AUSTIN, Texas — After my plane landed, I went online to see what was going on in Austin: Was there any music that night that I had to check out?
Asking if there was any music that night in Austin is kind of like asking if people need air to live. The listings were so extensive that after I'd hit "next page" for about the 12th time, I checked to see if it was listing all live shows for the month. No, I'd just gotten what was going on that Saturday. There were shows at noon and at 3 p.m. There were shows at 7 for one band, followed by shows at 10 or 11 for a different band at the same venue. There were shows not only in clubs, but in parks, in shops, in atriums, in restaurants.
I narrowed my choice to Stubb's Bar-B-Q, one of the historic music spots I had on my list of must-sees. Stubb's is on Red River Street, one of several streets in Austin where clubs are shoulder to shoulder for blocks and blocks, spilling forth music from punk-toneless to reggae to speed-country and blues.
Stubb's is suitably venerable-looking from the outside, with an old-font lit-up sign, ramshackle wood fencing and a wrought-iron gate with an "S" branded into the center. Inside was an amphitheater, complete with band shell stage, lawn and even some twisted old trees lit in soft blue lighting. Around the perimeter were stalls selling Lone Star beers and Deep Eddy vodka (made in Austin), T-shirts and CDs and junk food.
The crowd was remarkable for its total focus on the band, and the Austinites seemed to be as friendly as I'd been told: Twice, people next to me had turned and, seeing me smiling and moving with the music just like they were, had thrown an arm around my shoulders and squeezed. Good night in Austin. Good vibes about this trip.
On Red River Street that night, I heard music spilling out of numerous clubs, including some raucous and definitely off-key singing from Club DeVille (as one longtime Austinite explained to me: There's a stage in town that will let you play — whether you're good or terrible).
I spent a wonderful night at the Broken Spoke, a 47-year-old honky tonk, complete with a dirt-and-gravel parking lot filled with pickup trucks, where you can eat some down-home Tex-Mex in the bar while watching folks shoot some pool, and then head on into the dance hall. There are free dance lessons most every night, followed by live music, which inspires everyone from little shavers to grandpas to get moving and kick up their heels on the great big dance floor.
Another hot spot is Threadgill's. Threadgill's South, actually. (Yeah, it's hard to find just one of anything anymore.) Threadgill's was begun by a now-famous bootlegger and country music fan, Kenneth Threadgill, who opened a Gulf gas station in 1933 — he also bought himself the first beer license in the county so passers-through could get some fuel for themselves as well as their vehicles. Threadgill's became a favorite among musicians after their gigs, before they headed back on the road. Soon musicians and their fans were hanging out at the place for Wednesday night singing sessions. At the time, Threadgill's drew both hippies and rednecks and became a model of tolerance, its atmosphere affecting the city and the music. The famous and the soon-to-be famous both showed up here — notable among them was Janis Joplin, who came from her hometown of Port Arthur to sing here often.
Threadgill's was bought up in the late '70s by Eddie Wilson, owner of another popular Austin music hall, the Armadillo World Headquarters. In 1996, he opened Threadgill's World Headquarters in south Austin, right beside the old Armadillo HQ. The original location on North Lamar has the theme of Austin between the 1930s and the 1960s. The South emphasizes the history of the Armadillo in its heyday.
One night a trio of veteran musicians was playing on the small stage in Threadgill's back room, a nice space with tables and booths for getting some of that Southern cooking (the vegetarian quesadilla was muy bueno). The audience here was, well, my age (gray hair wasn't unusual); the duds were aging-hippie to who-the-heck-cares, and half of the men sported ZZ-Top-style facial hair. Between sets, I checked out some of the memorabilia, which included photos of a young and adorable Stevie Ray Vaughan and, on the hall leading to the bathroom, Bruce Springsteen (also looking really young) and Frank Zappa (looking typically petulant). A piano hanging from the ceiling had had its ivories pounded by everyone from "The Killer" (Jerry Lee Lewis) to Captain Beefheart.
The crowning music experience of my stay was a live taping of an "Austin City Limits" show. A couple of guys began the show in 1975 at the local PBS affiliate as a showcase of Austin's diverse mix of country, blues, folk and psychedelia. The first episode starred Willie Nelson — something of a poster boy himself for Austin. Since then it has helped spread the buzz about the city; people say it's one reason why Austin is today known as the "Live Music Capital of the World." ACL has been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which also designated its original venue on the University of Texas campus a Rock Landmark.
ACL added a chapter to its history last year when it moved to its new, purpose-built venue, the Moody Theater, part of a new development in the downtown area. Though the outside is nondescript (it's sort of embedded in a side of the black walls of the W Hotel) the inside is full of character. I was reminded immediately of Fenway Park, because the "lobby" is open on one side, providing views of the street and beyond; it featured two bars selling food and drinks, and numerous places to sit and socialize while multi-screen slide shows were flashed across the walls.
The auditorium itself is a masterpiece of design and acoustics. There's seating for 2,700 people, though the audience is limited to 800 on taping days (regular concerts can use the full theater capacity). Even that limited 800 is way better than the 350 or so at the old place. And despite being bigger, the theater is designed so no seat is more than 75 feet from the stage.
The famous Austin city skyline that was the stage's backdrop since 1981 wasn't taken from the old theater, much to the chagrin of some fans. But ACL has put together a new, slicked-up one — with the very changed Austin skyline — to serve as a backdrop.