|Sometimes it seems that all roads lead to Austin. Once a sleepy college town and provincial capital, Austin is now the 17th-largest city in the country and a major center for high-tech innovation, and it hosts 19 million visitors a year. A good number of them are music fans making a pilgrimage to the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World." Aaron Reed takes a break from the open road to lead an insider's tour of clubs, restaurants and off-beat attractions in his hometown city.|
As a road-trip destination, Austin, Texas, needs no publicity agent, just the siren call of sound spilling onto the city's streets and sidewalks. Here in the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World" (the city has actually trademarked the name), music sets the tone of the town: vibrant, low-key and honest. It started back in the Cosmic Cowboy days - more than three decades ago -- when Willie and Waylon and Jerry Jeff and a score of others were redefining roots music down at the Armadillo World Headquarters and a handful of other venues. It continues today with marquee festivals that have gained an international following and bring hundreds of thousands of road-trippers to central Texas each year.
For three days in the middle of September, some 65,000 visitors each day troop down to Austin's Zilker Park for the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival. In 2007, the event featured more than 130 bands on eight stages. Earlier, in March, the legendary South by Southwest (SXSW) festivals brought about 1,400 performers to town over four days. Now in its 20th year, SXSW attracts music and film industry types and audiophiles from around the world.
The festivals are a great way for music junkies to catch top national names and local talent in one place, for one price. For those of us who live in Austin, they bring snarled downtown traffic, crowded restaurants and watering holes, and a desperate desire to hit the open road. But Austin, much like the rest of the Lone Star State, is a wide-open and friendly sort of place. During the other 51 weeks of the year -- when the crowds and concert promoters are on hiatus -- the city's workaday heart and soul continue to beat strong.
What follows is my idea of how to experience Austin the way the locals do.
My favorite music
There's no need to wait for a festival. Austin has plenty of live music every night of the year. Some wag once said that on any given evening, more than 100 live music acts are onstage in the River City. I think that estimate is probably high, but it's certainly true that you'll find plenty of good music no matter when you roll into town.
"Residency shows" -- standing gigs by established local artists -- are some of the best musical values in town. Not only are the shows easy on the wallet, the musicians are playing to small crowds of loyalists in places where they really feel at home. These are the venues where artists stretch their chops and try out the songs that might appear on their next album.
Residency shows are bread-and-butter gigs, and the schedules will change when the artists are on the road. Be sure to call ahead to check each club's evening offerings.
Here are my picks:
Sundays at 7 p.m., head down to The Saxon Pub on South Lamar Boulevard for a freewheeling show by Austin's own supergroup The Resentments. Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Bruce Hughes, Stephen Bruton, Jon Dee Graham and John Chipman (on drums), swap songs and instruments and microphones in a laid-back set that demonstrates why each of these veteran performers boasts his own successful solo career. This show is, above all, fun, and the venue is one of the best listening rooms in the state.
Immediately after that show, head north across the river to Momo's at 618 W. Sixth St. The lounge, which has an expansive rooftop deck, features fiddle virtuoso Warren Hood (and his Hoodlums) from 9:30 p.m. to midnight. The cover is just $5 at the door.
Monday evening, hop back over to The Saxon Pub for an $8, 8:30 p.m. show by Bob Schneider & Lonelyland. Schneider has gained a national audience with his often irreverent songs, and roadshow tickets often sell for $20 or more. In addition to being a fine songwriter and musician, Schneider also is one heck of a businessman. All of his shows -- including his standing date at The Saxon Pub -- offer the opportunity to purchase a high-quality CD recording of the show while the band is still clearing the stage.
Wednesdays deliver my favorite double bill in Austin: Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry back-to-back at The Continental Club at 1315 S. Congress Ave. Graham goes on stage with his band at 10:30 p.m., and McMurtry takes the stage at midnight. See both for one $7 cover. Though both these artists have a place in the Texas singer-songwriter tradition, they have very different styles. Graham wields his electric guitar like it's part of his body, and his songs often have a sharp edge -- both musically and lyrically. McMurtry (yes, he is novelist Larry's son) has a more traditional acoustic sound and has, in recent years, written some thought-provoking and sometimes biting social commentary. Both are a ton of fun to hear.
My favorite restaurants
You're going to have to eat, of course. Lucky you! It's an odd fact that Austin has better Mexican food than San Antonio or Laredo or El Paso. Of course, that's just my opinion, but I'll defend it with my last tortilla.
Sunday evening, before heading to The Saxon Pub, drive waaaaaay down south to Evita's Botanitas at 6400 S. First St. This hole-in-the-wall restaurant is my favorite (interior-Mex versus Tex-Mex) anywhere, and it serves a veritable salsa buffet to every table. Try the chicken mole.
Another Sunday option, either before or after Warren Hood's show, is to stop in at Katz's, the New York-style kosher deli downstairs from Momo's. It's open 24/7, and the pickles are always crisp. My favorite here is the Reuben sandwich: piles of juicy corned beef and sauerkraut on crispy rye.
Monday night, give Curra's Grill at 614 E. Oltorf St. a shot. Everything is good here, but be sure to try the avocado margarita. It's a creamy-delicious wonder.
Wednesday night's late shows at The Continental Club offer a perfect excuse to hop across the street to Guero's Taco Bar at 1412 S. Congress Ave. The charming, late-19th century building is home to world-class margaritas. The tacos are pretty darned good, too, and the fresh salsa is self-serve.
As you wend your way through South Austin (Oltorf is a good cross street, connecting South First, South Congress, and South Lamar), keep an eye out for Leslie Cochran, the "cross-dressing homeless queen of Austin." You'll know him when you see her.
But what about Tuesday?
Sure, there's live music on Tuesdays. But with all the late nights this week, Tuesday might be a good day to relax at the pool at Barton Springs in Austin's downtown Zilker Park . The spring-fed swimming pool maintains a steady temperature of 68 degrees year-round and is home to the endangered Barton Springs salamander. The pool is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. with lifeguards on duty from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., except on Thursdays, when the pool is closed for cleaning. Entry is free until March, then $3 for adults.
Austin's museum scene is burgeoning, and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum tells the bigger-than-life story of the Lone Star State in grand (some might say grandiose) fashion. Nearby, at 2400 Trinity St., on the campus of the University of Texas, the Texas Natural Science Center offers four floors of exhibits from the university's world-renowned collections. Free to the public, the center is open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. Be sure to check out the "Paleo Lab" on the bottom floor, where visitors are encouraged to watch the preparation and preservation of fossil specimens and ask questions of the paleontologists working there.
Another fine option for any day of the week is a road trip through the Texas Hill Country. Tuesday evening, watch the sun set from atop Mount Bonnell at 3800 Mount Bonnell Road, then head back down the winding road to the Dry Creek Café at 4812 Mount Bonnell Road for a cold beer. The Dry Creek -- set in one of Austin's toniest neighborhoods -- has been called "the dive to end all dives." Sarah, the proprietress, is now enjoying a well-earned retirement (she served icy-cold longnecks here well into her 90s), and her son has spruced the place up a bit. But the jukebox is still scratchy and full of treasures, the tables are still rickety, and it's still a good idea to carry your empties back to the bar.
These are the good old days
Bandied about so often that, frankly, it has become tiresome, is this phrase: "Austin has really changed. You should have been here in [insert whatever year the speaker first landed in the River City]."
And it's true, the city has changed - it's changed noticeably in just the dozen years I've called it home. The city once was a sleepy college town and provincial capital; it's now a center for technological innovation and has grown to be the 17th-largest city in the nation. It's also true that it's harder to be a slacker here now. But if you know where to look, there's still plenty of the "old Austin" - the funkified, raw, hippie, unpretentious and just-plain-weird Austin - to be found.
So, get out there and experience it, and someday you, too, can say: "Yeah, but you should have been in Austin in ."