Best of Austin: Nightlife

Presenting our 16 favorite clubs in the Live Music Capital of the World (hint: there’s more to Austin than Sixth Street).

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Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni

Antone’s

Year Opened: 1975
Cover: Varies
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 650
Noise Level:

Long ago, Antone’s was all blues, all the time. It was a place for purists, a club where twentysomethings like Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds learned to play and where you could hear legends like Muddy Waters, Albert King, Jimmy Reed, Fats Domino, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The venue—originally a small spot that opened in 1975 just blocks away from the current location—was the brainchild of Clifford Antone, a burly man from Port Arthur. Antone, who died in May 2006, loved the blues and found himself feeling responsible for promoting it and the people who played it, especially those who had fallen on hard times. Over the years, the club moved to three other locations and gradually began booking different kinds of music, from funk rock (the Scabs) to teenybopper rock (Vallejo). These days you’re as apt to find Bob Schneider or Cowboy Mouth as Marcia Ball or Pinetop Perkins (who moved to Austin from New Orleans at age 93 because of Antone). The club also hosts regular Blue Tuesday shows and Austin Blues Society Blues Jams with local musicians. The current location is huge, with a massive stage and a sound system to match. In many ways it’s a million miles away from the original dive. That probably has something to do with why Antone’s has survived so long. 213 W. Fifth, 512-320-8424 or antones.net. Open daily.

Broken Spoke

Year Opened: 1964
Cover: Yes
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 661
Noise Level:

There’s no trick to figuring out what Spoke owner James White intended when he started building Austin’s favorite country dance hall on the site of a lumberyard in then rural South Austin, back in 1964. The place has hardly changed a whit in the intervening years, and White himself is still on hand every night in his pearl-snap shirt, tan leather vest, and tall white Stetson to tell you all about the place he calls “the last of the old-time honky-tonks.” But should he be occupied singing with the band, take a self-guided tour of the small museum he’s dubbed “the Tourist Trap,” where you’ll find country music curios like Bob Wills’s hat and Johnny Bush’s boots, plus photos of legends onstage at the Spoke such as Willie Nelson, Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours, and George Strait and the Ace in the Hole Band. If that’s not education enough, venture onto the 1,220-square-foot cement dance floor, where countless Texans have learned how to two-step—and where White’s daughter, Terri, gives dance lessons every Wednesday through Saturday at eight o’clock. Or if you just want to hear what real country music sounds like—not the slick, modern sound; not bluegrass; and certainly not rock and roll—grab a longneck and slide into a chair under the neon beer signs and listen to local heroes like Alvin Crow. 3201 S. Lamar Blvd., 512-442-6189 or brokenspokeaustintx.com. Closed Sun & Mon.

Cactus Cafe

Year Opened: 1979
Cover: Yes
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 155
Noise Level:

Songwriters know they’d better bring their best stuff to the Cactus. It’s easy to fill the small room, and the audience is made up mostly of hard-core fans who are passionate about folk music. They hang on every word, harmony, and acoustic guitar riff. It’s been this way since 1979, when the room—originally a coffeehouse—began booking musicians. The first act to merit a cover charge was a young songwriter named Nanci Griffith. Other youngsters who vetted their material here were Lyle Lovett, Darden Smith, Lucinda Williams, and Townes Van Zandt. These days you’ll hear plenty of young bucks like Slaid Cleaves as well as old-guard Texas songsters like Eliza Gilkyson and the Flatlanders and national acts like Alison Krauss and Doc Watson. It’s not just folkies who play here—the club has hosted alternative legends like Daniel Johnston and rockers like Alejandro Escovedo. It has a famous open mic on Mondays that brings two dozen hopefuls onstage. Bruce Robison first played “Travelin’ Soldier” at a Cactus open mic when he was starting out. Jimmy LaFave performed as well; now he headlines on the weekend. The lesson? Work hard, write great songs, sing them well, and get booked at the Cactus. The Texas Union, on the campus of the University of Texas; 512-475-6515 or utexas.edu/txunion/ae/cactus. Check Web site for schedule.

Carousel Lounge

Year Opened: 1963
Cover: Varies
Drinks: Beer & wine
Capacity: 119
Noise Level:

If you like clowns and kitsch, the Carousel is made for you. The walls are covered with murals of gay circus scenes (think elephants and lions), and there’s a homemade carousel behind the bar, from which you can order setups—buy a bottle at the liquor store next door. The Carousel has been opened since 1963, and for decades the music on the jukebox, songs like “It Was a Very Good Year” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” made the bar still feel lost in an age of innocence. The bands were all born post-JFK, from folkies and psychedelic rockers to alt-rock groups like Li’l Cap’n Travis and the Fire Marshals of Bethlehem. The Mad Cowboys play a regular Friday happy hour. And the stage is not really a stage, just a spot on the floor in front of the giant pink elephant toward the back. Which, for the Carousel, seems absolutely perfect. 1110 E. 52nd, 512-452-6790 or carousellounge.net. Open daily.

Continental Club

Year Opened: 1957
Cover: Yes
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 191
Noise Level:

The venerable Continental is the place that the big-name rock stars—David Byrne, Neil Young, etc.—like to go once they’ve finished their own shows in bigger halls. The music veers to roots rock and alt-country, the sounds that defined Austin through the nineties and early part of this decade, as evidenced by the acts that have maintained weekly residences here: Junior Brown, the Arc Angels, the Derailers, the Grey Ghost, Toni Price. The club is going even stronger now, having recently added a second bar behind the stage to handle overflow from the main room, plus a second stage upstairs in the Continental Gallery for more relaxed, conversational listening. And the club continues regular bookings for topflight local acts, including songwriter James McMurtry on Wednesdays and Heybale—the honky-tonk quintet headed up by Merle Haggard’s former guitarist Redd Volkaert and Johnny Cash’s longtime piano player, Earl Poole Ball—on Sundays. Look also for semi-regular and annual events such as the Buck Owens Birthday Party (August) and Ted Roddy’s Graceland Revue on the anniversaries of Elvis’s birth and death (January and August, respectively), plus weekend stands by frequent out-of-town guests like Zydeco master Geno Delafose, trailer-park absurdists Southern Culture on the Skids, and the Mexican Elvis, El Vez. 1315 S. Congress Ave., 512-441-2444 or continentalclub.com. Open daily.

Elephant Room

Year Opened: 1991
Cover: Varies
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 13
Noise Level:

There are plenty of places to hear jazz in Austin, but only one place to hear it every night. The Elephant Room is underground—literally. Walking along Congress Avenue you’ll miss it if you don’t look closely—the only clue is a small blue neon sign in a half-moon-shaped window at knee level. Head down the stairs into the basement like you’re going to a speakeasy. The vibe is just right for jazz. In fact, Wynton Marsalis recently called it one of the ten best jazz rooms in the country. The club books some national acts, but the calendar is filled with local heroes, young Turks, and longtime players like the Jazz Pharaohs, Michael Mordecai, John Mills, Jon Blondell, and Brannen Temple. Mordecai also hosts a Monday night jazz jam. Go for the music, stay for the atmosphere. 315 Congress, 512-473-2279 or elephantroom.com. Open daily.

Emo’s

Year Opened: 1992
Cover: Yes
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 300 (main room)
Noise Level:

Emo’s is Austin’s CBGB, an institution dedicated to loud, fast, aggressive rock and roll. Fugazi played Emo’s. The Butthole Surfers played Emo’s. When the Riverboat Gamblers outgrew Denton, they moved to Austin because of Emo’s. The club became such a fixture, in fact, that an early nineties punk band in Austin adopted the contrarian name the F—emos, and then, of course, regularly played Emo’s. Back then—and until recently—the cover was typically under $3, all ages were welcome, and you had a choice between a band you’d heard of on the semi-outdoor stage and one you had not in the smaller indoor room. And if neither one grabbed you, you could drink in the beer garden that separated the two. Things are somewhat different now. The cover charge stays up around proper nightclub levels, Frank Kozik’s famous “S&M Flintstones” mural has been sold, and road shows dominate a calendar that has moved well beyond punk. But the kids keep coming back for events like the absolutely mad dance party that laptop mash-master Girl Talk deejayed earlier this year. But in truth, counterintuitive bookings were always a flavor here, dating back to Johnny Cash’s famous set, in 1994. The stool he sat on still hangs from the ceiling above the inside bar. There are more concrete ways, though, in which things may never change: Emo’s is a little like a long family car trip; you might want to go to the bathroom before you leave home. 603 Red River, 512-505-8541 or emosaustin.com. Open daily.

Hole in the Wall

Year Opened: 1977
Cover: Varies
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 375
Noise Level:

One of the longest-running clubs in Austin, the Hole has been in the same spot on the Drag, just across from the University of Texas, since 1977. As the name indicates, it has always taken pride in its vibe and funkiness. Even in the middle of the day it’s dark inside, and at night the Hole is a cozy place to strike up a conversation with a charismatic alcoholic. Back in the seventies it was as much a daytime bar as a music venue, with folk musicians like Nanci Griffith and Blaze Foley out front and pinball machines and video games in the back. Doug Sahm and Townes Van Zandt were regulars, onstage and off. In the eighties and nineties, the club began booking alternative rock, R&B, and punk bands, and it became a hip spot for college kids and slackers. Now under new ownership, the space features a stage in the middle room and a third one next to the kitchen (which, by the way, serves excellent Cajun food made by Austin bon vivant Steve Chaney). Today the Hole books country, alt country, punk, blues, rock, and pop—mainstays like Paul Minor and Brooks Brannon and up-and-comers like Black Joe Lewis. The best stage is still the front one, near the big window and beneath the paintings of Sahm, Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. 2538 Guadalupe, 512-477-4747 or holeinthewallaustin.com. Open daily.


The Long Center

Year Opened: 2008
Cover: Yes
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 2,400 (Michael and Susan Dell Hall)
Noise Level:

Austin finally got rid of that ridiculous Palmer Auditorium, the huge seaweed-green civic auditorium that resembled a sickly turtle and branded the city as a place stuck in the past. A good deal of the old building was salvaged—including the chamber ring that held up the roof—but in the context of the new Long Center, the whole thing looks positively mod. The $77 million structure has only been around for a year and a half, but it’s already busy with its three staples—the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Austin Lyric Opera, and Ballet Austin. Leonard Cohen sold out two memorable nights in April, and Marvin Hamlisch played a one-year birthday party in March. Perhaps the most notable event from the first year was when 881 people dressed up as zombies to reenact Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on the terrace. Most shows are held inside, in one of two auditoriums: the 229-seat Rollins Studio Theatre and the 2,400-seat Michael and Susan Dell Hall. The sound is impeccable; you can hear every vocal harmony and plucked note. Even better, there’s not a bad seat on any of the levels. One of the most intriguing features: You can order a drink to be waiting for you at intermission. And the wine comes in an actual glass. Take that, Emo’s. 701 W. Riverside Dr., 512-457-5100 or thelongcenter.org. Check Web site for schedule.

The Mohawk

Year Opened: 2006
Cover: Varies
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 850
Noise Level:

The emergence of the Mohawk as the favorite bar of Austin’s indie-rock-loving cool kids was something of a shock. The place is best remembered for its seventies-era heyday as the Caucus Club, an upscale hangout for legislators, lobbyists, and would-be wheeler-dealers, which was followed by a late-nineties incarnation as a venue for bad jazz and neo-lounge acts that earned it the nickname “the Caucasian Club.” But now it’s The Place to Be on Red River, its elegant dark-walnut bar melding perfectly with the hipster irony of bed-head haircuts, homeless-guy beards, summer scarves, and cans of PBR. The spot feels like the kind of multilevel nightlife theme park you’d find in L.A. or New York. There’s a large outside stage and a more intimate one inside, plus five bars, two sweeping decks, and, if you need a break from the music, a quiet upstairs lounge that once hosted Texas Hold ’Em games for wayward state officials. The acts are as eclectic as the term “indie” implies, welcoming road shows like the Juan MacLean and the Decemberists and triumphant homecomings for bands like Spoon, Okkervil River, and Ghostland Observatory. 912 Red River, 512-482-8404 or mohawkaustin.com. Open daily.

Momo’s

Year Opened: 2000
Cover: Yes
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 360
Noise Level:

In the newly thriving west Sixth Street district of discos and pubs, Momo’s is the place that consistently books live music—and a lot of it, usually averaging four different acts, beginning around five and going until two. The club has a great stage, a dance floor in front of it, and chairs farther back. When you get tired of hearing the music up close, you can go onto the rooftop and enjoy the stars and the skyline; the club has kindly put up speakers outside so you won’t miss a beat. The bands are mostly young, with music ranging from singer-songwriters like Kacy Crowley to pop guys like Craig Marshall and college-rock bands like the Vincents. Recent Austin transplant Freedy Johnston has a Monday night gig, and Patrice Pike has done regular shows there too. 618 W. Sixth, Ste. 200; 512-479-8848 or momosclub.com. Open daily.

The Parish

Year Opened: 2005
Cover: Yes
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 425
Noise Level:

Noted first and foremost for its excellent sound and sight lines, the Parish is considered the best listening room in town. But you don’t need a sound engineer’s sense for the club’s high-dollar system or the acoustic properties of its brick walls and hard maple floors to appreciate what that means—it’ll be reflected in the band’s performance. This is a club that musicians love to play. The Parish typically features touring acts that are too big or too loud for the Cactus Cafe, and the crowds tend to be fans with discriminating ears. If you don’t bump into at least one clerk from Waterloo Records, you probably haven’t moved from the bar in the back of the room. Since opening in 1998, it has been the site of some of Austin’s great musical moments, like a secret Wilco show in 2002 and solo performances by indie chanteuse Keren Ann in 2004 and erstwhile Brit rocker Nick Lowe in 2006. 214 E. Sixth, 512-479-0474 or theparishroom.com. Check Web site for schedule.

The Parlor

Year Opened: 2000
Cover: No
Drinks: Beer & wine
Capacity: 75
Noise Level: +

Perhaps the best family-run punk-rock pizza joint in the world, the original location of the Parlor is a tiny room crammed into the midst of the hip clothing and music stores along North Loop, in North Austin. It opened in 2000 and is run by Deborah Gill and her husband, Damon, who have six kids and five grandkids. The walls are red, with Damon’s and his son-in-law David Lujan’s paintings in black of Willie Nelson, Robert Johnson, the Ramones, and Alice Cooper, among others. The Parlor has a refreshing do-it-yourself attitude, from the food (the Gills make their own vegan sausage) to the service (many of the people behind the counter are musicians who play there). Though you’ll hear some weird folk and alt-country, such as solo multi-instrumentalist Ralph White (from the Bad Livers) or Scott Biram, most of the music at the Parlor is loud and fast, bands like Sodomorrhea and I Kill Cars. There’s no stage; bands play in the space to the right of the door as you walk in. The PA is simple and usually overmatched by the young kids playing their guitars unbelievably loud. And bands have to bring their own microphones. The Parlor never charges a cover, so if the bands want to make any money they pass around a tip jar. That means the musicians who perform do so for the hell of it. What could be more rock and roll than that? 100 E. North Loop Blvd., 512-454-8965 or theparloraustin.com. Open daily.

The Scoot Inn

Year Opened: 1871
Cover: Varies
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 800
Noise Level:

The owners claim that this funky old building east of downtown along the railroad tracks is the oldest continually operating biergarten in Central Texas. In 1940 it became Red’s Scoot Inn; lately it’s been known as the Scoot, the place with thin walls, whorehouse-red wallpaper, and a huge backyard where you can drink beer under oak trees that have been here as long as the place itself. In 2006 the Scoot was bought by the folks who own the Longbranch Inn. They built an outdoor stage—at which Spoon played a sold-out show in April—but they kept the ambience on the inside, including the excellent draft beer selection. They expanded the bar’s booking, bringing in everyone from the foot-fetish funk of Foot Patrol to prog-psycho-like Experimental Aircraft to rock bands like Dixie Witch. So come ready for beer and music—and be nice to the black cat that hangs out on the bar. 1308 E. Fourth, 512-478-6200 or scoot-inn.com. Open daily.

Stubb’s

Year Opened: 1996
Cover: Yes
Drinks: Full bar
Capacity: 2,100 (outdoor stage)
Noise Level:

Three different histories hang in the air at Stubb’s. The first belongs to the club’s namesake, late barbecue impresario C. B. “Stubbs” Stubblefield, whose original cue-and-juke joint opened in Lubbock in 1968 and quickly became an incubator for the generation of West Texas musicians—Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, etc.—who colonized/conquered Austin in the seventies and eighties. The second is the legacy of the One Knite, the blues club operated in this old stone building’s upper story in the seventies, a favorite spot to see Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s early bands, Texas Storm and Nightcrawler. But the more recent magic has come from shows at Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheatre. This outdoor stage stretches below the upstairs dining porch and looks out over a lawn dotted with live oaks that feels, despite its decidedly downtown location, like a Hill Country meadow. Touring acts appreciate that change of pace, judging from landmark shows by performers as diverse as George Jones, Broken Social Scene, the Roots, and, more recently, Conor Oberst and Jenny Lewis. The inside stage is for up-and-coming local acts like pop songstress Suzanna Choffel and wide-screen soundscapers Balmorhea, and on Sunday mornings Stubb’s hosts Austin’s original Gospel Brunch. 801 Red River, 512-634-8277 or stubbsaustin.com. Open daily.

T.C.’s Lounge

Year Opened: 1980
Cover: No
Drinks: Beer & wine
Capacity: 125
Noise Level:

The East Side Lounge is gone. The Shalamar Lounge is long gone. The Victory Grill is open, but only off and on. The Longbranch Inn is open but different, gentrified. And that leaves only T. C.’s Lounge, the last of the traditionally black East Austin blues joints. It’s a ramshackle wood-frame building about four miles from the Capitol, with questionable AC but plenty of free soul food in a crockpot on the bar. The crowd is mixed and the place so packed with dancers on Monday nights that the club literally shakes, a scene the downtown kids call “white night.” But Tuesday talent shows are a big draw for more-regular regulars, and with acts like Little Elmo Reed and Soul Track Mind on other nights, audiences can hear the best musicians that Austin never heard of. And don’t miss the early shows on Sundays, when Hosea Hargrove and the Blue Bloods play. 1413 Webberville Rd., 512-926-2200. Open daily.

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