That’s what it says on The Bluebonnets T-shirt. They do.
I absorbed the all-female blues rock band’s full sonic force while at the front of the red Continental Club stage, a former la-dee-da supper venue that has slid from its 1950s heydays into a gloriously down-at-the-broken-heels, beloved music destination on South Congress Ave. in Austin.
“Come closer,” said bass player Dominique Davalos, urging a group of google-eyed guys, a few wearing embroidered cowboy shirts, to inch against the stage, enough to see the bright buckles on guitarist Eve Monsees’s black, ankle-high boots. “We play better if you come closer.”
As the band launched into a song about Beatle boots, the bone-shaking music permitted no conversations. A dark-haired waitress in snug jeans and halter top jumped onstage and started dancing, commenting on the wild night with her body.
Austin bills itself as the Live Musical Capital of the World, a bold claim. I came to the central Texas city to check if the reality matches the hype.
During a two-night club crawl — part of it while we crammed into one of the city’s busy pedicabs, driven by a heroic pilot with freakishly muscled legs — we explored parts of Austin’s 11 entertainment districts, crossing genres that included blues, soul, rock, psych, R & B, hip hop and more.
Blindfold yourself and throw a stick, you’re likely to hit a musician in Austin. With more than 250 live music venues, upwards of 2,000 performing artists and a wealth of recording studios, this is a music lover’s paradise, a gone-to-heaven city of ceaseless sounds.
“Part of Austin’s secret sauce is our easily walkable districts, where you find all types of music venues,” said Omar Lozano, Austin’s music industry marketing manager. “Everything you could want to hear is within a concentrated mile or less. You’re sharing the passion for live music with hundreds of thousands of other people at any given time.”
Within a half-hour on bustling Rainey St., we saw a killer 10-piece pop band with itchy dance grooves named Love & Tenderness at Icenhauer’s, then popped across the street to The Blackheart (cited by Men’s Journal as one of the best bourbon bars in America) to hear The Sideshow Tragedy with its buzz saw guitar.
The historic Rainey St. district is studded with converted bungalows that have become restaurants and bars, so when jostling along the sidewalk at night, it seems every other club on either side is a house party.
We saw reggae giants The Wailers at The Mohawk on Red River St. as Jamaican flags were raised along the bar and roof deck, took in blues guitar rising star Jackie Venson at Geraldine’s, the elegantly appointed and free admission club at the new, contemporary Hotel Van Zandt, and ventured into the East End for some Latin hip-hop at The Eastern.
And we were just getting started.
Venson’s father Andrew was a full-time musician in Austin, paving the way for her and other musicians to gig enough in the city that they can earn a living. The classically trained pianist, who is recognized as a vanguard guitarist by Guitar Player Magazine and Guitar World, said part of what makes Austin special is that it looks after its own.
“I travel a lot into every major city in America and there is no city like this for musicians,” she said before her regular gig at Geraldine’s, which is outfitted with a formidable sound and lighting system that makes it easy for her and others to set up, plug in and play. “Where else are you going to go to grocery stores and restaurants and an airport that regularly feature live music? Nowhere else that I know.”
Austin was once part of the chitlin’ circuit, venues where African American performers could play safely during an era of segregation. The Victory Grill on 11 St. opened in 1945 and it’s still running as a historic premier blues club in the city’s East End. This is the city that spawned Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was featured in a major exhibit until late July at the downtown Bullock Texas State History Museum.
In the early ’70s, Willie Nelson helped to galvanize the local scene, begetting a musical galaxy of cosmic cowboys, and he was the first to play Austin City Limits, the longest running live music television series in America.
Today, the city’s influx of high-tech money (major companies here include Apple, Google, Facebook, Dell and Amazon), the enthusiasm for outdoors living as the kayak-friendly Texas Colorado River meanders through it, the many bike lanes and diverse restaurants (try slurping fresh oysters on the patio at Perla’s on South Congress) and its booming economy power Austin’s draw as a live music magnet.
Austin’s festivals are legion, led by South by Southwest in March (SXSW, known locally as “South By”) and featuring smaller but potent gatherings such as the Lozano-recommended Sound On Sound in November.
Where else than Austin, which proclaims “Keep Austin Weird” on one of the giant guitars that greet visitors at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport baggage carousels, would I run into the sidewalk poet Slum Pickens?
He was sitting patiently in laced brown boots beside his weathered old-school typewriter set up along South Congress, offering “Pick a topic, get a poem” for a donation of my choice. Another Austin talent, waiting for a break.
Looking to catch a hot, up and coming act? Lozano suggests seeing The Peterson Brothers, a blues, soul and funk band heralded by Gary Clark Jr., who’ve had a weekly gig at The Continental.
So, does the reality match the hype when considering Austin’s siren call as Live Music Capital of the World? It does, though you’ll need your own musical odyssey over a few nights to see, hear and taste the city. You’ll know it’s a good night when the back of your right hand is loaded and smudged with too many venue ink stamps to count.
When you go:
Get There: Air Canada, United Airlines and American Airlines are among the carriers with flights from Toronto to Austin. Some flights require a transit point, though Air Canada can get you there on a direct flight in less than four hours.
Eat: Perla’s on South Congress Ave. in Austin has one of the best known and enjoyed patios in the city, along with a wide range of seafood, though you can eat indoors if you wish. Trying the large variety of oysters is a must. You can’t go wrong with the Grilled Octopus ($18 U.S.). A gathering of food trucks in a parking lot just off Rainey Street near the Van Zandt Hotel gets crowded at night but the food’s excellent for less than $10 U.S. Try the rice box at Rice Girl Asian Food or any of the chicken dishes at Ms. P’s Electric Cock Fried Chicken.
Stay: I stayed at the new and modern Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt in the Rainey St. district. It’s where the action is for music. One of the best places to take a selfie is in the hotel lobby, in front of a cool art installation of old vinyl records shaped like birds. I loved staying here. The pool and surrounding deck are always thrumming with people.
Do your research: traveltexas.com, austintexas.org/visit