In Review

Lost in Austin: 48 hours in a city that lives and breathes music

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By now we’re used to that part of the American disposition that loves giving its own trumpet a good old blow. Few, if any, countries show such hubris, and the ones that do, or have reason to, are never quite as bumptious. Which is why when I heard Austin fancied itself as ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’, I didn’t pay much heed. No doubt just more Yankee bombast. In the hallway at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, an official-looking sign read ‘Keep Austin Weird’. A moment earlier I’d spotted a pistol-shaped fridge magnet in the airport gift shop with ‘Texas: We don’t call 911’, etched on the barrel. And so I was struggling to align these various notions. Yet people speak very highly of Austin – a liberal island in the Texan sea of stupidity, enormously multicultural, with a tech hub hot on the heels of Silicon Valley – just not usually on account of its music (…maybe South by Southwest comes up now and again).

They should. Austin is a city that lives and breathes music. It might not have the rich history of some of the world’s more renowned music destinations – Havana, Berlin, Ibiza, New Orleans, etc. – but for what it lacks in heritage it makes up for in sheer enthusiasm and output. Bands, singers, orchestras, choirs, and DJs perform in bars and clubs on every corner from Downtown to Congress, East Cesar Chavez to South Lamar. There are over 250 live music venues to choose from, punctuated at every opportunity by grubby Stetson-wearing buskers on trumpets, guitars and spoons, usually playing with Proms-level virtuosity.

Nowhere is the concentration of live music higher than the infamous ‘Dirty’ 6th Street. Had I not been staying so close I might have bypassed it, but forgive me for not resisting temptation. Heironymous Bosch couldn’t have done it justice. It’s everything that’s terrible about nightlife but also everything that’s great. Yes, the street is that sticky from spilt booze it feels like the soles of your shoes might come off, and everyone is plastered, but duck inside The Parish and there’s every chance you might get an impromptu performance from Slash or Lee Fields. Further down the street at Maggie Mae’s it could just as easily be local swampfunk legend Shinyribs. Even further down on East 6th Street, things do get slightly more civilised. Hotel Vegas and its sister bar The Volstead Lounge – two predominantly Latino punk venues – showcase the best of Austin’s alternative music scene. Expect moshing, twerking, cabaret and everything in between, often over the course of a single weekday evening. Inside, sweat drips from the ceiling, but step out the back and you’ll find an expansive outdoor area with additional stages and food trucks. 

Perhaps a better bet would be to hop on a dockless electric scooter – as is customary in Austin – and leave the one dollar shots and mechanical bulls of 6th to those still in the throes of a thirsty youth. For a more discerning musical experience, make a beeline for Honky Tonk jive bar The White Horse, a packed to the rafters spit and sawdust establishment that serves whisky on tap, and where people really come to dance. This is dancing with a fervour you’d never see on a British dance floor; a frantic Rockabilly version of the Lindy Hop that very often upstages the band. Which is no small feat. Dressed in bootlace ties, muttonchops and Elvis quiffs, and framed by a sleazy red spotlight that’s become iconic on the Austin music scene – a tightly curated roster of bands career through seamless sets of modern Bluegrass, Americana and Honky Tonk numbers. 

Next, to The Continental Club – ‘The Grandaddy of local music venues’ (that’s a nationwide claim), since 1955. Every evening, custom Hot Rods and vintage Cadillacs straddle the curb below the club’s neon signage, a guarantee that the premises is full of the city’s coolest cats. On a Sunday they’ll be there to see HeyBale, the house band that’s played every week for the last 18 years. HeyBale are local heroes, session musicians who’ve played with the likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and the patron saint of Austin, Willie Nelson. Mostly, they play nostalgic ditties for broken-hearted cowboys, but the hipsters – recognisable by those plaited pigtails á la Willie Nelson (everything in Austin seems to come back to Nelson) – are as involved as the older folks.

It’s worth noting here, you don’t need to wait for the sun to set for things to get lively in Austin. Stubb’s ‘Gospel Brunch’ – a joyous mix of hallelujahs and fried catfish – starts at 10.30am, while round the corner at Micheladas Cafe y Cantina, the ‘Drag Brunch’ – a more risqué/raucous affair – kicks off at 10. Both are incredible value for money.

What makes Austin stand out for me is the sheer variety of live music on offer. That, and the appreciation of lesser-known styles as being equal to pop music, and worthy of showcasing in some of the city’s most established venues. This is largely down to the multitude of cultures that inhabit Austin. Mexicans make up for 35% of the population, and by the middle of the next decade, the number of Asians in Austin is expected to exceed the number of African Americans. The city is no longer a majority-minority city. No ethnic or demographic group exists as a majority of the city’s population. And this level of acceptance sings throughout the music scene.

Mohwak is the best live music venue I’ve ever seen, bar none. Its outdoor stage (there’s also another indoors) is a picture of summer, a contemporary amphitheatre, the sort most cities are missing. On the Sunday evening that we visited, it was a full house (this despite a fairly lacklustre tribute to the late Tejano star, Selena), the dance floor, wings, balconies, and roof terrace were crammed with live music fans, young and old, Hispanic, Caucasian and black – all dancing. Because that’s what Austinites do; they dance, and they dance properly, in the style of the music, in learned routines, in couples. And they do it as soon as they’re old enough (see Mohawk’s Rock n Roll Playhouse; a family concert series, with events such as ‘The Music of Grateful Dead for Kids’) and long after they’ve retired. 

Has it always been this way? I doubt it. This is surely the sign of a city that’s prospering, a city in rude health, a city that for the last three years has been considered the best place to live in the United States (according to US News and World Report). It seems there’s a lot to make a song and dance about. Perhaps Austin is the live music capital of the world after all.

For more information please visit visittheusa.co.uk/music and www.austintexas.org 

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