Playback: Austin's Revamped Record Convention

The Austin Record Convention – the biggest in the country – returns Downtown

ARC Bearers: Doug (r) and Nathan Hanners
ARC Bearers: Doug (r) and Nathan Hanners (Photo by Kevin Curtin)

Inside a humongous storage shed in the Hill Country west of Austin, Doug Hanners assesses his inventory. The cement floor is bestrewn with vinyl records – thousands of LPs in boxes and crates. Shelves lining the walls are conversely bare, thanks to a Swedish collector who recently purchased 150,000 45s.

Though a few gems lie about – including a record sleeve with a portrait of Bob Dylan sketched by late blues booster Clifford Antone – this isn't Hanners' personal collection. Rather, it's a holding cell for the ebb and flow of his life's work. The 68-year-old local founded the country's largest and longest-running recorded music sale, this weekend's Austin Record Convention.

Interest in the event presently sits at an all-time high. Hanners has rented out 275 tables, the most in the ARC's 34-year history, with dealers jetting in from Japan, Ireland, Australia, Sweden, and Korea to contribute to the labyrinth of LPs, CDs, and vintage music ephemera. Like them, Hanners, a former Discount Records employee who occasionally issues the Not Fade Away zine, will pluck and truck vinyl to the Palmer Events Center.

"It's always a big nervous thing because you never know how it's going to go," admits Hanners. "It's different every time and there are no guarantees."

That's never been truer for the ARC, which undergoes a transitional year in 2015. Last year, having been displaced from what had seemed a good fit, North Lamar's Crockett Center, the conference was canceled in both the spring and fall, which drew ire from vendors depending on it for income.

"They didn't understand," sighs Hanners. "They never do, because they don't know what's going on behind the scenes."

For decades it was a semiannual event, but now Hanners will host just one ARC every spring. This weekend also marks its return Downtown. Originally, the ARC had been sleeved south of the river, launching in 1981 at a Knights of Columbus building in Zilker Park, then finding a home at the Palmer Auditorium – a bygone structure across from the Armadillo World Headquarters – where Bob Dylan and the Band first graced Austin in 1965.

After 20 years at Palmer, the ARC relocated to the nearby City Coliseum, which boasted its own rich musical history, having hosted Elvis Presley in the Fifties and a two-night run by the Clash in 1982. After a year there, the ARC jumped north. Aside from a short-lived South by Southwest allegiance that put the spring shows at the Convention Center, a long-overdue Downtown homecoming awaits.

"I was hesitant about moving to the new Palmer Events Center because it's more expensive and it has paid parking," allows Hanners, leaning against a beam where a Howlin' Wolf 78 hangs from a nail. "But I think being back in Central Austin will change who shows up."

In Downtown digs with increased visibility and a more welcoming vibe, the ARC stands to benefit from a continued interest in vinyl by younger generations.

"In the year we missed, last year, the momentum has really increased," says Neil Ramos, a record collector and supplier who's been a vendor at every ARC since the late Eighties. "Young people are so pumped on records now, which is gratifying for an old-timer like me."

"The real test of how big the youth interest in the revival of vinyl will be the show this year," concurs Hanners. "You'll see how many gray ponytails there are compared to how many young Turks."

With that, he motions toward his son Nathan Hanners, a 39-year-old guitarist and record collector who's prepared to carry the ARC torch when his father burns out. Having helped out at the convention since he was knee-high to a stack of LPs, the younger Hanners understands the culture.

"The convention is a pretty analog experience," notes Nathan. "Nowadays, if you're looking for a B.B. King record, you type that into Amazon and get a list. Here, you literally flip through stacks looking for it. If you want to get in and out in five minutes, that won't happen, but if you like browsing for records, this is paradise."

"He's the future of it," asserts his father, "because me and my wife are a little tired and it's getting harder to do every year. I can't do it that much longer."

Currently, Nathan is putting the finishing touches on a text-messaging service that'll connect vendors with customers searching for a specific record. It'll replace the convention's outdated system of writing down what you want and having them announce it over a PA system. Twitter could have sufficed, but Nathan knows many old-school vendors don't have smartphones, so consider it a medium-tech advancement for a low- tech gathering.

Ramos, who's worked record fairs nationally, confirms that Austin's record mart remains the largest this side of Utrecht, Netherlands: "There's a couple big shows in the Northeast, but even those guys say it really happens when they come to Austin. It's record central in the United States."

"It's not so much because of me or what I've done," deflects Hanners. "Austin's such a music town it's made it possible to do a show like this."

With no music festival this weekend, the ARC is your music festival. The Austin Record Convention opens Friday (9:30am-6pm) for early bird shoppers, $40. Admission for Saturday (10am-6pm) and Sunday (10am-5pm) is $5.

Songwriting's Spiritual Rewards

Reverend Merrill Wade works doubles on Sundays. In the morning, he's the chief priest, delivering sermons to a large congregation at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church. At night, he's an emcee, introducing songwriters onstage at the Iron Cactus. Both are lessons in faith and love.

Last week, Wade welcomed bilingual folk singer Gina Chavez to his Soul of a Musician series, a weekly concert where local musicians share their songs and the inspiration behind them. There were no Bible readings, no hands clasped in prayer, no theological language. It's through artists and their writing that Wade hopes to extract truth in a way the church can't.

"We need musicians to help us interpret this current world we live in," he said after a showcase, which he's been organizing since 2013. "The church doesn't have a dead message at all, but we're hamstrung. Today, everything is at your fingertips – you can join ISIS from your mobile device. We no longer can say the same things and sing the same songs. We need help."

Chavez engaged the packed house with two lively sets, interspersed with a segment examining her lyrics – which were printed out on every table. "The Sweet Sound of Your Name" provoked discussion of her identity as a lesbian and a Catholic, while "Like an Animal" spurred a dialogue about homelessness with lyrics confronting the church: "All the loaves and fishes, I wonder where they've gone. Pass on the blame, if you won't pass the basket along."

For Wade, the performances are transformative experiences.

"In the process of their inspiration, we realize that God is not confined to the church."

The spring season of Soul of a Musician continues throughout June on Sunday nights at the Northside Iron Cactus (10001 Stonelake Blvd.), 6:30pm, free. Next up is gospel powerhouse Chanel Haynes on May 31.

Half Notes

The 13th Floor Elevators' glorious reunion at Levitation may not be the end of their unexpected final chapter. Rumblings from inside the camp indicate that there's hope for the psychedelic rock trailblazers to play another show. Where and when remain unknown, but San Francisco seems like a probable choice.

KGSR's Blues on the Green series emphasizes the "blues" in its series kickoff at Zilker Park next Wednesday. The Antone's 40th Anniversary Celebration hosted by Jimmie Vaughan, 8pm, will feature a band of Antone's all-stars and an unannounced special guest. Considering the company, it's a safe guess to expect a famous young guitarist who's invested in the new Antone's nightclub.

Jazz modernist Alex Coke debuts new compositions tonight (Thursday) at the Museum of Human Achievement on Springdale and Lyons, 8pm. The Liminal Sound Series performance finds Coke (sax/flute) playing with a titanic crew including drummer supreme J.J. Johnson and pedal steel mystic Bob Hoffnar.

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Austin Record Convention, Doug Hanners, Reverend Merrill Wade, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Gina Chavez, 13 Floor Elevators, KGSR, Blues on the Green, Alex Coke

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