We Built This City
On rock & roll venues opening up left, right, and especially east
There's a new honky-tonk in hipville, and there's music every night.
"I feel like an alien around here," cracks Denis O'Donnell, co-owner of the White Horse.
The new music venue at Fifth and Comal streets, previously Club La Trampa, already draws raves as the Eastside home of rawhide roots.
"Thursday through Sunday, I'm going to capitalize on the people that are already excited about this part of town," he waves three days before the club's December opening. "It'll be a free show and it won't be, 'Shhh, there's a band playing.' It also won't be blasting people out of the room. It's going to be a nice 'in the middle.' Country music does that very well. And so does bluegrass, so does blues, so does jazz."
O'Donnell and partner Nathan Hill have taken a page from their days managing the Hole in the Wall, wrangling together a series of house bands that hold down semipermanent residencies to fill out each week. Blues trio Mrs. Glass plays Tuesdays, Mike & the Moonpies get outlaw on Thursday. On Sundays, pedal steel guitarist Bob Hoffnar leads the White Horse Orchestra through jazz with a Texas swing twist. O'Donnell says that method of booking will help establish the White Horse as an institution that people turn to the same way they turn to the Continental Club and the Saxon Pub.
"It's our job as musicians and as club owners to make people excited again to go see a band," he insists. "Before the culture of Sixth Street, you didn't look in the paper to see who was playing. You knew some of those clubs had good bands, and you had a date and went Downtown. You would see live music. There was a culture of people who used to go see live bands without a destination. Those days are over."
The White Horse is packed on weekends and fills up considerably on off nights, yet it's far from being the only East Austin hot spot making waves in a live music scene that all but reinvented itself wholesale in the last months of last year.
Six blocks west, just before the highway, is the ND at 501 Studios, a multipurpose performance space complete with a 20-foot-by-30-foot projection wall that former Electric Lounge owner Mike Henry finished converting into a full-time music venue over the summer. Running along the east side of Sixth Street between the White Horse and ND are four new spaces stacked smack in the middle of Austin's hottest entertainment district: Cheer Up Charlie's, the Volstead Lounge, Hotel Vegas, and the Gypsy Lounge, a 30-person venue with a 300-capacity backyard stage (see "One, Two, Tres, Cuatro"). A few miles east on Webberville Road, the Sahara Lounge picks up where the beloved TC's Lounge left off last year, with stormy Monday blues nights and African music every Saturday.
The proximity of these venues is par for the course in Austin, where entertainment districts have formed in clusters since the Sixth Street explosion of the Eighties. What's fascinating is the rate at which they've gone up. Of the six Eastside venues mentioned, not a single room hosted shows with any semblance of regularity before last March, a rate of growth that trumps even Red River's run of the last decade.
What's more is that those venues aren't going up alone. Neither are they appearing solely on the other side of the tracks, either. Skinny's Ballroom opened its doors on Second Street and San Jacinto last February, just around the corner from the Austin Convention Center. Frank, a gourmet hot dog shop in the middle of Austin's central business district near Antone's, now hosts live music weekly and runs midweek shows in rotation. Ray Benson's Rattle Inn, a two-story venue that plans to host as much Dale Watson as possible, opened last week between Star Bar and Ranch 616 on Nueces Street. North of campus, Spider House's 29th Street Ballroom became a mecca for low-cost local music throughout 2011, with slam poetry, indie rock, and the Lonesome Heroes holding down a residency on Tuesday nights.
Why all the sudden influx? The answer's on Red River – or what's left of it.
The ongoing Waller Creek Tunnel Project, intended to clean up our city's grittiest street, forced Frank Hendrix's Emo's out in the fall; raised questions about Red 7, whose lease is up this summer (it's under corporate sponsorship through South by Southwest); and ushered the Beauty Bar's decision to call it quits on Seventh Street sometime after March. Transmission Entertainment, titans of Red River thanks to a presence at Mohawk, Club de Ville, Red 7, and Beauty Bar also has expansion plans east of the highway on Fifth Street. Only the Swan Dive, Harvey Graham's flapper-studded ballroom at Seventh and Red River, seems to have built any type of live music presence in the transforming neighborhood.
Across the river, Hendrix sits perched on the next frontier, East Riverside, where the AMLI South Shore is filling up and new residential megaplexes (CityView, Grayco Apartments, Cypress Real Estate) are on the way. Hendrix completed major redevelopment of the old Back Room in September, where now rises the gleaming Emo's East, and with Beauty Bar management, opened the Beauty Ballroom last week on the same block. Both parties are betting the strip there will be the next boom in live entertainment thanks to the existing and new residences.
"We're hoping that whatever [businesses] comes in accentuates what we do," says Hendrix, who notes he's received five or six calls a week from people inquiring about the neighborhood. "A coffee shop's going up across the street once we're done [with Beauty Ballroom]."
Z-Ro and Trae tha Truth perform next door at Emo's on Feb. 11. If it's not a sellout, there will be more than enough attendees to see East Riverside as a hot nightlife destination. CityView is slated for completion in 2013. That's when the masses move over. Hendrix thinks Lamar and Oltorf is the next hub to turn after that.
"If you got the right show," he says, "you could be in the middle of nowhere and people will show up."
Beauty BallroomAddress: 2015 E. Riverside, Bldg. 4
Square feet: 9,600
Stage capacity: 700
With a giant upstairs bar to match the downstairs stage floor, the Beauty Ballroom's a shoo-in for the new East Riverside corridor, which is betting on high-volume neighborhood foot traffic. That'll come in handy when Yelawolf christens the venue Feb. 17.
FrankAddress: 407 Colorado
Square feet: 3,500
"We knew that we weren't going to be a capacity room, and we didn't want to be," reasons Frank owner Danny Northcutt. "We wanted to be something that was incredibly intimate and had a really amazing sound."
Hotel VegasAddress: 1500 E. Sixth
Square feet: 2,000
Remember the Bates Motel or the Blue Flamingo? Us neither, so swap out Emo's brick walls for the greenish concrete inside Hotel Vegas and this Eastside dive will remind some of the former venue's Sixth and Red River haunt – even if the acoustics can sometimes be cinder block.
ND at 501 StudiosAddress: 501 N. I-35
Square feet: 4,000
"I don't think our booking will ever be that predictable, but what I always want the audience to know is that whatever you get here is good," asserts former Electric Lounge owner Mike Henry. "In Austin, you can book seven nights' worth of talent in your clubs with 10 minutes of phone calls, but we want to do something great."
The Rattle InnAddress: 610 Nueces
Square feet: 7,500
Downstairs stage space capacity: 250
Speakers pumping the evening's entertainment throughout the sprawling urban roadhouse, which includes a side room seating area, porch, and roomy upstairs deck, make it possible to hear Texas songwriters and outlaw country no matter where you stand. Expect venue figurehead and Asleep at the Wheel wagon master Ray Benson to pop in with unexpected special guests.
The Sahara LoungeAddress: 1413 Webberville Rd.
Square feet: 2,400
"It's easy here," smiles Sahara co-owner Eileen Bristol. "It's easy to load in; it's just comfortable. It still has that juke joint feeling left over from TC's Lounge, but now we've got the African influence."
Skinny's BallroomAddress: 115 San Jacinto
Square feet: 2,400
"It takes a little more effort to get to our place, but I kind of like being out of bounds and unique," nods Brad Marcum, Skinny's co-owner. "We're sort of contrarian in that way. We're out here and not really following the crowd."
Swan DiveAddress: 615 Red River
Square feet: 3,800
Be it for a big band or burlesque show, Swan Dive's all-white aesthetic and Prohibition-era vibe makes it a popular destination for anybody with a fedora on their head or a flapper on their arm.
29th Street BallroomAddress: 2906 Fruth
Square feet: 2,560 (ballroom) 650 (bar)
Capacity: 250 (ballroom), 75 (bar)
"We have to work harder for people to come out," admits General Manager Jason McNeely of Spider House's tony annex, a bar with both a ballroom and patio. "We're our own little island out there. Our strategy from the beginning was to concentrate on trying to grow the bands that weren't getting those bigger shows."
The White HorseAddress: 500 Comal
Website: www.facebook.com/thewhitehorsehonkytonk Square feet: 3,700 inside (4,200 including outside patio)
Capacity: 250 (300 with patio)
"The quality of music that surrounds the country scene, bluegrass, Delta blues, and jazz is very special," explains White Horse co-owner and barista Denis O'Donnell. "You can't go to Lockhart to see the kind of stuff you're seeing around here. You can't even go to San Antonio. Some of these blossoming young musicians are really special, and we should showcase them."