What happens in Texas . . . . . .

Posted: April 7, 2011 in Where the music's playing . . . .

If you are looking for music from jazz, to blues, to country and pop, try Austin.

 I first visited Austin after an uneventful visit to Houston, where, the only gig of note was Jeremiah Johnson at The Big Easy. I suspect that the décor and the seating at The Big Easy were inspired by the aftermath of UK Cinemas showing ‘The Blackboard Jungle’. In contrast, the music from Jeremiah Johnson was deserving of a more prestigious setting. His songs ‘Gasoline and Smokes’ and ‘Brown Eyed Senorita’ were standout songs that resonated a long time after the show.

In terms of attraction, Etta’s Lounge, described as “a Houston blues club institution that’s been rocking it with dive bar sensibilities for a darned long time” sounded enticing as somewhere for “listening to seriously good live music”. Little appreciating the cultural journey ahead, we caught a cab and asked for 5120 Scott Street. After some 20 minutes of driving and a progressively changing vista from affluent central Houston to increasingly shabby outskirts of town, the hint of anxiety was becoming evident in the back of the cab. After another 20 minutes of driving and a further shift in general description of the local housing stock from decrepit to derelict, we reached Etta’s Lounge. Even our afro-caribbean cab driver did a double take and asked politely, “Is this it? Are you really going in there?” He clearly wasn’t going to risk it himself. Now Etta may be many things as a hostess in her lounge, but customer care and fastidious and purposeful property maintenance are not immediately evident amongst her attributes. So, after a quick look inside and a sample of an Etta’s Lounge welcome (more hostility than hospitality), we decided to re-programme our evening and with the helpful guidance of our cab driver, who revealed an enviable knowledge of music venues back in the centre of Houston (where cats with tails are locals not visitors).

We returned with mounting relief and rueful reflections to find ourselves at a great Western Dance Hall, but a few minutes from our hotel. An experience of a quite different order from Etta’s Lounge and a large venue decked out as an old time two-step dance hall. Cowboy boots and Stetson hats abounded and the traffic flow on the dance floor resembled Hyde Park Corner at its busiest (but without the hooting, shouting and gesticulating). A fine time was had by all (including us), and there is a cab driver in Houston who doubtless enjoyed his fare and generous tip, as well as a good dining out story.

Decamping to Austin was a welcome move and, although the South By South West music festival is probably the best-known feature of Austin’s credentials as music capital of the world, the place is buzzing with all kinds of music throughout the year. 

Decamping to Austin was a welcome move and, although the South By South West music festival is probably the best-known feature of Austin’s credentials as music capital of the world, the place is buzzing with all kinds of music throughout the year.

Acclimatising to the heat of the day (and evening) certainly took time and affected behaviour. Austin’s local economy received several unscheduled boosts with the adventurous acquisition programme launched by Mrs TC. Local retailers were undoubtedly excited by this surprise retail spree and Jerry Ryan, owner of the Heritage Boot Store in West 8th Street, in particular, was pleased to close a deal on two pairs of hand made cowboy boots in one sale. “All that from just an enquiry about how to clean a pair of boots she had already!”

Our visits to Austin have been around the 5th May when, in past years, when we have enjoyed the Pecan Street Festival, which is held on the Cinco de Mayo holiday weekend. This is where they close several blocks in the centre of Austin and set up sound stages on each corner for several day-long programme of local bands on each stage. Alongside the inumerable music bars in and around the city centre, there is little doubt during this time of Austin’s claim as the music capital of the world. Anything from blues, funk, soul, folk, country and Latin rock can be found here during this fine festival of local talent.

Our most recent adventures in Austin were accompanied by 90+ degrees and a restless roaming around town from early afternoon to after midnight to catch the various bands playing in the streets and the clubs around town. With sets of 1 to 2 hours, it is a constant challenge to keep up with the turn over of bands in the many bars, clubs and stages.

Some of the memorable bands last year were Second Day Red, Pheonix Hall, Bus Stop Stallions, Beans N Rice, Black Pistol Fire, El Tule, The Barbarians of Seville, Long Tall Eddy, River Hymn, and Kalua.

A visit to Threadgill’s World Headquarters is a must for music memorabilia from the long-gone Armadillo World Headquarters that hosted a bewildering array of artists on its programmes. Check out the jukebox that contains many of the artists who played the Armadillo, the piano that hangs from the ceiling that has been played by artists as diverse as Jerry Lee Lewis to Captain Beefheart, and some excellent examples of the posters and artwork created by Jim Franklin for album covers and shows at the Armadillo World Headquarters. He was the primary poster and album cover artist for bands such as Shiva’s Headband, 13th Floor Elevators, Conqueroo, Canned Heat, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, and Freddie King. A special attraction is Franklin’s painting of Freddie King, so large that it hangs in the roof space above reception.

Antone’s is an Austin institution and on the first visit to Austin, we were recommended to see popular Texas Latin rock band, Del Castillo – a recommendation that ensured a stunning evening of superb guitarwork and stylish vocals. Last year’s visit brought an unexpected bonus when Del Castillo announced a late appearance at Threadgill’s open air stage on our last night there. 

Austin boasts some truly amazing local record stores here . . . . music collectors cannot miss Waterloo Records and Cheapo Discs (the size of an aircraft hanger and jammed with CDs and vinyl gems). The Antone’s store is a treasure trove of blues, soul and country material including vinyl single and LPs . . . even some cherished 78s!

My sorties (plural, you’ll note) to these platter palaces kept revealing more gems and further intriguing new discoveries. The longer I stayed in the stores the more great music came wafting across the house PA, and the staff always seemed surprised and flattered to be asked about what they were playing.

One great discovery from these sorties was the music of Dee Dee Gartrell. She made a couple of singles for Maverick Records, including what has since become a fave of mine ‘I Must Be Doing Something Right’ (perhaps an aspirational message for TC). She had little success initially, until she was relaunched as Delia Gartrell with tracks such as “Fight Fire With Fire”. Great stuff!

The haul from visits to these stores soon got to be several boxes full and, together with the footwear and other swag, engendered the prospect of buying another suitcase to get it all back home.

The abiding memory of Austin (for some time to come, no doubt) is the gift of the breakfast chef at our hotel, who (having served us every morning for many days) engaged us in genial, casual conversation on our last day. He observed with great insight that “You’re not from around here are you”. “Where you from?” On being told “London, England”, he asked (without any hint of irony), “Is English your second language?”

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