Red River Valley
Austin's Former Crack Alley Is the New Place to Be Scene
By Christopher Gray, Fri., June 22, 2001
A funny thing happened while a throng of shirtless rabble-rousers turned Austin's Mardi Gras celebration this past February into fodder for the future Fox program When Fratboys Attack. Just around the corner from the Flamingo Cantina, one of Sixth Street's dwindling number of original live music venues, the Red River strip was emerging as less an alternative to shot-bar row than an alternate universe altogether. A universe where homegroan pop, punk, and indie rock flourishes nightly.
It nearly didn't happen. In fact, when the Austin Music Hall went up across town in the mid-Nineties and the so-called Warehouse District started growing up around it, local DIY concerns weren't figuring much into the local club community's future plans at all. The places that opened offered brewpub suds, swing, oldies, disco, and salsa. Transplanted Antone's began sucking in people with a riptide of Scabs, veterans like Jimmie Vaughan and Joe Ely, and high-priced roadshows. Element successfully set up shop as home base to the high-end dance crowd. A Blue Flamingo-style bar in these surroundings would be like Charlie Sheen crashing a party hosted by Armand Van Helden. Which sounds hilarious, come to think of it.
Yet plenty of Austinites can and do pay good U.S. dollars for an evening in the company of local bands like Pong, Kissinger, Winslow, Playdoh Squad, Madcow, Free Range Bastards, Squat Thrust, the Crack Pipes, and -- goodness -- probably three or four dozen others. And lately, more and more of those evenings are happening on Red River. Named for the body of water separating Texas from the bizarre republic of Oklahoma, Red River is now the Sunset Strip to Sixth's Bourbon Street, or the Bowery if its yuppie/boho mix makes the Warehouse District Austin's West Village. Call it Roho.
Most Friday and Saturday nights, Red River's bars -- with and without music -- from Club DeVille to Emo's, draw substantial crowds. For the week of June 14-21 alone, Red River's four regular live music venues -- Emo's, Stubb's, Room 710, and the Red Eyed Fly -- combined to host 89 different bands, solo acts, or other live entertainment.
If that figure is off, it's on the low side. It counts as one show, for example, the many different acts coming together to produce Room 710's "Gong Show" on Monday nights. At any rate, the number of weekly offerings should soon cross the century mark when Beerland, a onetime garage and cathouse between the Red Eyed Fly and Atomic Cafe, opens tonight, Thursday.
Everything changed two years ago.
Lullaby of Beerland
"People started creeping up that way mainly because those [buildings] were just empty," says Beerland proprietor Randall Stockton. "Especially the stuff that's on our block."
Throughout 1999, Austin's fertile club scene underwent even more turmoil than usual. The passing of live music landmarks Steamboat and Liberty Lunch naturally drew the most attention, as both fell prey to the capital city's ongoing infatuation with the big checkbooks of fast-talking developers and high tech outfits. But things were equally in flux among venues catering to young Austinites more likely to patronize record stores like Sound Exchange and Thirty Three Degrees than Tower.
While the windows of all three were once full of fliers and posters advertising shows at clubs like the Electric Lounge, Purgatory Lounge, and Bates Motel, within the space of a few months, all those places were gone. As manager, booker, and main bartender at the Bates Motel, Stockton watched up close as the cramped, nearly pitch-black dive's run as an outlet for noisy local fare came to an abrupt end.
"We basically had somebody with a lot of money say to our landlord, 'Hey, we want to put something in here,'" recalls Stockton. "[They said], 'We're gonna sign a long lease, and we're gonna do a lot of great work to make this place into something beautiful.'
"So the Blind Pig [Pub] opened up where Bates is."
Himself a musician, Stockton had little choice other than to vacate the Bates, but by then it was too late. He'd been bitten by the nightclub bug. Many of the bands he booked followed him to Trophy's, the blue-collar South Austin beer 'n' burger joint, but what he really wanted was a place he and wife Donya could own. The couple scoured the city for the ideal location, but in the end, Stockton says it was mostly chance that led them to 711 Red River. It's a hip, happening hotspot now, but even a year and a half ago, when the Stocktons and silent partner Al Geiger signed Beerland's lease, the block was hardly prime real estate.
Though Red River's history as an entertainment district stretches back many decades to include fondly remembered haunts like the One Knite, Split Rail, Cave Club, Chances, Blue Flamingo, and such fly-by-nights as Kilimanjaro and Purgatory, the strip has also long been notorious as the No. 1 place in Austin to score crack cocaine. The alley between Beerland and the Red Eyed Fly was until recently one of the area baseheads' favorite smoking spots. The nearby city jail and Salvation Army mission assured an almost limitless stream of demand, which dealers were happy to satisfy.
Naturally, it didn't hurt that the previous lack of commercial activity in the area meant few business owners around to call the police. Nor did it help matters that the APD, which routinely rounded up crackheads and prostitutes only to see them back on the street a short while later, put policing the area rather low on the priority list. Lower than rounding up drunks on Sixth Street, that's for sure.
Not coincidentally, Beerland, Red Eyed Fly, Room 710, Bull McCabe's Irish pub, and "Kumoniwannaleia" tiki bar Ocean's 11, all open two years or less, have increased non-crack-seeking traffic and largely forced the heavy dealing out of the immediate area -- or at least "around the corner," as one clubowner puts it. For his part, Stockton notes a steep drop in pharmaceutical activity since the municipal jail facility moved across downtown to the new Travis County Justice Center earlier this year.
Make no mistake, though, it's been a group effort: the Red Eyed Fly's John Meyer lets cops peer out his windows to catch yayo-slingers in the act, and the Atomic Cafe has installed a 007-worthy system of surveillance cameras. Red River's "Crack Alley" reputation probably won't go away anytime soon, indeed because the problem is not completely solved. Still, as long as nobody crashes in his doorway or hits the pipe in his alley, Stockton isn't all that worried that lingering apprehensions might keep people away from his club. People likely to eschew the neighborhood because of its seedier elements, he points out, often exhibit similar levels of enthusiasm for the punk-rock lifestyle.
"There's a clientele we're not getting because they know that's an area where some people go buy drugs," says Stockton, admitting it's quite possible "they're gonna be bothered by punk-rock people just as much as a crackhead."
"They probably think we're one and the same."
Battling the neighborhood drug trade has been but one obstacle in the Stocktons' journey to get Beerland up and flowing. Donya shudders when recalling the old furniture barn's original condition. Worse, while striving to build a nightclub from scratch (and local salvage yards) with little contracting/construction experience, the couple has repeatedly encountered sometimes Melvillian (think "Bartleby the Scrivener") levels of bureaucracy from City Hall.
For example, their application for a license to build a handicapped-accessible ramp at the club's fire exit was shuttled among 15 different municipal departments; they submitted it in December and it wasn't approved until June. Two weeks went down the drain one time when the city attorney scheduled to draw up a necessary document came down with the flu. They had to completely rejigger their entrance, including re-pouring a concrete ramp, this month when someone told them the front doors had to be at least three feet back from the property line so they didn't open directly onto the street.
Stockton's summary of his city-related experiences ("I could go on for days") relays an almost Pythonesque level of absurdity:
"One guy will miss something and say, 'This is fine,'" he begins. "Then three weeks later, three months later, six months later, somebody will come and say, 'You can't do that. Who said you could do this?'"
A few more sleepless nights came the Stocktons' way when the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission insisted they get letters of recommendation from their neighbors before the agency would sign off on Beerland's liquor license, a stipulation Randall professes to have never heard of before. He also wasn't planning on having Beerland be 21 and up, but says the TABC officer flat-out told him if he wanted to let in minors and serve booze, his permit application was going straight into the circular file. Having already invested all their savings and most of the past two years into making Beerland a reality, acquiescing was the only option.
"We're so deep in this financially and emotionally, frankly, we can't afford to have anyone else work there," says Randall. "The guy who's our main carpenter right now, he's gonna be the doorman."
Stockton says he's been besieged by people wanting to work at Beerland, and even more so by bands wanting to play there. His straight-shooting tactics at the Bates left him a wealth of contacts and goodwill among the city's punk and garage quarters. He gratefully singles out his neighbors for providing water (Atomic Cafe), electricity (Red Eyed Fly), and working bathrooms (Room 710) when he needed them. Most gratifying, he says, is when someone stops him or Donya at H.E.B. or somewhere and wants to know how Beerland is going.
Then there was the time he took their partner to see local punk-blues act the Hard Feelings, informing him that this was the band most likely to play the club's opening weekend, and having the Ohio-based computer consultant (and blues fan) rave about them. That, to Randall, only reinforced his conviction to see this thing through, and reaffirmed why he got into the whole mess to begin with.
"There's no way I'd have gone through all this crap if it weren't for the bands."
Immediately north of Beerland, Room 710 and the Red Eyed Fly sit facing one another like fraternal twins. Both clubs celebrated anniversaries this month. They share similar layouts, each split into bar and venue halves. Both have successfully assumed a certain niche within the neighborhood -- Room 710 as a clubhouse for many of Austin's harder and/or carnivalesque bands ô la the Spiders and Brown Whörnet, the Red Eyed Fly as a sort of high-concept hybrid of Emo's, the Ritz, and Club DeVille. That's where the similarities end.
Alternative Lounging Track
Opening in June 1999, the Red Eyed Fly was the first live-music outpost to set up shop in the no man's land between Emo's and Stubb's. Owner John Meyer says the club, like Beerland and 710 a former used-furniture warehouse, was the last property he looked at before going back to his job at an engineering construction firm. It was through this job that he got the idea to open a club in the first place, when he and colleague Lance Freeh, stationed on a pipeline project in Saudi Arabia, would sit around the pool and reminisce about the good old days club-hopping back in Austin.
Reunited on Lone Star soil (Meyer had gone on to another project in the Phillipines), the two decided to go for it. They reasoned that the alternative-rock route was the way to go, first of all because they liked the music, but also because Meyer saw an irresistible opportunity to put what he learned studying business at UT to good use. They did tons of market research, put together a thorough business plan, the whole nine yards. From the beginning, the Fly's ownership was interested in making their establishment into something besides just a place to come see a few bands.
"We analyzed drink sales in the downtown area, and compared to all other economic indicators, liquor sales were outpacing them all," says Meyer. "We looked at having the kind of music we wanted to have, but we also looked at having a nicer place than anybody else."
The Fly was a perfect fit for the void left vacant by the Electric Lounge, becoming a dependable source of gigs for bands like the Pocketfishrmen, Solid Gold 40, and Hotwheels Jr. (now The Action Is), just as smoothly becoming a second home for the spacey sounds of ST 37, Experimental Aircraft, and the Swells. Eventually, rockers like Kissinger, the Real Heroes, Sexy Finger Champs, and Playdoh Squad rose through the ranks to become some of the Fly's first semi-homegrown weekend headliners.
The club's profile rose even more with a series of through-the-roof multi-band hoot nights, and even took "Best New Club" in the 1999-2000 Chronicle music poll. By then, it was fairly obvious the club had too much of a good thing going on to keep all to itself much longer.
And that's exactly what happened. Room 710's opening and Emo's revitalization meant more venue options for bands, and Bull McCabe's and Ocean's 11 presented similar alternatives to those just interested in having a drink. To stay competitive, the Fly invested in a new sound system and remade its patio into an outdoor venue. Not satisfied with just making ends meet, in May, Meyer decided to broaden the club's overall format.
Maintaining that alternative and indie rock will still play an important role in the club's booking policy, Meyer citing a promising relationship with Schatzi, he hopes that by programming jazz, hip-hop, singer-songwriters, funk, DJs, and honky-tonk, that he can follow Stubb's lead and draw people whose taste in music runs to things besides loud guitar bands. He sees this change as a way for both his club and Red River as a whole to diversify.
"If I bring someone new here," explains Meyer, "there's three more places they can check out across the street they may not have even known about."
Having just hired a pair of managers to oversee day-to-day operations at the Fly, Meyer currently has his eye toward organizing the businesses on Red River into a cohesive neighborhood organization similar to the Downtown Austin Alliance. One thing he's pushing for is a sidewalk ordinance so he and his neighbors can put tables and chairs out front and operate as sidewalk cafes. Another idea is a monthly event where a person pays one cover charge and floats from club to club all night, or maybe an all-day street festival. Meyer says the support is there, but the area is still about six months away from becoming a bona fide "neighborhood."
"I think we're all bound and determined to be a happy family on the street and make an organization that will bring awareness to [Red River] as the real hub of live music," he says.
Before Red River becomes a full-fledged, officially certified entertainment district, Room 710's Woody Weideman would like a chance to buy his building.
"We invested so much money in fixing up this property that if we lost it to higher rents it would crush us," he says.
Like Randall Stockton, Weideman is a musician and former club employee (of the Flamingo, "the last place with soul on Sixth"), who found the taste of booking bands he liked so agreeable that he was willing to put up his own money to do it full time. As with the Stocktons, Woody's wife Adriana also works the family business, expending elbow grease right alongside him to make 710 a reality. Finally, the same as Randall Stockton, Woody Weideman credits Red River's recently depressed economic status for indirectly allowing him a window of opportunity.
"It's something that small-time people can afford," he says. "Whereas Sixth Street now is so expensive you need to have serious backing to even open a place, and they have to put so much money in it that they're looking for quick shot-bar returns."
Unlike John Meyer at the Fly, Weideman isn't concerned about the scene spreading itself too thin. Presently 710 rates as probably the best place on Red River to see new, unproven bands, and much of the hesher and shredder traffic has followed him over from the Flamingo. It's not just the hard stuff making hay, however; the club is fast gaining a reputation for off-the-wall themes like heavy karaoke nights, "the Gong Show," and nightly happy hours offering everything from the funky jazz of Trio-D and Big Breakfast to the latter-day bluegrass of Amberjack Rice and Bluegrass Drive-By. The way he sees it, 710 changes its format all the time.
"The scene is so splintered now," posits Weideman. "There's garage, there's punk, there's Texas Rock, there's the New Wave thing happening again, and One-Fifth Griffith and Winslow, that space-pop stuff. Ten years ago, there was one scene. Now there's like six scenes that make up the whole thing."
Taking special care in his attention toward the club's acoustics, Weideman's goal is to make Room 710 as friendly and accommodating a venue for bands as possible. It's just a bonus his building, all concrete, murals, and echo, suits whatever style of music that happens to be onstage as well as the Electric Lounge once did. Woody freely admits he much prefers running sound at 710 or playing with his band Electric Cock to paying the 14% state liquor tax, but is more than willing to endure the pecuniary mundanities and inevitable dry spells indigenous to the nightclub business in order to continue doing what he loves.
"There's nothing worse than having a good band onstage and nobody here," he admits. "But then when you have a great band onstage and it's packed and everybody's having a good time, there's no greater high."
It's doubtful any of these new clubs would have gotten the opportunity to do their things without the foundations laid by Emo's and Stubb's. Long before this current crest, both places already had a sizable impact on the Austin club scene, becoming favored stops on the road for nationally known artists ranging from the Roots to Merle Haggard. Green Day, Blink-182, the Foo Fighters, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Kid Rock, and At the Drive-In all played Emo's before they were rock stars.
Furthermore, local rock stars like Sixteen Deluxe/Young Heart Attack, Prescott Curlywolf, Spoon, and Gahdzilla Motor Company staged some of their first and/or best shows at either of the two venues. Though in many respects Stubb's and Emo's are playing on a different level than their new neighbors, they've also set an exceptionally high standard.
Since it's the new kids on the block who've stirred up all this attention, it's only right that the old dogs on either end reap their share of the rewards. Emo's, under the steerage of Frank Hendrix -- an admitted outsider who ran used-car lots and salvage yards and turns over the musical side of the club to his trusted twentysomething associates -- has regained every bit of its old punk-rock swagger of late.
The club expanded its outside area earlier this year and now often hosts two full shows a night on its upstairs and downstairs stages. Besides the old standbys of hardcore and punk, bands plying emo, experimental, or power pop are also present staples of the original alternative lounge, which last month celebrated nine years at Sixth and Red River.
Stubb's is a bit younger than Emo's, but sealed their spot in Austin nightlife lore when Willie Nelson dropped by for two nights last month to mark their fifth anniversary. For at least two years running, the club has hosted two of the biggest-hyped performances in the entire music world: Russell Crowe's Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts last year and the Cult this past South by Southwest.
Beyond the headlines, Stubb's has seemingly inherited the multi-purpose mantle of Liberty Lunch, balancing big-drawing buzzworthy outdoor roadshows (Tortoise, Travis, Guided by Voices) with smaller indoor shows by breaking local bands of the moment like Bedbug, Household Names, or Masonic. Owner Charles Attal probably has the deepest connection to Red River of all -- the antique store run by his dad is on the same street, north of UT.
There's one final, crucial reason Red River is booming: Bands enjoy playing there.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
"The crowd's definitely down here to listen to music and have a good time," says Pong's Jason Craig, who also checks IDs at Room 710. "They're not just here to get shit-faced."
"If you've got a few friends' bands playing, you don't have to trek all over town," says Velocette's Shane Tison. "A lot of cities, if you're at one club and you want to check something else out, you gotta hop on the subway."
Red River is fun. It's a cycle of lather, rinse the stamp off your hand, and repeat. Even the bubble showers outside Spiros are not to be missed, and there's a street person roaming around Stubb's and Club DeVille who can name all the state capitals. If anything, the area's off-color past gives it a certain freewheeling flair, a release from the safe, suburban staidity pervading too much of modern life.
The thrill of taking a walk on the wild side is universal, though; what makes Red River special is the homespun attitudes that have allowed a music historically condemned as rude and slovenly to prosper through old-fashioned American elbow grease, solid business ethics, and just a little of the golden rule.
"There's not a stitch of animosity between any of the owners down here," observes the Red Eyed Fly's John Meyer. And he means it.
Beerland taps the keg tonight, Thursday, June 21, with the Ritchie Whites, Wiretaps, Cripples, and Charlie's Holy Happy Hour. Friday is the Hard Feelings, and Peeps, and look for Blunt Force Trauma Saturday. That night, Room 710 celebrates its First Anniversary with Pong, Brown Whörnet, and Clutch Cargo. Business as usual for Red Eyed Fly, Stubb's, Emo's, and the rest of Red River Valley.