Austin boasts more live music, from country to trippy, than anywhere else in the U.S. At the SXSW Festival, the Texan metropolis looks to the future.
The Continental Club, Monday evening, just after 7 p.m. Guitarist Glenn Peterson performs a mellow solo and Dianne Scott knits. Bass player Alex Peterson picks the first chords of the Al Green classic “Take Me to the River,” and Dianne Scott knits. The Peterson Brothers play blues, soul and funk; their audience, in their 20s to 60s, listen, drink beer or wine, and some dance. Knitting, Dianne Scott holds the fort on her swivel chair backstage. She used to organize concerts in New York, but for the past 26 years, the 68-year-old has worked at the Continental Club – in the evening as the security detail on the back door, and by day, dealing with social media and the club’s homepage.
The Continental is one of more than 60 music clubs in Austin, Texas. Most of them are located north of the Colorado River, downtown, and all around Red River Street and 6th Street. In 1991, the city of approximately 950 000 began calling itself the “Live Music Capital of the World” because nowhere else in the U.S. has more live music venues per head than Austin does. Most are open daily, often as early as 6 p.m.
Austin pays homage to its heroes. On Lady Bird Lake, right by the river and with its back to the glass office towers, there’s a larger-than-life-sized statue of blues/rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died in an accident in 1990. A sculpture and a mural pay tribute to country music star Willie Nelson, who is very much alive and turns 86 this April. He originally found fame in Nashville, but then moved to Texas because he didn’t want the Nashville studios to polish his music into smooth pop. In Austin, he became a member of the country outlaw movement. Its protagonists grew their hair long and took the music back to its roots. The University of Texas also attracted free spirits, and so the capital of one of the most conservative U.S. states became a liberal oasis – partly also because it lowered the legal drinking age to 18. It’s now back at 21 again, but the libertarian spirit remains. Created in 2000 to promote startups and small businesses, the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” still adorns T-shirts and tailgates, and marks out Austin mostly as a hipster metropolis, often over and above Portland and Seattle.
The annual Keep Austin Weird Fest, renamed the “Fun Stop 5K & Fest” in 2018, and the city’s vibrant, often music- based history contribute to this. Bars – always home to “real cowboys”– occupy many traditional buildings on Rainey Street. Craft beers are standard there, and also in the popular Whip In Parlour Café, where the menu lists Cranberry Sour Ale, sweet stout, Cuban espresso and cocoa nibs. The Magnolia Café is famous for its brunch – pancakes, tacos and its signature smoked turkey omelette – and for a former tradition of staff and guests performing the Magnolia’s own “Omelletry Song” at the end of a long night.
Country with jazz elements – experiments make it interesting
For its first few years, the city on a bend in the Colorado River was called “Waterloo,” hence the name of John Kunz’s record shop – a haven for hunters and gatherers still or again keen to play or just hold vinyl in their hand. Kunz stocks every pop music genre on 600 square meters and has one wall devoted to Texan music, much of which sounds like country. “Obviously,” says Kunz, “but Texas also has music that plays around with jazz, folk, soul and rock – experiments make the music interesting.”
With hip-hop and electronic beats dominating charts and playlists today, blues, rock and country almost count as “weird” again. Austin’s young musicians avidly soak up the city’s glorious guitar legacy, then create something completely different – sensitive ballads, like those of singer-songwriter David Ramirez, or The Deer’s dreamy indie folk, or the cool psychedelia of The Bright Light Social Hour. The term “Texas trippiness” was coined for this, and even young musicians, like the grouchy southern rockers Cowboy Diplomacy and guitar wizard Eric Tessmer, are already outstanding live acts. It seems that everyone here always has a gig somewhere. Everyone making music in Austin also lives it, everywhere, all the time.
John Kunz is 67. Because he loves the music, he tours the clubs with his wife five nights a week. He has brought his store through every crisis in the recording industry: “The advent of Napster, the digital music exchange, in the late 1990s, spelled the beginning of the end for many record shops,” says Kunz, “Ninety percent of those who were in business 20 years ago have since closed.” But he doesn’t curse streaming providers like Spotify and iTunes. “They’re a good way to discover music,” he concedes, “but people should then pay for the songs and albums.” His customers come from all over the world. When big festivals are on, like South by Southwest (SXSW) and Austin City Limits, he always hears foreign languages.
The SXSW organizers have their offices close by, on Bowie Street. On their door, they’ve inserted a “David” in front of the name. Their festival is the world’s biggest music fair; young bands dream of snagging a slot in hopes of being discovered. “We’ve really grown,” says Roland Swenson, 62, who cofounded the festival in the 1980s, when real estate prices exploded and clubs were forced to close. “We got together with a few people and thought about how to carry on.” A festival, spread across different clubs, seemed to be a good idea. At its 1987 premiere, they hoped for 150 visitors: 700 came. This year, the organizers are expecting up to 60 000 to come between March 8 and 17.
Then the music – all manner of pop, alternative rock and folk, jazz and soul, electronic music and hip-hop – will be playing in clubs and outside on the streets and in parking lots, at night and also during the day. Since 1994, SXWS has also had a film festival, which directors like Richard Linklater (Boyhood) and Roberto Rodriguez (Sin City) have attended. The festival week begins with the SXWS Conference, which is now one of the world’s most important digital fairs. The organizers have named ten trends this time around, and lectures and discussions will be held on the future of work, legal cannabis trading, and of course, music. One question up for debate is whether the Blockchain technology really has led to greater transparency and fairer pay; another is how important we humans are now that the industry uses artificial intelligence to program playlists and discover new musicians.
Its first employee and now its chief programming officer, Hugh Forrest has been with SXWS since 1989 and keeps track of all the events. He landed the job because he owned a computer – “back then that was something special.” In 2007, SXWS sent shock waves around the world when Twitter held its launch party there. “Now people come hoping to get the next Twitter started,” explains Forrest.
But the digital economy doesn’t just visit Austin: Apple is investing over a billion dollars in a new campus here. “Silicon Hills” is the locals’ optimistic name for the hills just outside the city that have already attracted many startups. The cost of setting up a new business is still far lower in Austin than in California’s famous valley, Forrest says. He is proud of the Conference but also says that it could not have become established without the music, which is still the biggest thing in town.” Musicians are able to earn a living with gigs here now that the CD business has shriveled and people who stream their music on Spotify don’t bring the musicians much financial gain.
At the Continental Club, Dianne Scott has finished her hat and lays it on the pool table beside the other five. She isn’t worried that she hasn’t sold any today. Dale Watson – red guitar, gray quiff – comes on stage, his musicians on pedal steel guitar and double bass indicating that it’s Texas music time. Watson is pleased that the place is packed: “Monday is the new Friday.” The 56-year-old plays some 300 gigs a year, in Texas, around the country and in Europe. This summer, he’s in Hamburg, Germany, on June 11. But Watson likes Austin best. “I could tour this city all year and still play for different people every time.”
Famous albums and songs made in Austin: rock, country, blues, post-punk, alternative and psychedelic rock, hip-hop and new guitar
• “Kozmic Blues” (1969) – Janis Joplin
• “Texas Flood” (1983) – Stevie Ray Vaughan
• “The Future’s So Bright” (1986) – Timbuk 3
• “For Real” (2005) – Okkervil River
• “Come Together” (2017) – Gary Clark Jr.
• “Whiskey River” (1973) – Willie Nelson
• “Beats So Lonely” (1985) – Charlie Sexton
• “Pepper” (1996) – Butthole Surfers
• “Infinite cities” (2015) – Bright Light Social Hour
• “Good So Bad” (2018) – Eric Tessmer
Hotspots in Austin
1 University of Texas
2 Waterloo Records
3 6TH Street
4 Austin Convention Center (SXSW Festival)
5 Stevie Ray Vaughan Statue
6 Rainey Street
7 The Continental Club
In March, Lufthansa is flying daily from Frankfurt (FRA) to Dallas (DFW), and starting May 3, 2019, five times weekly from Frankfurt to Austin (AUS). Use the app to calculate your miles: www.miles-and-more.com/app