beats, if that's what you're looking for -- though if just plain respite is what you're after, you're likely in the wrong place.

Over the past couple of months, urbanites combing the music listings weekly may have noticed favorite Austin name acts such as Kelly Willis, the Scabs, Damnations TX, the Gourds, Terry Allen, Terri Hendrix, and a whole bunch more, popping up in the Carlos 'n' Charlie's ad. It's tempting, especially as some of the pivotal music venues here in town close or face near-terminal troubles, to think that perhaps a new, more music-friendly environment is opening up as the entertainment end of downtown development seems to be turning its nose up at live music. That's not the case. The fact is that quality live music has become available out there to attract locals and city-dwellers on off nights. Whatever the reason, it's out there, and if the results of the trial period are any indication, it may just be there to stay.


photograph by John Carrico

"Bands go out there because they've empowered me to make decent offers on Wednesdays and Thursdays," say Davis McLarty, who's been booking Carlos & Charlie's on said weeknights. "We can go in and rent a PA, put it in the downstairs room and have good production -- and buy airtime on KLBJ and KGSR to publicize this stuff."

It's a tempting offer for local musician: a good paycheck to laze at the lake and play a set of music, perhaps to a new audience -- plus free advertising. It's the same attraction that made Thursday night shows at Shady Grove such a huge success. But it does raise some questions. Do we need another place to see the Scabs? Why drive out there for a Reckless Kelly show when they'll play the same week right downtown?

"When they first approached me," explains McLarty, "I was like, 'This is all Austin needs -- another live music venue. Ha ha ha. We don't.' But I went out there and saw it and thought, gosh, if this turns into a summer happening where people know they can hear weekend-type bands on Wednesdays and Thursdays, this could work. And some of it has worked well. Reckless Kelly had 350 people there on a Wednesday, and Pat Greene had 550."

The Scabs also pack the downstairs room whenever they play, usually on the KLBJ-oriented Wednesday nights, as opposed to the KGSR-oriented Thursday nights. Jimmy LaFave, Soul Hat, and Stephen Doster draw good crowds as well. Likewise, Asleep at the Wheel and Joe Ely, who are booked to play the club in the next few weeks, are expected to attract good-sized audiences. Moreover, the club is taking some chances with its booking. As anyone who frequents shows by the Gourds and Damnations TX knows, there's a large, loyal crowd that follows the bands to any venue in town. Both have played Carlos 'n' Charlie's to modest success, pulling approximately 150 people through the doors. Even if that's a fraction of what the Scabs do out there, it's still says that original live music at Lake Travis is a viable option.

Before anyone runs out to snatch up lakeside real estate to build the next great rock club, think twice. While it's too soon to tell whether any of this will last, it's encouraging to see that it has begun. If you still use the local bodies of water solely for gas- and beer-guzzling watercraft activities, you have nothing to fear. Punk rock is a long, long way away. But, with the few changes happening in the air, you just might find yourself perking your ears up to that background music, and for once, not finding "Margaritaville" stuck in your head for the next few painful hours.

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