Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUTX
KUTX staffers recount their favorite shows at the great Austin venues we’ve come to know and love.
The shutdown was swift, merciless. The music just stopped. Live music was a huge part of all of our lives. Now it’s not. Our musicians and venues are really struggling to make ends meet, and more needs to be done right now to preserve all that makes Austin so extraordinary. (You’ll find links on how you can help included here). No one can say exactly when the music is coming back. In the meantime, we have our memories…
Aaron “Fresh” Knight
Ella Mai – Emo’s
If you would’ve told me that I would be spending the year in the house not attending live music shows in Austin, TX, I would’ve told you to shut up and get out my face. Nonetheless, here we are watching the Austin music scene dissipate before our very eyes. COVID-19 has hit the City of Austin harder than we ever could’ve imagined. The Live Music Capital of the World seems to be losing one live music venue after another. How will Austin move forward post-pandemic? With all that said, let’s give some praise to the venues we still have. One that stands out is Emo’s, which now resides on the forever redeveloping East Riverside Dr. The last show I attended there was Ella Mai back in 2018. I stood in a sold out crowd watching new R&B acts, Lucky Daye and Kiana Lede wow the crowd with live bands and smooth moves, warming it up for the arguable R&B Rookie of the Year, Ella Mai. The crowd was rapt as soon as Ella Mai hit the stage. That night Emo’s lived up to its reputation of being a tremendous music venue and one of the crown jewels in the Austin Music Scene. As one of the few venues that books Rap/HipHop and R&B acts on a consistent basis, from Maxo Kream, Big K.R.I.T, Playboi Carti, Roddy Ricch, and Tech N9ne, among others, Emo’s plays an essential role in the Austin music scene.
In December of 2019, with the Cactus Cafe still open and going strong, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott performed. While ushering him to the Green Room, he said in jest, “If you see the weed guy, tell him where I’m at,” with a twinkle in his eyes of someone much younger than his actual earth years. His show brought folks from every generation. It was heartwarming to see boomers and millennials sitting side by side. The following weekend was two sold-out nights with Patterson Hood, singer of the Drive-By Truckers. The room was packed. Unlike many nights in the Cactus where one could hear a pin drop, this was a buoyant crowd delighted by Hood’s music and jokes about growing up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I’ve heard so many performers say that the Cactus is like playing in someone’s living room, and that is the vibe you felt that night. For someone like Hood, who has played the big stages all across the country, you could tell he relished connecting with the audience in a way that few venues can offer. That is what I enjoy the most about the Cactus, how much the artists love playing the room. It’s a rite of passage, and for many more, a homecoming.
For over 40 years the Cactus Cafe has been the heart and soul of Austin’s singer-songwriter scene. Legendary songwriters Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Shawn Colvin, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett honed their skills at the Cactus early in their careers. Donate here.
Mike McCarthy Birthday Party – C-Boy’s
C-Boy’s Heart And Soul is the kind of unassuming, intimate space that allows its character and vibe to grow organically over time. Named for Austin blues impresario C-Boy Parks, the club opened in 2013 as the funkier sister to Steve Wertheimer’s Continental Club just up South Congress. Yet C-Boy’s has quickly felt like it’s always been here. It’s the sort of place you could spend an entire weekend at: taking in the kitschy, Valentine’s-Day-in-New-Orleans decor, listening to live blues and jazz spilling off the tiny stage, wandering upstairs to grab a drink in the Jade Room’s mid-century Japanese time-warp. It’s also been an important launching pad for national acts. A few years ago, a young Leon Bridges played a few shows there before rocketing to stardom. The same is true for Black Pumas, whose residency at C-Boy’s might be the smallest gig that band will ever play. The show I’ll always treasure there was a birthday celebration for Austin producer Mike McCarthy. The bands he’s helped foster the last few decades threw a raucous, crammed party. Spoon’s Britt Daniel teamed up with members of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead and A Giant Dog, slamming through an impromptu set that included a cover of the Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” and a punked-up “Paper Tiger.” I miss this kind of casual space where different generations of Austin music lovers can all congregate. C-Boy’s is a club that feels more like a home.
C-Boys has an online tip jar to raise funds for its employees. Donate here.
Man Man – Mohawk
The Mohawk has been the home of many of my favorite shows over the past decade or so: Superchunk in the freezing (for Austin) cold; The Breeders doing Pod and Last Splash on New Year’s Eve; Quiet Company doing an entire Weezer album; and so many more. But I’ll sing the praises of Man Man playing with Rebecca Black— yes, that Rebecca Black (“Friday”) — opening just last year.
Black played a surprising opening set — self-aware, funny, and with a bunch of her songs 10 times better than her hit — and then Man Man put on one of the best sets from them I’ve seen. It was my son’s first Man Man show, and getting to watch him experience the unending delights of their madness in that space was itself a thrill. The Mohawk is such a terrific venue — so many solid sight lines, great sound, and somehow the perfect-sized stage whether it’s a solo act or an eight-piece. And the staff is so good to every single person who comes in the door — all are welcome, indeed. Man Man (probably sans Rebecca Black) was supposed to be back this year — and I can’t wait until they do return.
As a former theater nerd and lover of all things “old”, I never mind sitting in those tiny bajillion year-old seats (ok, I exaggerate. Only like 100-year-old seats) to watch amazing performances from artists like Amiee Mann (where my bestie and I cried our eyes out from our balcony seats), Lucius (all other harmonies pale in comparison) and Rufus Wainwright (when KUTX was invited to film these performances). The Paramount is a treasure.
Paramount Theatre has a membership program where either a one-time donation or monthly donation will earn you year-round benefits. More information here.
Spoon – Antone’s
One of my favorite show experiences in recent memory was the secret Spoon show at Antone’s on January 17, 2017. It was a chilly night, so chilly in fact that our Assistant Program Director Jacquie Fuller lent me her warm puffy coat that she had brought to town when she moved back to Austin from Minneapolis. I was cozy in that coat, waiting in what I considered the “new” Antones, expecting a good show. What I didn’t expect was how great it would be to see Spoon in such a relatively small venue.
The band ripped through new songs from their record Hot Thoughts, which wouldn’t be released for a couple more months. I was 39 at the time, but that night I felt like I was 23, going to a small club watching an Austin band show off their new material. It was a reminder of the power of killer music in a killer venue — when everything hits at once, you get taken to a place outside of yourself, outside of time and space. It’s a feeling I understand because I live in a town where having that experience is the rule, rather than the exception — or at least it was before the pandemic. I hope we take care of our scene now so when we’re on the other side of this we can all gather in a small club and lose ourselves together.
Antone’s has a GoFundMe in support of the venue and its special family of artists. Donate here.
I remember playing shows with my band Sip Sip in the “food court” on East 6th & Waller when Old School BBQ still had their bus set up there, and just next door there was the former location for Cheer Up Charlie’s. I was never that enticed to enter until Cheer Up’s relocated to Red River and settled into the venue formerly known as Club DeVille. After that, I have a ton of great memories seeing friends play both inside (what I affectionately refer to as “the shoebox”) and out, with that iconic rock wall providing the backdrop for so many great shows. If I had to pick a favorite, it’d have to be Hikes playing the outdoor stage for a near sold out show. You could really feel the energy bouncing off the band onstage, into the crowd, and back to the rock wall for some unforgettable aural inertia.
Cheer Up Charlie’s has an emergency staff GoFundMe. Donate here.
I play drums with a couple of great friends in an improvisational instrumental rock band called Hand Signals. We don’t take it very seriously, but it’s an excellent chance to have a couple beers, break a sweat & move some air. We got invited to play an early evening show at the Carousel Lounge with our pals Superfecta on the Sunday before SXSW 2020 was supposed to start. We figured it’d be a fun hang, and the new parents in our crew could be home before the kids’ bedtime. Sunday evenings for folks my age might be the new Friday night. We had a pretty full room. There are few places left in Austin as funky & DIY as Carousel Lounge. I love playing “under the elephant”, setting up our own sound, helping other bands with their sound when mics start feeding back, creating a little community. It’s as if someone said: “Our uncle has a weird circus-themed room, let’s put on a show!” The beer is cold, the staff friendly, the circus-y vibes always funky , and the bathrooms are always just a little scary. Just like it oughta be.
Carousel Lounge has a GoFundMe to support its bartenders. Donate here.
Shortly before the lockdown, a friend’s sister came to town mid-week and wanted to hear some reggae. We headed to Flamingo Cantina to see the Mau Mau Chaplains. The band bills itself as “Texas’ premiere reggae cover band” and is largely comprised of veterans from Austin reggae bands of yore including The Lotions, Pressure and I-Tex. We got there around the 10pm starting time to find it virtually empty, and headed upstairs to the outdoor deck to breathe the fresh air, so to speak. There were probably 20 folks up there hanging out, praising Jah and enjoying the reggae tunes blasting over the mammoth sound system. When the band got started we went back downstairs. The band churned out one reggae hit after another, building their cascading riddims. By the end of the first set, Flamingo’s intimate, funky confines were packed with a diverse crowd doing some serious skanking. This was a reggae party, nourished by a beloved but under-appreciated venue now in its twentieth year. During this time of plague Flamingo Cantina is, of course, closed but the Mau Mau Chaplains still livestream on Facebook every Wednesday night at 8:30pm. In fact, the band’s frontman, Alan Moe Monsarrat, has a new album, Agriculture, dropping in November. Even during a pandemic, the riddims roll on…
Flamingo Cantina has a COVID-19 relief GoFundMe. Donate here.
I was excited to finally see Kamasi Washington, and view firsthand why his powerfully meditative sound was appealing a wider audience. But when March 8 arrived, dark clouds were forming. Just two days prior, SXSW had announced its cancellation (one
of the first major events to pull the plug), and while no cases of COVID-19 had yet been announced in the area, my wife and I entered the packed Empire Control Room that night with a little trepidation. The Empire is spacious but serpentine, and the Washington show was beyond sold out. Reaching any vantage point with sightlines to the stage required the breakthrough skills of a wide receiver. In we went. Washington and band took the stage without fanfare, and within minutes, the spine-tingling crescendos began to build. We settled in. Sound from the Empire’s PA was thunderous, the music thrilling, the air electric. But there was also the buzz of anxiety when the crowd started to close in, the muscle memory of all it took to get to our spot. The music won us over, but eventually, we wound our way back out of the Empire, leaving behind what would become our last live music experience. Hopefully soon, I’ll be plunging back in to the crowd to do it all over again.
Empire Control Room is fundraising by selling “care packages” with Sunday curbside pickup. More info here.
Rumors of lockdowns and closings had begun this week but weren’t official by March 13. I headed out to South Congress not knowing it would be my last live show until…well, still to this day. Even though SXSW had been cancelled, Chuck Prophet and his gang were primed to put on a no-holds barred show with the future an uncertainty. I spent time with the Continental Club’s (and C-Boy’s) proprietor Steve Wertheimer and Chuck pre-show down the stairs in the CC’s office and we speculated on what the next days and weeks might hold. It looked sad but no one expected it to be THIS sad. Then it was carpe diem for 2 hours onstage, culminating in this encore.
The Continental Club has an online tip jar to raise funds for its employees. Donate here.
The memories of so many shows at The White Horse now blur together, but those early days at the honky-tonk haunt are what define the venue. It isn’t a hipster haven, thank goodness; it’s real country, conjunto, plus a bit of jazz, rock and beyond. And the band who helped ignite that fire was Mike and The Moonpies. Holy hell, how they brought the thunder to the room and had ‘em dancin’ hard on that damn floor until it was time to get kicked out. On last night of their residency, around July 2013, the gang had a massive blow out before heading back on the road. Though tightly crowded inside, folks were two-stepping just the same. Near the end, as drinks were kicked over and the whooping got louder, the guys’ shirts werecoming off. Not quite the full monty, but judging by the generous rounds from well- wishers with bottomless tabs, that could’ve easily been the next level. Yet any White Horse afficionado will tell you that this would be The White Horse on any given night. All it takes is a band with a bit of fire, and loyal White Horse patrons craving that genuine ambience. It ain’t fancy, and that’s how they like it. And the magic needs to continue, come hell, high water or the damn plague.
The White Horse is taking donations to support its staff via Venmo: @WhiteHorseATX
Aretha Franklin – ACL Live
I went to see the Queen of Soul at ACL Live in 2014. I had low expectations. I knew she wasn’t in the best health and she was 72 years old at the time. Her voice was hit or miss for much of the night, but late in the show, she got around to one of my favorites, “Ain’t No Way,” and she became supernatural again. As I was wondering who would sing the soaring high falsetto harmony voice on the song, the woman next to me began fidgeting with her purse and then stood up. Suddenly this woman was bathed in light and had pulled a microphone from her bag – she was the one who would sing the falsetto! I lost my mind as she and Aretha sang the duet together. It’s the closest I ever got to the Queen. I can’t wait to have another transcendent concert experience.
The Hole in the Wall is a bar that everyone likes to talk about more than they like to actually spend money there. I know, I was one of the grumpy bartenders slinging T.W. Samuels there for years. I’ve seen literally hundreds of shows there, but one that stands out was Nick Hakim performing on its tiny front stage with maybe 20 people in the crowd. Beneath portraits of Waylon, Willie, and Townes that hang above the stage, Hakim’s tortured croon felt like it was meant to be nowhere else but within the decaying walls of the best dive bar everyone forgot about.
Hole in the Wall is taking donations to support its staff via Venmo: @HITW_STAFF
At SXSW 2007, I was pretty new to Austin and I landed a gig as a Stagehand at Stubbs for SXSW. I had no idea what I was getting into but I ended up setting up gear, meeting and watching performances from Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, Clash bassist Paul Simonon and Verve guitarist Simon Tong. I carried Mike Watt’s guitar to set up for his performance with the Stooges and I met Iggy Pop!! In many ways, that was my big intro to the magic of the Austin music world, and I’ll always have Stubbs to thank for that.
Stubb’s is selling merchandise with proceeds benefiting the venue. Shop here.
Yola – Scoot Inn
The last show I saw before Covid ruined all our communal fun was Yola on Saturday, February 8 at The Scoot Inn. And what a memorable night it was! I had family in town helping celebrate my birthday. Despite Yola’s Grammy nomination for Best New Artist two weeks prior to the show, no one knew who she was and couldn’t seem to ever get her name right. “We’re seeing Lala tonight?” “No, Yola!” “Yolo?” It was a perfect evening in East Austin, thanks to a combination of the weather, quick access to the bar, the reverent crowd and the awesome atmosphere of the sold out Scoot Inn. Everyone had a blast and by the end of the night, they all had remembered her name. It was great making memories with the family at the Scoot Inn, and I would not be surprised if our bar tab that night might have helped them defray a few shutdown costs. Can’t wait for them to reopen!
Virtually every Austin band you know and love has played Hotel Vegas, and at least one person in each of those bands has bonked their head on one of the stage’s notorious suspended monitors (a rite of passage, really). This cozy, dark dive bar, with personal touches from the stage’s famous cactus-studded desert backdrop to its sprawling back yard space, has been one of my favorite haunts for the last six years. When I was on-air until 11, going out to catch a midnight set somewhere was a regular affair. Often, that meant landing at Hotel Vegas, home to its loyal clubgoers as much as it is to the artists, bookers, and managers who give it its reputation for strong bills and high energy. One of the last shows I saw there was Nolan Potter’s Nightmare Band, who packed the venue at midnight in the middle of the week. To know NPNB is to be entranced by them — a twelve-piece medieval, psych orchestra whose music and presence is nothing like I’ve ever heard or experienced. Trust me, no one was having a bad time that night. Ending my night in a space of friends, great energy, and a set by one of my favorite bands is something I deeply miss, and I can’t wait to assuage that longing again.
Hotel Vegas is taking donations via Paypal to support its staff. Donate here.