Playback – Antone's New Booker: Zach Ernst

Did Clifford Antone know he was grooming his nightclub's future booker when he mentored Zach Ernst?

Fortune Teller: Ernst and Allen Toussaint backstage in May at the Paramount Theatre (Photo by Mandy Earnshaw / Courtesy of Zach Ernst)

A decade ago, Zach Ernst sat quietly in the back of a classroom at the University of Texas, watching Clifford Antone preach the blues to eager underclassmen. It was a side gig for Austin's most respected club owner, then 30 years into operating his namesake blues venue, and a logical extension of his life's work: turning people on to the blues. That day, Antone spotted the 19-year-old sophomore after the bell rang.

"If I'd have known you were here, you could have gotten up and taught the class with me," he said.

That was a generous compliment from his mentor, who Ernst had gotten to know the year before while enrolled in "The Blues According to Clifford Antone." Ernst had furiously scribbled notes as Antone made bold declarations like, "The greatest genius to ever come out of Motown was Shorty Long!"

"I'd talk to him after class and he'd say, 'You have to listen to this CD I have in my car' or 'Follow me to Antone's Record Shop and I'll show you some stuff to buy,'" remembers Ernst. "It seems like a movie, looking back. I was just this 18-year-old kid living in Jester dorms taking the E-bus to Antone's on Monday to watch the blues jam."

Impossible to know sometimes when you've met someone who'll change your life. Clifford Antone's time ran out in 2006 when he suffered a fatal heart attack, but his influence lived on through a community touched by his knowledge, integrity, and respect for musicians of all stripes. Thereafter, Ernst played lead guitar in Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, then with resurrected Dallas psych-funk preachers the Relatives, jive-talking soul man Bobby Patterson, and recently, Irish bard-rockers the Waterboys. Meanwhile, he began booking shows at the Continental Club, bringing in vintage acts like Little Joe Washington and Ironing Board Sam, then was hired as a talent buyer for Austin's oldest Downtown venue, the historic Paramount Theatre.

"I shudder to think what I would be doing if I hadn't met Clifford," offers the former economics major. "He rewired my brain and made me feel like I could have a life in music. His taste became my taste. Every old-school thing I do now can be traced back to him."

Perhaps Antone sensed the knowledge he was imparting on young Ernst would one day come back in his favor. Because it has. Ernst has been entrusted as the music booker for Antone's nightclub, expected to re-open next month in an old building on Fifth and San Jacinto.

The golden opportunity presented itself when two friends and fellow Clifford protégés, blues scion Gary Clark Jr. and Arlyn Studios/Lamberts owner Will Bridges, partnered with geneticist Spencer Wells to resuscitate the club that's been closed for nearly two years.

"I told [Bridges], rather boldly, that if it was just a rock room, I wouldn't be the right guy to book it, but if they wanted to do blues, soul, R&B, and bring Antone's regulars back for residencies, then I'm the guy to do it," recounts Ernst. "All along Will's been saying, 'We're bringing back Austin's home of the blues' – and we're going to do it right."

A capacity around 400, the club will follow its tried-and-true musical m.o.

"The local scene will figure in – Blue Monday will be back – but we'll also bring in out-of-town blues and soul singers to play with a house band," says Ernst, who scoured Susan Antone's photo and flier collection for booking inspiration. "We need to think about who's still around – the Chicago cats, the Eastside musicians, the soul singers. We need to ask, 'What's William Bell doing? Can we get Carla Thomas?'"

"Clifford always used the term 'presenting music,'" adds Bridges. "It's not about choosing from what's available. It's about bringing in something special. We need to set that bar."

Madcap Methodology

Geoff Earle has pulled a maverick move: a concept album stripped of context. The local songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, formerly anchoring dance funk triad Fresh Millions, launched his latest electro-pop project Stiletto Feels with a sadistic studio process: inviting a plethora of musicians to improvise over undressed demos without knowledge of who or what would be added to the song. Earle then chopped and cropped the individual parts into The Big Fist.

"This was one of the most stressful projects I've ever worked on. I'm thinking nowadays that it was worth it," remarked the Sword bassist Bryan Richie, who co-produced the album. "It's impressive that something like Stiletto Feels could come from a person who is, to be honest, an absolute asshole."

The Chronicle salutes Stiletto Feels' novel production concept with a blind collaboration of our own. "Playback" enlisted four writers – Raoul Hernandez, Michael Toland, Tim Stegall, and Chase Hoffberger – to review three tracks each without knowing what the others had written, then stitched them together.

The Big Fist arrives Friday on GTZ Records. Stiletto Feels headlines at Cheer Up Charlies that night.

"Blessed City" takes improvised tracks and treats 'em like samples, building a melodic electro-pop tune that's overtly the sum of its parts. Even less so, the early morning dub pot nugget "Monster" sounds like a dream fuck between Beck and Money Mark after the spliffs kicked in. Only the lonely piano ballad "11:52am August 6th, 2012" sounds truly improvised, the result of a long night, an impossible dream, and a stack of unrequited crushes staining the keyboard. Meanwhile, as unfolds "Times Like These" in its elephantine carnival march, so go companions "The Difference" and "Molassacre" more or less – each adding to the ADD parade brainwashed cult vox (dirty, clean, or robotic), electro condiments, and Eighties synth nostalgia/melancholia. Who doesn't love circus freaks? Then again, has Austin developed its own version of Fun? Someone got an ancient Casio keyboard for Christmas and was mistakenly led to believe he's some sort of musical genius, clearly. For instance, there's little evidence on high-wired, sample-heavy 10th track "The Society for the Preservation of Rare Birds" that would lead one to believe the electronic guitar crunch of "Rats on a Sinking Ship" would follow two songs later. That its middleman, "3:41am February 20th, 2013," plays as a 40-second prairie home hymnal makes understanding the segue even more surprising.

Half Notes

The Elephant Room, Austin's preeminent jazz club, has been closed since last Friday due to structural concerns related to a nearby sinkhole. The basement venue will remain shuttered until necessary repairs are completed, according to the bar's Facebook page.

Bassist Bill Colbert lost his life when a drunk driver sped through a red light and hit him early Saturday morning. Colbert, 60, was traveling home from his 20-year-running Friday night gig with Donn & the Station Masters at Donn's Depot when his car was struck, causing it to crash into the vehicle of bandmate Bill Starrett, who sustained minor injuries. Colbert was also an accomplished singer-songwriter, thrice reaching the finals in Kerrville's New Folk Competition.

Gary Clark Jr. and Black Pistol Fire's Nov. 18 performance at Paris venue Le Bataclan was canceled after Friday's ISIS-perpetrated mass shooting, which left 89 dead at an Eagles of Death Metal show.

South by Southwest Music's second artist announcement revealed 215 acts playing the 2016 music conference, March 15-20. Attractions include Replacements' bassist Tommy Stinson, psych punks Thee Oh Sees, alt-rockers Mercury Rev, and rapper Casey Veggies. Locals-only wristbands, $169, hit the market today, Thursday, at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 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 Zach Ernst
Playback: Robert Johnson Plays Antone’s Anniversary!
Playback: Robert Johnson Plays Antone’s Anniversary!
Antone’s resurrects Robert Johnson for its 42nd anniversary

Kevin Curtin, June 30, 2017

Playback: Dale Watson's Ameripolitan Dream
Playback: Dale Watson's Ameripolitan Dream
Outlaws wanted (for Awards), God calls back Gean West, and SXSW wristbands back on sale!

Kevin Curtin, Feb. 13, 2015

More Playback
Playback: You Can’t Press Pause on Life
Playback: You Can’t Press Pause on Life
A musician’s life: laid off, livestreaming, and … giving birth?

Kevin Curtin, April 24, 2020

Playback: My Top 100 Austin Records of 2018
Playback: My Top 100 Austin Records of 2018
Kevin Curtin picks his favorite local sounds of the year

Kevin Curtin, Dec. 21, 2018


Zach Ernst, Stiletto Feels, Clifford Antone, Susan Antone, Black Joe Lewis, Gary Clark Jr., Will Bridges, Geoff Earle, Bryan Richie, Bill Colbert

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

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