A Boy Named Emo

Twenty years on Red River

Back in black: Johnny Cash at Emo's, 1994
Back in black: Johnny Cash at Emo's, 1994 (Photo by Michael Crawford)

We have not come to bury Caesar, but to praise him. After all, Emo's East now rises up from the side of the tracks where the majority of local live music venues will be forced to relocate as they're priced out of their locales west of I-35 in the coming decade. (Momo's closed suddenly as we went to press Wednesday.) Mourn the loss of Emo's Red River headquarters, but know that the global brand sprints ahead of the curve. With this in mind – and apologies to Shakespeare, bastardized in my first line here – we tried not to (re)cover two decades' worth of music scene history often lost to late-night wear and tear, but instead asked our Music crew to recall its most memorable show(s) there. We encourage you to do the same and will print as many as possible within the constraints of space. – Raoul Hernandez



For me, the early days of Emo's are inexorably tied up with Jonathan Toubin. Currently hospitalized in Portland, Ore., with injuries suffered when a taxicab crashed into his hotel room earlier this month, Jonathan was one of the original Emo's regulars. The staff all knew him by name, and our band Noodle played there often. Noodle's first Emo's gig was September 1992. We opened for Houston's Sugar Shack, who were cresting on their grunge/garage hybrid Charmer. For years afterward, the flier Jonathan did for that show hung on the ceiling above the bar. From the start, Emo's treated no-name local bands like us respectfully. They were generous with the drink tickets, though I came to appreciate the bottled water more. Jonathan's barside networking served us as much as his spaz-tastic guitar playing. Opening slots on bills with NoMeansNo, Steel Pole Bath Tub, and Supernova materialized largely as a result of the same promotional acumen that got his globe-girdling New York Night Train record hops covered in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. Emo's no-cover policy meant not everyone was there to see the bands, so you had to do something to grab the crowd's attention. For us, the trick was wearing a trunkload of not-so-gently-used leather fetish gear. Our 1995 "All Male Leather Revue" was the pinnacle of our existence. Jonathan lost a large flap of flesh when the zipper on his chaps got snagged on his thigh, plus the sound guy docked us for getting whipped cream in the monitors, but it was our best payday ever. I think the most enduring aspect of those days was the camaraderie we had with fellow travelers like Gomez, Gut, Crown Roast, and Glorium. The latter band in particular epitomized the best aspects of Austin punk in the Nineties. They challenged audiences to move beyond prog-punk archetypes (see 1994's Cinema Peligrosa) while embodying intrascene magnanimity. Fitting that Glorium played a benefit for Jonathan during Emo's last week on Red River. – Greg Beets

Johnny Cash

March 17, 1994

Driving into San Antonio on July 4, 1992, and signing to the Chronicle the following Valentine's Day, I arrived in Austin, so to speak, on Thursday, March 17, 1994, when then Emo's manager David L. Thomson III ushered me to the outside stage to witness Johnny Cash. I stood not 10 feet from the venue's defining musical act. "With his barrel chest not at all concealed under a pitch-black tuxedo shirt and long waistcoat ... and his gray hair growing wild like tumbleweeds and the crags in his somber yet smiling face deeper than any crevices on Mount Rushmore," I wrote later in the paper, his mere presence – let alone his 6-foot frame atop a 4-foot-high stage – was a force of nature. Johnny Cash was the Grand Canyon. I barely remember looking up, staring instead at his boots, his knees. Solo acoustic, he drew from his as-yet-unreleased American Recordings debut, then got rhythm when his Tennessee Three joined him. They were the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and when they tore twang a new one on "I Walk the Line" – first side of my mom's Dick Clark greatest hits from my earliest memories – my head spun harder than at any single music moment, except for possibly Fats Domino in New Orleans. "When Cash ended his first encore number 'A Boy Named Sue' with the line, 'If I ever have another boy I'll name him Emo,' it became the Emo's show to end all others. Period." – Raoul Hernandez

The Day Kurt Cobain Died

April 5, 1994

The day after John Lennon was shot in 1980, Austin sat as still as the gray December weather, the bars cold and somber that night. The April day Kurt Cobain's body was found, it was business as usual at Emo's. Manager David L. Thomson III poured freely at the bar and not out of any particular pain. "It doesn't really affect me," he shrugged, echoing a sentiment apparently shared by those shuffling in for a Friday respite and a lack of girls crying publicly as when Jeff Buckley drowned in 1997. Which was probably about right for those high Gen X days of grungy disdain for traditional sentiment and anything that smacked of establishment. There wasn't a Hallmark card for the emotions Cobain expressed for his discontented generation. You couldn't generate a corporate response except to see that the flannel tide had changed the industry. Kurt Cobain was dead. Napster was on the horizon. Long live Emo's. – Margaret Moser

Ed Hall, Sixteen Deluxe

Dec. 16, 1994

If Johnny Cash at Emo's birthed me to live music in Austin, two Chronicle Christmas parties sandwiched that South by Southwest 1994 night. Margaret Moser on the phone in our way back production offices to Susan Antone two years earlier got us to a relatively empty Antone's on the Drag for a walk-on to Lou Ann Barton's set by Jimmie Vaughan, joined thereafter by Eric Johnson. Barton barking out Roky Erickson's "Don't Slander Me" with Vaughan's metallic clang was the Holy Grail I'd come looking for in Austin. Two years later, almost to the day, a group of us left the Chronicle Christmas party to see Ed Hall and Sixteen Deluxe outside at Emo's. Packed, the main room's holiday-light hardwiring made the 1990s Flaming Lips' Liberty Lunch spectacles look 40-watt. When Sixteen Deluxe hit the power, Austin music history lit up like the Capitol dome. As new signees to Austin's Trance Syndicate Records, Carrie Clark, Chris "Frenchie" Smith, Jeff Copas, and Bryan Bowden continued a line going back to the Butthole Surfers through label boss King Coffey, whose degrees of separation from the Dicks, Big Boys, Scratch Acid, etc., remains nil. Trance Syndicate trio Ed Hall, in full DayGlo body paint, bounced that room like a post-punk version of Duke Ellington's ancient Cotton Club voodoo, but when Sixteen Deluxe prepped the crowd with blinding white supernova rock, for me, they were Nirvana. – Raoul Hernandez

Courtney Love


I'd met a 15-year-old Hole fan online who'd chatted with Courtney Love in AOL chat rooms, where I lurked and Courtney made herself available to her female fans, sometimes meeting them on tour as well as spending time chatting with them. Said local girl's parents grounded her from attending a 1994 Liberty Lunch show, but good behavior had sprung her for Lollapalooza 1995, and I brought her to an L7 show at Emo's that CL was sure to attend. Sure enough, we spied Courtney sitting with the band on the sidewalk outside the club. "Hi Courtney," I ventured. "Hi," she responded, deeply uninterested, but I wasn't dissuaded. "Hunnypie, this is Wonderwhip," I said in the language of AOL screen names. Courtney's head spun like Linda Blair in The Exorcist and she stared at the baby-faced girl, then yanked her down to the ground to talk. And that's how Courtney Love met Brooke Barnett, the Austin teen who became her webmaster. – Margaret Moser


Jan. 26, 1997

It was early winter, but warm and clammy below Emo's big stage where porky Tenderloin singer Ernie Locke shook like 300 pounds of joy to the band's trailer trash blues-punk. The sweat poured off him and sprayed those of us up front when he turned on a solid stomp and tore off his shirt. His fleshy chest heaved and glistened in all its chubby glory as he took a swig of whiskey. It dribbled down his chin and neck and chest, and the fans whooped gleefully. "C'mon," Locke taunted one guy below. "You want some of the bourbon nipple?" He leaned down and offered his hairy man-titty like a mother would an infant. The man froze, mouth open, tongue out. Locke bent closer as the band kept a breakneck pace, leaning so near you could smell him. The man closed his eyes, and Locke plopped his bourbon nipple onto the man's tongue for the briefest of moments then sprang back victoriously and did the fat-boy dance. – Margaret Moser

Hovercraft, Honky

July 19, 1999
Fuckemos and friend in the naughty '90s
Fuckemos and friend in the naughty '90s (Photo by Michael Crawford)

The millennial shift was a hard one in Austin, landmark live music venues Liberty Lunch and Steamboat both closed in 1999. Two weeks prior to the first and two months before the latter, Emo's celebrated its seventh anniversary in modest style. The show wasn't the Jesus Lizard at the club the previous year or Tortoise packing the outside room, also in 1998. May 1999, Sweden's Hellacopters touched down on the main stage as if out of some Francis Ford Coppola war movie. As such, Seattle's Hovercraft, following the raucous Southern metal of Jeff Pinkus' Honky, wasn't as notable as the other 1990s revolutionaries of the Pacific Northwest Sabbath association, but bassist Beth Liebling was Eddie Vedder's longtime girlfriend, and even if the trio's Altered States-like sensory annihilation had very little to do with Pearl Jam, I wedged myself in the lone tree outside the main square in front of the stage. They're going to tear down Austin live music venues to put up a parking lot, I thought, but Emo's is safe. – Raoul Hernandez


Aug. 30-Sept. 1, 2002

In 2002, South by Southwest turned 15 and the inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival made its September debut. Between those two gorillas was the first U.S. edition of Gearfest, a three-day rawk orgy curated by the magazine Gearhead. This was my kind of festival. No blippy electronica, sensitive singer-songwriters, or trendy indie rock. In fact, not a shit was given for what the next big thing might be. Just buckets of blazing rock & roll from that place where early-1970s Detroit, late-1970s London, and mid-1960s America intersect at high volume. Sets from the Dragons, Lords of Altamont, the Immortal Lee County Killers II, Scandinavian badasses Demons, and the Lazy Cowgirls blew my rock & roll-starved mind. Better still, Austin was well-represented by the Sons of Hercules, Riverboat Gamblers, the Crack Pipes, the Applicators, the Hard Feelings, the Deadites, and Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee. The fest took advantage of the two-room layout, with one set beginning just as another ended in a nonstop blitz of riffs and attitude. The long weekend left me deaf as a post, but that's the price for rock & roll excess. – Michael Toland

Arcade Fire

June 14, 2004

Those of us who crowded Emo's inner sanctum June 14, 2004, were well aware of the hipness quotient of this late-night performance by art-pop oddballs the Unicorns, a trio visiting from blustery Montreal. Their third album, 2003's Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, overspilled its boundaries with skewed, minimal send-ups of the paranormal and mundane, but before tasting their snarly brew, the assembled had to wait through the supporting act, some band – also from Canada – called Arcade Fire. The group wail of opener "Wake Up" certainly widened eyes, but this nonplussed, misted-in-smoke crowd wasn't sold right away. "If you kids smoke a lot of cigarettes, then maybe the Unicorns will come on," teased singer Win Butler to murmurs. The band now plays the biggest stages Austin can build, but in that moment, they were just a big-sounding band on a stage that could barely fit their ambition, let alone all of them. – Adam Schragin

The Decemberists

April 2, 2005

It was a simple, smallish affair that early spring night. Fairy lights dotted the trees on the grounds of the French Legation, accentuated by large, pink paper globes. The weather was crisp and clear, with just a residual trace of winter mingling with the promise of a sweltering summer to come. Our guests ate cochinita pibil and sipped margaritas from Curra's, while only my freshly minted husband's tweenaged nephews utilized the microscopic dance floor we'd rented for the occasion. After we said our farewells and retired to our Downtown hotel room, quickly shedding our wedding finery for our usual weekend schmatta, we made our way to Emo's to see the Decemberists, touring in support of that year's Picaresque. We've seen so many bands together there, my husband and I, but that night in particular stands out as the one in which we crossed over from me + him to us. – Melanie Haupt

Jimmy Eat World

July 30, 2007

Emo's is where I didn't see Johnny Cash, one of my biggest musical regrets. What I did manage to unexpectedly catch, however, was power pop/emo/indie rockers Jimmy Eat World. That's not a band I'd normally follow, but what made this so special was taking my teenage daughter, a die-hard fan, and encouraging her to lose herself to the music, much as I have been doing for decades. Here's her take on that night: On July 30, 2007, my dad and I braved 100-degree temperatures to see Jimmy Eat World amidst a sweaty crowd with my right leg in a cast from the knee down. They will always hold a special place in my heart as my favorite band during my teenage years. I spent many angst-filled days blaring their music through my headphones while sulking in my room. This particular tour was put on between albums, so instead of promoting anything new, they played acoustic versions of hits and songs from obscure EPs they put out before finding success. It was truly a fan's dream. When they played one of my favorite songs, "Roller Queen," off their self-titled 1998 EP, the crush of the soaked crowd and the pain of my broken foot dissolved around me, and I tuned myself into the static-y sounds of Jim Adkins' guitar playing. For me, it was heaven. – Jay & Milana Trachtenberg


Aug. 24, 2008

It was hot, straight-up middle of the summer, and demand doubling supply meant that Nas would play two Sunday shows, the first beginning just after 6pm. One thousand people packed Emo's outdoors like seared sardines in the sun, braving the tin-roofed sauna to see the Little Homey twist up "Memory Lane" with a run through six of the nine classics from his seminal 1994 debut, Illmatic – supply for demand delivered in stunna shades with a nasty streak. He'd raise the bar three hours later with 1993 premiere "Live at the Barbecue," proper MC grit for a venue perpetually caked in dirt. Hip-hop's a genre consumed with cash, cars, and clout, but Nas always predicated that he saw the city from the ground up, the mindset of a "Street's Disciple." In Austin for the first time and running a twofer in the city's grimiest venue: That's how you "Represent." – Chase Hoffberger

Wu-Tang Clan

Dec. 11, 2010

I came to Austin as an outsider. Off the plane toward a house I hadn't seen, in an unfamiliar state, and enrolled in a new school. I'd read about Emo's and Red River and the Johnny Cash thing, but it was all just a legend until I moved here a year ago. I was only 19, my first few months here incredibly surreal. I remember sitting in Kerbey Lane during my first week, friendless, pensive, trying to make sense of my adopted new home. Like a lot of lonely people in Austin, I started going to a lot of shows. It was probably my third or fourth time at Emo's when I saw Wu-Tang Clan perform. I remember it the most vividly because it was the moment Austin began to make perfect sense to me. What first appeared so insular started feeling so warm and welcoming. A vast cross-section of Austin's eccentrics, the well-worn grime on the walls, it all felt earned, respected. And Emo's is a lot like Wu-Tang: old, shadowy, with a deserved mythology. They seemed happy together. This was the dream of Austin, why I expatriated myself from the West Coast. The music allowed me to belong. Maybe it's my long personal history with Wu-Tang's music, but I haven't felt lonely here since. – Luke Winkie

Free Week/Not in the Face

January 2011

Emo's legacy – as much as the punk-art carnage on the walls and smell of urine-on-ice emanating from the boldly stickered bathroom troughs – is Free Week. It's the transformation of the deadest lull of winter into a packed-house local-talent showcase, now bleeding up and down Red River music venues and throughout the city. It's South by Southwest without carpetbaggers, something that feels uncorruptedly Austin because its ambitions are just that simple: Get folks out to see local music and buy a few beers. That first week of January, the only conversation worth having starts with, "What have you seen that's good?" The only resolutions that matter are which bands will become your new favorites. Case in point: last year's Free Week breakout of Not in the Face, the unfortunately named duo of Jonathan Terrell and Wes Cargal opening a weeknight bill inside Emo's. Unassuming in every way, the drummer and guitarist proceeded to build from a rootsy garage groove that turned into an all-out assault and an epic, Zeppelin-esque climax that made Not in the Face the must-see act of the week. – Doug Freeman

Death From Above 1979

Sept. 17, 2011

In the end, the writing was literally on the walls. Widespread rumors that Death From Above 1979's official Austin City Limits Music Festival aftershow would be the final concert outside at Emo's were confirmed by the Toronto duo's elephant-trunk logo spray-painted across the back wall. "If you want to save the demolition crew some work, go ahead," advised bassist Jesse Keeler to the sold-out throng. Then DFA put the nail in the coffin, turning out nearly every number from 2004's You're a Woman, I'm a Machine in a gas-huffing torrent of Saturday night indecency – the pulsing crowd a mob of sweaty friction. With Keeler dressed for a biker funeral and drummer/banshee vocalist Sebastien Grainger in all-white long johns and bleached hair, the two looked and interacted like sides of a coin – locked in motion and in clear opposition – with highlights "Romantic Rights" and "Black History Month" approaching proto-dubstep at its sleaziest extreme: aggressive punk rock with sex appeal. "Most cities in the world don't have something like [Emo's]," remarked Keeler without a hint of irony. Add Austin to the list. – Austin Powell

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Emo's
Faster Than Sound: Concertgoers at Emo's Make Easy Targets for Booting
Faster Than Sound: Concertgoers at Emo's Make Easy Targets for Booting
Lines of fans pay $100 in "parking problem" near Live Nation-owned venue

Rachel Rascoe, July 1, 2022

Music News: The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking
Music News: The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking
C3 Presents acquires Emo's

Raoul Hernandez, Feb. 15, 2013


Emo's, Noodle, Jonathan Toubin, Johnny Cash, Ed Hall, Sixteen Deluxe, Courtney Love, Nirvana, Arcade Fire, Decemberists, Death From Above 1979, Nas Wu-Tang Clan

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle