Music was always important to life in Austin, but it really became a big deal in the early 1970s 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 1960s 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 Austin; see box p. ### for a quick summary. Many popular venues don’t fall inside these districts. 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 (see box below), the Republic of Texas Biker Rally (June), or the Lonestar Rod & Kustom Roundup (April), barhopping becomes a competitive sport.

The live music scene is inexpensive. Some really good bands play for tips on weekdays and for starving-artist pay at other times. This makes it hard for musicians to survive in this increasingly high-rent town—you get the sense that the city is getting a lot more from this arrangement than it’s giving. Austin has made attempts to support its local talent through organizations like the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM), which provides insurance and runs an annual benefit concert. Visit Austin has a music division devoted to getting musicians paying gigs at the conventions, luncheons, and other receptions that come through town. Let’s hope that it’s not too little too late, and that Austin doesn’t become a victim of its success in one of the arenas for which it’s best known.  

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Note: Categories of clubs in a city known for crossover are often very rough approximations, so those that completely defy typecasting are dubbed “eclectic.” When there is live music, both clubs and bars charge covers ranging from $5 to $15 for well-liked local bands, more for national acts. That's the same on weekdays and weekends, the determining factor being who's on stage.

A Brief Guide to Austin’s Bar Scene

Austin’s downtown bars are, for the most part, concentrated into six different areas: Sixth Street, the Warehouse District, the Market District, Red River, East Austin, and Rainey Street. 

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When locals talk about Sixth Street, they generally mean a 5-block portion of East Sixth from Congress Avenue to Red River; it’s often referred to as Dirty Sixth for its blaring music, drunken crowds, and after-dark debauchery. This strip has all kinds of bars—from noisy saloons catering to college students, such as the Library (407 E. Sixth St.), to a fun piano bar, Pete’s Dueling Pianos (421 E. Sixth St.), where the crowd is older and the volume of the music much lower. Easy Tiger (709 E. Sixth St.), a German bakery and beer garden, provides a slight respite from the fray, and Jackalope (404 E. Sixth St.; www.jackalopebar.com) is usually the least crowded bar on the main strip. 

Red River Street, between Sixth and 10th streets, is for those seeking out the local underground music scene. These less-commercial bars and nightclubs frankly don’t look like much, but they’re where Austinites and music aficionados, mostly in their 20s and 30s, go to hear local bands and dance the night away. Empire Control Room & Garage (606 E. Seventh St.) is a fun, hip watering hole with warehouse-style parties and music events. Beerland (711 Red River St.) will usually have something “indie-garagey-punky.” Farther down the street, the Mohawk (912 Red River St.) might have just about anything, including lounge music; and Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, a large venue with indoor and outdoor stages, hosts big-name touring acts as well as some of the most popular local bands. When it’s time to get sweaty, Barbarella + Swan Dive (615 Red River St.) is where the locals like to sway to indie ‘80s and ‘90s tunes on an always-packed dance floor. 

The Warehouse District lies west of Congress Avenue from Third to Seventh streets, and from Congress Avenue to Guadalupe. It’s more of a social scene, with less emphasis on live music and fewer college crowds—ideal if you just want to have a drink and perhaps some food in attractive, vibrant surroundings. The best strategy is to stroll around until you see something that fits your mood. Vintage airport-themed Hangar Lounge (318 Colorado St.) has one of the best downtown rooftop views and buzzing crowds. On the tony side, the Roosevelt Room (307 W. Fifth St.) is a mixology mecca with ultra-creative craft cocktails. Speaking of craft cocktails, Garage Cocktail Bar (503 Colorado St.) is a nondescript gem, tucked away in the parking garage of the American National Bank building. Cedar Street Courtyard (208 W 4th St., Ste. C) is the perfect spot for a nightcap and live music.

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The Market District encompasses the western part of downtown, from Guadalupe to Lamar, and Ninth Street to the bustling Seaholm District. There’s an array of rooftop clubs and cool bars here, from The Brew Exchange (706 W. Sixth St.), a beer-heavy joint, to hometown fave Mean Eyed Cat (1621 W. Fifth St.), a recently renovated “dive bar.” Boiler Nine Bar + Grill (800 W. Cesar Chavez St.) in the Seaholm District has a carefully curated drink selection, but its greatest asset is the stunning panorama of downtown Austin from its Deck Nine Observatory Bar.

Running adjacent to Lady Bird Lake, Rainey Street was previously a residential neighborhood, and most bars in its converted bungalows have a similar vibe—think lively crowds of young professionals, posh cocktails, twinkly-lit outdoor patios, and large-screen TVs showing live sports. If that’s your scene, you can’t go wrong with any of them. The bar at Hotel Van Zandt (605 Davis St.) adds fancy city views; Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden (79 Rainey St.) has 101 beers on tap; and Clive Bar (609 Davis St.) offers great cocktails and a sizeable patio. 

Though technically a mile from downtown, the East Austin Entertainment District (or the East Side, as it’s known) is well worth a mention. The fastest growing neighborhood in Austin, this eclectic and somewhat gritty area is where the cool kids hang out. Stroll around past colorful graffiti murals, plentiful food trucks, and several hole-in-the-wall bars to find The Yellow Jacket Social Club (1704 E. Fifth St.), a downright cozy (albeit slightly grimy) watering hole that draws a hip crowd; relax poolside at the retro-fabulous Kitty Cohen’s (2211 Webberville Rd.) with a tiki cocktail or glass of frozen rosé; enjoy the fancy vintage decor and solid drink selection at Weather Up (1808 E. Cesar Chavez St.); and be sure to duck into Whisler’s (1816 E. Sixth St.) to sip from a hidden mezcal menu. 

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Label It Successful—Austin’s SXSW

Started in 1987 as a way to showcase unsigned Texas bands, South by Southwest (SXSW) has become one of the biggest creative gatherings in the world, celebrating the convergence of film, music, and interactive media. Headlining bands gain major cred; up-and-coming films can make or break it with a SXSW splash. 

Typically held during the first 2 weeks of March, this all-encompassing 10-day festival takes over the entire city and features hundreds of notable speakers, musical acts, panels, film screenings, and more. Locals have taken to referring to it as just “the festival”—as if there’s no other in town. The conference is so large that SXSW LLC purchased a building near the Capitol, at 1400 Lavaca St., with plans to install offices on the top three floors and rent out other space to retailers and restaurants. 

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SXSW is split into three portions: Interactive, Film, and Music. You can purchase badges for each, or opt for a Platinum badge to gain primary access to all three. Wristbands are also available for select events. Join the official e-mail list to be notified about wristbands, check the website at www.sxsw.com, or call 512/467-7979. Those without badges or wristbands can take advantage of the seemingly endless lineup of free music shows; just be prepared to wait in line for (up to) hours at a time. One of the most popular venues for free parties is Cheer Up Charlies.

Free Entertainment

Every Sunday evening from June through August, members of the symphony orchestra play classical and jazz pieces at the Concerts in the Park series, held at 7:30pm at the Hartment Concert Park at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Dr. Every other Wednesday night from June through August, Blues on the Green is held at Zilker Park Rock Island, 2100 Barton Springs Rd., sponsored by radio station KGSR. This series can attract some major bands. Every Thursday in the spring and summer at 7pm, popular local and touring bands play on the large shaded patio of Shady Grove, at Barton Springs Road; for details on the Unplugged at the Grove series, check www.theshadygrove.com.

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More places to hear free sounds while you eat include Central Market and the Whole Foods Market, at Fifth Street and Lamar Boulevard. There’s often music too at Fareground, Austin’s first food hall.

On the last weekend of each month from April through September at 5 to 8pm, Charles Smith Wines presents The Wine Down at 3TEN Austin City Limits Live. Along with free music, the event includes food, shopping, and of course wine (not free) on downtown’s Second Street. Bands always play at First Thursdays on South Congress Avenue, a similar food- and shopfest. 

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.