The Far Out Is Having a Moment
Scrappy South Austin venue is building a major presence in the city's live music ecosystem
By Chad Swiatecki, Fri., May 13, 2022
"It's got the vibe, and it's got the capacity. That's what matters."
In the world of praise for Austin music venues, there isn't much higher acclaim than the words of former Liberty Lunch co-owner Mark Pratz, who doesn't hold back in stating a strong connection between his long-gone, hallowed Downtown concert hall and the fast-emerging Far Out Lounge & Stage on South Congress Avenue in deep South Austin.
The link between "the Lunch" and Far Out was clear in early April when the operators and fans of Austin's definitive alt-era venue staged an epic I Still Miss Liberty Lunch Reunion concert in the Far Out's spacious acreage. With a lineup of 13 bands whose heydays dial back to the Eighties and Nineties, a marathon run of show, no de facto headliner, and it occurring on a particularly stacked weekend in Austin's spring concert calendar, the reunion being consistently busy was no sure thing. But close to 1,500 people passed through the gates, and the crowd – populated with the expected number of gray ponytails plus a respectable amount of Gen X-through-Z attendees – remained thick from noon to midnight, evidencing how well the food truck- and craft market-oriented facility works for an all-day hang.
"There's nothing like the music sort of pulsating in the open air as opposed to inside buildings. It's just different, and that place just has a mellow vibe to it," said Pratz, a longtime Austinite and former owner of Continental Club who now lives in Taylor.
"Looking at that [painted] face in front of their little stage, it just felt like it could handle the reunion. It just hit a couple of notes that were sort of reminiscent of old Liberty Lunch and the times when we'd be out there all day … going from early afternoon until midnight that struck a chord with me."
The vibe that captured Pratz's attention is no secret to a growing number of Austin music fans who are flocking to the Far Out and the outdoor shows held on its 3 acres most nights of the week. While its calendar pushes adjectives like "eclectic" and "adventurous" to their breaking points – raise your hand if you've ever seen an Allman Brothers tribute show and a hardcore punk matinee held within hours of each other, on a Sunday – the Far Out recently leveled up in a big way by hosting 2,500 concertgoers attending what was believed to be the second local show ever by punk vets Bikini Kill.
That booking, courtesy of local promoters Resound Presents, likely brought more than 1,000 first-timers to the venue for a concert that would normally slot in at Stubb's or ACL Live, and served as another example of what appears to be a cozy neighborhood bar building a significant presence in the city's live music ecosystem.
Lawrence Boone, the Far Out's talent booker who has promoted shows in Austin since 2006 at departed clubs such as Trophy's, Beerland, and the Downtown Emo's location, as well as ongoing venues such as Hotel Vegas and Scoot Inn, said the mission of the business is providing as many opportunities as possible for musicians and music professionals to work in front of sizable, paying crowds.
"The picture of success for us really means that the venue is working, our staff is getting paid, the bands are getting paid, and we're a part of this music community," he said. "We'll know five or 10 years from now whether we got the job done or not. That's kind of why Bikini Kill was great. But that was [one] night, and we have to move on to the next one and try to make more really cool nights like that happen again."
From Hand-to-Mouth to Headliners
The success of the May 7 show from the riot grrrl movement's flagship act was a direct two-year contrast for co-owner Pedro Carvalho, who had opened the Far Out with three business partners six months earlier before being quickly closed by the pandemic. A photograph that's become a favorite among the staff, taken on May 6, 2020, captured Carvalho alone after reopening the bar, waiting for a single courageous patron to maybe brave a public health crisis and have a drink at the tiny bar he and his partners had committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to open.
"I had no staff. There was nobody there. And I went and opened the bar by myself and watched some documentary on my computer because literally you couldn't go outside," he recalled. "I figured if somebody comes in we can talk 6 feet away from each other about how much this pandemic sucks or whatever. At one point it started raining and I'm just sitting there like, 'Dude, I am so fucked.'"
The business persisted, taking advantage of its outdoor space (including trying out several versions of a large, secondary stage) and becoming one of the first venues in Austin to start booking shows outdoors with ample social distancing in the fall of 2020. That approach, relying on Boone's years of accumulated contacts in the music scene, helped the Far Out to stand out at a time when the city was gradually opening back up and music fans were searching for safe concert options.
Gradually, the growth of the live music business necessitated the hiring of staff, such as venue manager Emily Miller, who have become fixtures capable of managing workloads like moving 91 bands on and off two outdoor stages over seven days of this year's South by Southwest Festival. Other notable bookings there include a successful relocation for the Chronicle's annual Hot Sauce Festival, Nolan Potter's Nightmare Band's popular summer residency (part of the psych-oriented curation of frequent Far Out presenters Mas Music Records), a massively attended tour stop by Nick Shoulders that counted as the Ozark oddball yodeler's biggest concert to date, and a recent Shinyribs performance that drew about 1,500 fans and served as the venue's largest show prior to the Bikini Kill performance.
"All of us are aligned in terms of what our goals are. We're all music fans and love what we do to try to preserve Austin and be a space where people can come to hang out and have a good time. I love that people say it feels like old Austin to them," Miller said.
All the good vibes and praise haven't come easily. After opening and before launching much of a live music calendar, Carvalho and his business partners visited every home in a half-mile radius from the Far Out, sharing their plans and contact information and inviting them to a sort of town hall at the bar to discuss concerns and make plans to prevent parking or other potential pain points that could come with operating an entertainment business near single-family homes.
"I personally knocked on every door along with the other two owners at the time," Carvalho said. "I gave them all my personal phone number. We told them we're a music venue and that our goal is not to perturb them or to be a bad neighbor. Our goal is to be a part of the neighborhood and to grow and to give a space where they can have neighborhood gatherings, have their social neighborhood things, do Easter parties and things like that."
That strategy appears to have worked. Relations with the surrounding residences are in a positive enough state that the venue successfully lobbied the city – without objection from neighbors – for the special event permit needed for the Bikini Kill show to take place. The day after that show, Carvalho said he'd received no noise complaint phone calls from neighbors, though he was still waiting to check the city's 311 system for any complaints.
While smaller shows will remain the primary business driver for the Far Out, he said the proof of concept achieved with the Bikini Kill show, which saw its music production staff team up with staff from Downtown club pillar Mohawk, could lead to roughly one max-capacity show there per month.
"If we keep production pretty tight and minimal for these smaller shows and we don't overspend and we get the band paid, it's not crazy to run a space like that. And then for these bigger shows, they just pay the bills that we actually need to get paid," he said.
"So if we have one or two of these bigger cracks a month, we get to pay our rent, and it helps offset some of the cost of these other bands that wouldn't generally bring us much money. So the balancing act is a really serious thing that we do, and it's how we monetize on these bigger, sold-out shows to be able to support more of the local scene and give back to these musicians and music workers that helped us get to where we're at now."
The venue's "open to all" approach helped to attract the attention of Patsy Bourassa, executive director of the SIMS Foundation, which has held multiple fundraiser events at Far Out with plans to return quarterly going forward, including a May 20 show with Primo the Alien, Max Frost, and Sir Woman.
Bourassa said the bond between her organization and the Far Out has grown so strong that SIMS helped pay for some of the cost of the venue's recently acquired large SL260 festival stage (going price about $200,000) that helped make shows like Bikini Kill possible.
"Talking to Pedro, it was clear that he and the other owners really want to be part of the community and involved in discussions about how to make things even better. It was inspiring to hear about their commitment on social justice issues and equity and inclusion within the music industry," she said. "We started having events out there occasionally and started to create a partnership with them that will push both of our agendas forward and let us help each other out. We continue to find new ways to work with them because everyone out there is just amazing."
Far Out's growth as a reliable incubator club and occasional home for 2,000-plus-cap shows serves a big need for the Austin concert market, said Graham Williams, co-owner of the independent promotion company Resound Presents that moved one of two Bikini Kill shows there after demand proved stronger than the capacity limits at Mohawk. Williams said he'd heard promising reports about the venue from other local promoters, but it took a visit to see the full acreage of the property to make him consider it as a possible location for concerts that won't fit on the calendars at other large facilities.
"It's a nice, big space. Stubb's is obviously locked down by Live Nation and ACL Live is a cool space but they have also been sold to a large company," he said. "Having more spaces like that to host large shows is really important, otherwise there will be this bottleneck where great shows will bypass Austin if the promoter can't get into one of the Live Nation rooms.
"Hosting large stuff occasionally opens up a lot of doors for Far Out, so they can be open all week for the smaller shows, and then use the whole property and think about how to do cool projections or art installations that adds the atmosphere that's important to the audience and the artists, too."
Resound had also booked a November concert by Mac DeMarco at Far Out as another sign of confidence in the venue, though that date was canceled when the indie songwriter opted to delay his fall concert tour.
Staff from Far Out and Resound planned to hold a post-Bikini Kill meeting as this issue went to press to discuss how the concert was executed and what areas of concern, if any, will be going forward. The night of that show, a Resound staffer told this reporter that relations with the surrounding neighborhood would be a major issue to monitor since complaints from neighbors over noise, parking, or other concert-night matters could make it difficult for the venue to secure special event permits from the city that allow it to operate well beyond its standing capacity of 500 customers.
Rob Fitzpatrick, a co-founder of the event series that has become Levitation Festival, also sees lots of potential in what the Far Out could mean for the live music industry in Central Texas. The September concert Fitzpatrick has booked there with Japanese psych act Kikagaku Moyo on their final tour looks to be nearly sold out of its 2,000 tickets, and he said he's got more events planned to take up dates on the 2023 calendar.
"What's exciting is [that] they're just getting to scale. Bikini Kill was their first national touring artist and, from a business perspective, the facility they are offering is fantastic. Lots of places have gotten expensive as the city has grown but when you go to Far Out it's not like that," Fitzpatrick said. "They do a great job of bringing the whole Austin community in there, whether it's cumbia, hip-hop, or indie rock, they've brought a scene in there for those smaller shows, but big things are going to start happening there pretty quickly."
Of course, the Far Out's expected growth would mirror what is happening all over Austin, with growth and development even encroaching all around the venue. A hotel is planned for the northeast corner diagonal to the Far Out property, with residential development expected farther north in the near future. And the Project Connect transit stop slated for Slaughter Lane near Southpark Meadows is certain to bring more neighbors and customers to their doorstep.
Boone and Carvalho aren't stressing over what's ahead. They plan on serving the growing community and customer base around them however they can, with Boone eyeing the hotel as a potential partner to steer touring bands there as guests.
It makes sense also that Boone's attention remains firmly on the event calendar he's earned attention and acclaim for managing. In fact, Carvalho and his business partners recently brought Boone in as a part owner of the Far Out as a show of respect for his role in making the business successful.
"Most of my professional life has been leading up to this," Boone said. "It means a lot that we built this place together and the other guys have enough trust and respect in what I do to bring me in as more than just a guy who books shows at their place. It's our place. It's been a long time coming for me professionally.
"This is exactly where I want to be and exactly what I want to be doing with the people I want to be doing it with. The rest is all cherries on top."