Many will recognize Austin as the state capital of Texas. But to many, it holds an even more distinguished title: “Live Music Capital of the World!”
Although the statehouse displays portraits of Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush, the many stages of this upbeat, energetic college town are where the real hero-worshipping takes place.
Austin has gained the reputation as a welcome mat for some of the most creative and innovative musical acts in the country and, indeed, around the world. As a result, the locals have developed a sophisticated palate for music, demanding excellence in a nice way.
The reason is simple: The acts that are coming along now have tough acts to follow.
The list below purportedly is “The Top 10 Most Popular Venues to See Live Music in Austin.” However, a caveat: This is a sampler for the traveler diving into Austin for the first time. There are loads of top-notch places to see great live music in Austin, and while the quality of the bookings all around town is uniformly high, certain venues might fluctuate a bit from season to season. Only the most fanatical music freaks residing in Austin can tell if Venue A has “gone downhill lately” or if Venue B “is really cranking the past few weeks.”
The following 10 provide a nice cross-section of popular places designed to satisfy a variety of tastes:
213 W. 5th St.
One of the top blues venues in the U.S., Antone’s is a reliable host for some of the top regional and national acts. It has two long bars with no stools and a large area where folding chairs are brought in for patrons to sit on, and a modest cover charge. And it has a few cocktail tables with stools. But you don’t go to Antone’s to sit still. Some of the premier blues greats have graced the large and accessible stage over the years, including Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Pinetop Perkins. But while it specializes in blues, Antone’s also has expanded its sphere to include other musical genres as well. Founded by Clifford Antone in the 1970s, it has helped launch the careers of Stevie Ray Vaughn and the Fabulous Thunderbirds and remains one of Austin’s most important music landmarks.
603 Red River Street
If various forms of indie rock ring your chimes, then check out Emo’s, regularly one of the most vibrant clubs in town for “alternative lounging.” It has two stages and a patio area where you can kick back and choose from a bevy of beers, but be prepared for a gritty street scene with lots of tattoos, piercings and wall-to-wall bodies. It can get crowded, but it’s also loads of fun. The music is no-frills, peel-the-paint rock, much of it (but not exclusively) of the punk variety involving both local and touring alternative bands. It attracts a younger, edgier crowd, since it is just a short walk from the beehive of activity that is Sixth Street. If this is your scene, Emo’s won’t let you down.
THE CONTINENTAL CLUB
1315 South Congress Avenue
This is an intimate and friendly joint along a funky stretch of South Congress, just over the bridge and outside of downtown. It started as a burlesque club, but new owners took over in the ‘70s and began booking acts like Stevie Ray Vaughn (a statue of the late great guitar maestro is not far away from here along the river), Kinky Friedman and the Butthole Surfers. Then more new owners moved in and “retro” fitted the place. Now the retro theme prevails in the décor and in the acts. Such local legends as the Blues Specialists, the Mother Truckers and Redd Volkaert will keep you pleasantly immersed in their brand of blues-rock while you sip happy hour drinks. Usually you can catch an early show and skip the cover, which kicks in at 9 p.m. when they kick you out if you haven’t paid. But it’s worth the dough for a real taste of Austin flavor.
THE ELEPHANT ROOM
315 Congress Avenue
The jazz snob, the jazz neophyte and the occasional jazz enthusiast will all be comfortable in the cool basement that is the Elephant Room. But regardless of your level of knowledge and expertise in the area, this is most assuredly serious jazz. It’s the kind of place you’d see in a ‘50s film involving a jazz hangout in which everybody wears sunglasses — sophisticated, yet comfortable and unpretentious. Most of the acts are relatively local, but they book an occasional touring attraction as well. The Elephant Room is below street level, of course — most basement spaces are these days — so it’s possible to walk past two or three times before finding it. There is a full bar, beer on tap, and a small cover on weekends. There is also smoke, as Austin works out its revised smoking ordinance.
LA ZONA ROSA
612 W. Fourth Street
Located in the Warehouse District a few blocks from the core of downtown Austin, this relatively simple club books an eclectic array of both up-and-coming acts as well as nationally known headliners like Willie Nelson, Slayer, Los Lobos, Blues Traveler, Johnny Winter and Neko Case. There is a club side and a larger stage. People storm the big stage to get to the front, there is no seating and it can get rather crowded. Capacity is around 1,200, and for the hotter attractions you can count on all of them showing up. But La Zona Rosa’s reputation is in its booking. It regularly boasts one top show after another. While the comfort level is dicey, who needs comfort when you’re busy moving to the music?
801 Red River Street
Christopher Stubblefield opened a barbecue joint in Lubbock upon his return from military duty in 1968. Eventually it expanded to include live music, with names such as John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Robert Cray, Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash. Stubb’s has been at its current Austin location since 1996 and it continues to serve up tasty ribs and brisket while music blares in the small club and in the separate outdoor amphitheater/beer garden, for which tickets are sold in advance. Stubb’s music venue has mostly a rock and roll flavor with country western seasonings. Some of the more notable acts that grace the stage there include Dwight Yoakam, Social Distortion, Joan Jett and Nine Inch Nails. The Sunday Gospel Brunch is especially spirited. But parking is a challenge.
23rd and Guadalupe
This friendly space on the University of Texas campus in the Texas Union building has been a lively hangout for music fans who like a non-smoking climate and acoustic guitar since 1979. Folk, folk-rock, bluegrass and related softer genres are the ticket here. Some of the famous names that have graced the stage include Lyle Lovett, Ani DeFranco, the Dixie Chicks and Suzanne Vega. It’s a tiny room, but that’s one of the charms. There is often a small cover. Billboard Magazine has ranked it among the best clubs of its class in the U.S.
THE BROKEN SPOKE
3201 South Lamar Street
What would a visit to the Texas state capital be without moseying to a bona fide honky tonk? The Spoke bills itself as “the last of the true Texas dance halls.” The order of the day is hardcore country-western. While gorging yourself on chicken fried steaks and washing it down with longnecks, you can listen to some of the best local and touring acts country has to offer, including occasional appearances by Willie Nelson. It’s a pleasant, upbeat, friendly environment, and the folks have a good sense of humor: there’s even a “Tourist Trap” memorabilia area. The dance floor and the stage are almost indistinguishable, so there’s a real connection to the musicians. Yee ha!
FLIPNOTICS COFFEESPACE CAFÉ
1601 Barton Springs Road
This is indeed a coffee house (lattes’, pastries, etc). But it’s also a clothing store (“hippest threads in Austin”). And it’s also a live music venue. Nestled by a hillside inside a retro split-level dwelling in the south-central part of town, the music is as diverse as the kitschy clientele and the menu. Most of the acts are local and unplugged although they do get touring artists, and the staff is friendly and attentive. There’s even WiFi available. Live music takes place five nights a week, and most of the time it’s free. Neighbors shut down the outdoor music on the porch, but it’s still one of the coolest and most accessible places in town.
1320 South Lamar
Obviously sound is important when listening to live music. And the Saxon Pub has one of the best sound setups in the city. This is a more casual place where the music and beer takes precedence over “the scene.” Some of the luminaries who have visited the Saxon to relax and let their hair down include Bonnie Raitt, Kinky Friedman and Kris Kristofferson. You can find the Saxon Pub by the statue of Rusty the knight, built from old tin cans and such. It started out in 1990 as a place where an artist with an acoustic guitar, a stack of original songs and a dream could try out his or her stuff. Since then, the roster has expanded to include rock, country, folk and pop. There is a small cover, but happy hour shows are free.