Music was always important to life in Austin, but it became a big deal in the early '70s with the advent of "progressive country" (aka redneck rock). Local boy Willie Nelson became its principal proponent, along with several other Austin musicians. And the Armadillo World Headquarters, a music hall known for hosting all the '60s rock bands, became the center of events and symbolized the marriage of country with counterculture. The city has since become an incubator for a wonderfully vital, crossbred alternative sound that mixes rock, country, folk, blues, punk, and Tejano. Although the Armadillo is now gone, live music in Austin continues to thrive in bars all across central Austin.
While Sixth Street is well known to many outsiders and is home to some good bars, just as popular but less famous is the Warehouse District, which has more glitz than grunge. And for those wanting exposure to more of the local sound, there are cheap dives just off Sixth, on Red River Street. And then there are the many venues that don't fall inside these districts, like the Continental Club and the Saxon Pub. All in all, there's a lot to explore. Have fun and poke around. You might come across the next Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Jimmie Dale Gilmore, to name just a few who were playing local gigs here before they hit the big time. When big events occur, such as SXSW, the Republic of Texas Biker Rally (June), or the Custom Car and Hot Rod Show (Jan), things get a little crazy and barhopping becomes impossible, but walking Sixth Street is still highly entertaining.
Note: Categories of clubs in a city known for crossover are often very rough approximations. Cover charges range from $5 to $15 for well liked local bands. Note, too, that in addition to the clubs listed, several of the restaurants, including Threadgill's and Artz Rib House, offer live music regularly.
Label it Successful -- Austin's SXSW -- Started in 1987 as a way to showcase unsigned Texas bands, South by Southwest (SXSW) soon became the place for fledgling musicians from around the world to come and perform their music in front of music-industry bigwigs. In the mid-1990s, SXSW started a film and interactive (digital and Internet) media festival, which begins a few days before the music festival. It, too, has grown considerably over the years.
SXSW's music festival is held during UT's spring break, usually the third week of March. Programs might include as many as 60 panels and workshops and 900 musical appearances at more than 40 venues around town. Check the website at www.sxsw.com or call tel. 512/467-7979. Wristbands for the 4-day event, which allow access to all the venues, usually run from $150 to $810 for the walk-up Platinum rate, which affords access to all of the conference and better access to bars. Even with a wristband, it can be difficult or impossible to see some bands. Every year a few bands will get some buzz before the festival and attract too big a crowd for the venue. Still, with 40 bands playing at any given time, chances are you'll find something you like.
Navigating Austin's Downtown Bar Scene
Austin's downtown bars are concentrated in three areas called Sixth Street, the Warehouse District, and Red River. When people talk of Sixth Street, they are referring to a 5-block portion of East Sixth, from Congress Avenue to Red River. This strip has all kinds of bars, from noisy saloons that cater to college students and offer $1 beer nights, such as the Aquarium and the Library, to a piano bar (Pete's Dueling Pianos), where the crowd is older and the volume of the music much lower. The best thing you can do is just walk the street and see what you like. You're apt to hear cover bands, Irish folk music, hip-hop, and Latin, to name just a few of the sounds.
Red River Street, between Sixth and 10th streets, is for those seeking out the local, underground music scene. You'll pass by a collection of bars that are less commercial and, frankly, don't look like much, but are where Austinites and music aficionados, mostly in their 20s and 30s, go to hear local bands of various stripes. Bars such as the Red Eyed Fly will mix blues, country, and metal bands; Beerland will usually have something "indie-garagey-punky"; Room 710 something hard, metal, or punk. Farther down the street are Club de Ville and Mohawk, which might have just about anything, including lounge music. All these clubs have low cover charges in the range of $3 to $10, depending on the night. The one exception is Stubb's, which is a large venue that signs name touring acts as well as some of the most popular local bands, and their cover charges are correspondingly higher.
The Warehouse District is west of Congress Avenue and extends from Second to Fifth streets, and from Congress Avenue to Guadalupe, encompassing 9 square blocks. It's more of a social scene with less emphasis on live music. It will work for those who want to have a drink and perhaps some food in attractive surroundings. Again, the best thing to do would be to stroll around until you see something that fits your mood. For the beer drinker, there are bars, such as the Ginger Man (at 301 Lavaca), a bar with an astonishing array of beers from around the world. On the tony side would be a cocktail bar called Qua (213 W. Fourth St.). Málaga, a tapas bar listed below, would be in the same category.
Girl Power -- The Austin sound may have long been dominated by such names as Willie, Stevie Ray, and Jerry Jeff (Janis was a too-brief blip on the all-male radar screen), but that's changing. Austin is now becoming known as the home of such prominent female performers as Sara Hickman, Shawn Colvin, Patrice Pike, Kelly Willis, Eliza Gilkyson, and the Dixie Chicks.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.