The International Waters of Austin’s Concert Scene
Party barges bring summer shows to cooler locales
The local music scene lacks one crucial element of the DIY show experience: basements. Blame limestone bedrock and a high water table for the simple fact that few houses inside city limits sit atop subterranean dens. What we miss below ground, however, we make up for in a phenomenon rarely seen elsewhere: aquatic concerts.
Think not of weeklong nostalgia voyages departing Miami hourly (see the Kiss Kruise and Rock Legends Cruise VI), but a far more indie endeavor docked at the Port of Austin. Debauchery on both ends of that spectrum is likely comparable, but only one jaunt rages 80-140 friends mere feet away from groups performing on deck. Floating Lady Bird Lake on a bi-level pontoon or circling Lake Travis on a party barge, these buoyed performances provide four hours of paradise during blistering Lone Star summers.
Bill Callahan skipped subtle poetry over the lower Colorado on a pleasure cruise in 2013, optimal setting for the baritone bard after that year's masterful LP Dream River. Halfway through navigating the new album for 90 hushed fans, sun setting over the skyline as the vessel undercut the First Street bridge, the Smog legend turned Austin song incubator paused as another boat concert throwing off flamenco sparks passed by.
"Oh, I thought this was going to be special," he deadpanned.
In point of fact, it proved downright magical.
"I'd been reaching out to Bill through [bandmate] Jaime Zuverza to do a show with him and he never really responded," recalls Jason McNeely, who promoted the trip. "Then, finally, he said, 'I'll do a show if I can do it on the river.' A lot of bands actually reach out to me about playing boat shows because it's such a good time."
Co-owner of both Hotel Vegas and Barracuda, McNeely's played skipper to Downtown water concerts in recent years. He typically hosts a three-a-day volley, Thursday through Saturday during South by Southwest, and promotes other trips spontaneously throughout the year. Almost all sell out. Citing California psych-surf tribe Thee Oh Sees and Houston rapper Fat Tony as his favorite onboard performances, the boat bookings include a host of locals such as Sweet Spirit and Annabelle Chairlegs.
McNeely got hip to the concept through Jonathon Galyon, the former local who operates online retro-thread mother lode American Icon Vintage. Galyon had worked for Capital Cruises, where he witnessed bands playing aboard wedding celebrations, and applied the notion to rock & roll. One of his early bookings offered the synchronously named Riverboat Gamblers, but one late-night excursion paired Oakland's Meat Market and Austin's American Sharks.
"Meat Market was first, and after they started playing the singer runs off to the side of the boat," remembers Galyon. "We're all thinking, 'What is he doing?' Then someone shines a light on him and he's taking a piss off the side with a big grin. That was the beginning of a raucous party."
The vintage fashion mogul lets out a laugh in his thick Southern drawl.
"It was late on Saturday, the culmination of a long South by Southwest, and when the American Sharks covered 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' everyone started moshing. I thought the boat was going to tip over."
Galyon attributes the popularity of boat shows to Austin music hardcores celebrating nontraditional stagings.
"You're used to hearing a band in a rock club and it's dark," he says. "Then when you see a band on a boat, the sound becomes much brighter, in part, because you're looking across the skyline. People dress in kitschy Hawaiian shirts whether they're punk rockers, heavy metal people, or whatever. Out in the sunshine with a cold beer in their hand, everyone has a smile on their face, so it's kind of the epitome of what you think an Austin party should be like."
Northwest of Austin on Lake Travis, docking from the village of Volente, the party barge concert scene has a longer and equally vibrant history. Considerably wetter than Town Lake's booze cruises, they dock at nearby Starnes Island and make time for swimming, along with cannonballing and sliding off the top deck. Beach Front Boat Rentals owner Rhett Scudder rents the lake's two largest party barges – the Ark and Large Marge Party Barge – and says the number of bands and DJs renting his vessels has increased steadily over the last eight years. Show highlights are many.
Austin breakouts White Denim headlined a Summer Extrav-O-Ganza barge bash in 2008, garage rockers Simple Circuit played one in 2010, and exquisite noise gang When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth sailed out in 2011. That year Emo's held its Summer Boat Party series featuring acts like Krum Bums, Zlam Dunk, and Riverboat Gamblers, whose fearless frontman Mike Wiebe jumped into the lake's dark waters as the ultimate show walk-off. Scene mainstays Golden Boys and Hex Dispensers played offshore around that same time. In 2012, American Sharks drummer Nick Cornetti began hosting boat parties for acts on his local Pau Wau label.
One Pau Wau party, a 2015 American Sharks summer tour kickoff with Borzoi and Hundred Visions, remains particularly legendary for its speed-sludge headliners performing late as the barge sailed back to shore and a Travis County Sheriff boat pulled up alongside so one officer could jump aboard. As the cop watched the trio play, he signaled devil horns back to his colleagues, then jumped back on the patrol boat. Noticing the officers hovering broadside, Cornetti signaled down to them, "One more song?"
The officers gestured back: "Two more!"
While Scudder says the barge owners on Lake Travis have collectively outlawed renters from selling tickets to their boat parties on the open market – lamenting the drama and club atmosphere that comes with 140 drunk strangers getting together – he says he loves amphibian Austin sounds.
"I love bands," he exclaims. "We're the live music capital of the United States, man! It's all about live music. I prefer to have more live music and less DJs, but I always tell people we're 420-friendly. I never had a problem with stoned people listening to live music. It's the drunk people that want to argue."
Recipe for a Boat Party
• Reserve a party barge. The 140-capacity Ark costs $1,510 (www.beachfrontboats.com).
• Get a beer company to donate product for the show.
• Bring food. Some of the boats have grills.
• Find 140 friends on social media and get everyone to throw down $11-15.
• Bring a PA. You can rent one from Rock n Roll Rentals.
• Assemble a stellar lineup of bands – two minimum, four max.
• Party. Sing along. Swim. Make out with someone. And remember to wear sunscreen.