Playback: Antone's Reorganizes
Antone's restructures and nears a deal on a new home Downtown
More than a club, Antone's remains monument to a man whose belief in low-down, 12-bar blues and respect for the good souls from whom it poured became so contagious that the venue evolved into both a museum and incubator for the genre. Clifford Antone opened his namesake nightclub on Sixth Street in 1975 and operated it until his death in 2006. Four decades later, it's still the most globally recognized live music brand in Austin.
Even if the "Home of the Blues" is homeless.
Seven months have now passed since Antone's hoisted the flag one final time at its short-lived East Riverside location for New Year's Eve with first son Doyle Bramhall II. By the time its 39th anniversary rolled around on July 15, the Chronicle, whose bond with Clifford and his sister Susan Antone could only be characterized as instantly familial, had investigated the matter thoroughly enough to know there would be no party because there wasn't a home for it or, for that matter, a proper set of hosts to throw it. New ownership of Antone's, which had taken over from former Emo's baron Frank Hendrix, had stalled out on the reopening without explanation or update.
Enter two native sons – and finally a reason to celebrate: Grammy-winning blues savior Gary Clark Jr. and Arlyn Studios/Lamberts dynamo Will Bridges, who've helped rebuild team Antone's. Ready for a fresh chapter in the club's legend, with a key location to go with it? Both are on the way.
The blues room, which through the ages hosted greats including Jimmy Rodgers, Albert King, Eddie Taylor, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, and Buddy Guy, while helping expose homegrown acts like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Gary Clark Jr., has jumped around town throughout its tenure. After Sixth and Brazos, it moved up to Anderson Lane, down to Guadalupe and 29th, over to West Fifth and Lavaca, and finally east of the highway for its last year. There, Antone's bookended the same block as Emo's after Hendrix took over its operation in 2010.
Once he sold Emo's to Charles Attal and C3 Presents, next went Antone's, bought by a conglomerate of investors. Led by famous geneticist and explorer Dr. Spencer Wells, the group closed a deal on the brand, but not the building. They were eager to return the club Downtown and forecast an unveiling in March for South by Southwest. That never materialized.
"The partnership fell apart," confirmed Wells in person last Thursday. Two partners pulled out of the deal a few months in, while another rescinded his interests shortly after the purchase. "They just decided it wasn't a good match."
Although the partnership fallout was problematic, Wells reveals it was no cakewalk structuring a deal initially. Reworking contracts and finding financial agreement with Hendrix and his business partner Stewart Bates proved no easy task. Wells, renowned as the "Indiana Jones of genetics," had wrested a sacred artifact from a dog-eat-dog businessman, but the Lubbock-raised, Washington, D.C.-based true believer couldn't deliver without boots on the ground locally. Enter Bridges, co-owner of Arlyn, Lamberts, and Deep Eddy Cabaret.
Bridges was the first person to have Antone's under exclusive contract from Hendrix, but couldn't find agreement on a sales figure and walked away. While he'd moved the ball up the field, Wells' group got the goal. After his partnership shakeup, Wells reached out to Bridges and the two mustered the trust to share information and resources.
Both were hesitant, especially Bridges, grappling with his moral duty of assisting a music institution he loved against spreading himself too thin since he'd just acquired Deep Eddy in April. Come summer, he disclosed his potential new involvement in Antone's to his friend Gary Clark Jr., who inspired Bridges to put his full spirit into the club by relating what it meant to him and other musicians in Austin. Bridges, in turn, proposed Clark join the team.
"Antone's is my foundation," stated Clark via a midnight phone call as this issue went to press. "I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if it hadn't been for Antone's. It allowed me to experiment, explore, and try to better myself as a musician."
At 15, the guitarist first performed at the club alongside blues all-stars Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones, and more.
"I already loved to play, but when I jumped onstage at Antone's, I felt like I was part of something important. At 15, everyone wants to feel like they're part of something cool, but I felt like I was part of something cooler than anybody could ever imagine at my age. It changed the way I thought about life and ended my search for acceptance because I knew this was what I was supposed to do."
After he got offstage that night, Clifford gave Clark a bluesman benediction: "You got something, kid."
Clark's involvement now exemplifies the new, locally sourced participants in a project that was initially dominated by out-of-town partners. Despite his international rock star stature at 30, another local blues figure's blessing measures equally potent. Wells confirms that he took extra care to ensure Susan Antone was appropriately compensated during the sale, and thus she's the fourth partner.
"I'm so excited about having Will and Gary involved," enthuses the brand's surviving namesake. "Cliff really cared for Gary, and I know he's looking down and applauding. It's important for the whole experience to have true Austin people working with Antone's."
The task at hand for the new team is securing a space to resurrect the blues kingdom. Spencer Wells confirms they're currently making serious inquiries into locations in the central business district, good news considering the club's two most forgettable eras have been the time it spent in a rug warehouse on Anderson and the recent stand on Riverside. When asked what styles Antone's will feature, Wells didn't hesitate.
"Blues! It needs to be 'Home of the Blues' again."
Without a home, Antone's has couch surfed. The club's mainstay, guitarist Derek O'Brien (revisit "Chairman of the Board," April 25), revived the orphaned Monday blues jam at Midway Field House, former home of Antone's most recent incarnation. Bridges sums up the situation.
"One of the things that makes Austin interesting as a city is its landscape," he says. "You have key landmarks, like the lake and Capitol. Things that provide context. Places like Dallas and Houston, you never really feel like you've arrived because they lack those landmarks.
"A music culture also has a landscape, and if you don't have landmarks that give context, you don't know where you are, why you're there, where you're supposed to be going, and it all seems meaningless. When you can set your compass by something, it gives you direction. Antone's became that beacon for the blues.
"We, as a city, are now inundated with growth and money and other cultures, so we're trying to find ourselves in the shuffle again and rediscover that original context. In order to do that, we feel we've got to bring Antone's back as a beacon that allows others to set their compass."
Antone's resurrection means more to Austin than just club space. This city needs one more midsized venue like it needs another taco truck. What's important, in this time of tremendous change, remains real connection to the city's musical heritage and the continuation of Clifford Antone's mission.
"I think that's what people think about when they say Antone's, or the nightclub, or me," Clifford declared in Dan Karlok's 2004 documentary Antone's: Home of the Blues. "We represent the real working musicians."
A home isn't judged by location or who holds the mortgage. It's defined by the people inside.