Salsa in Southtown

Latin American music and dancing is all the rage in the Southtown Arts and Entertainment District along South Alamo Street near the King William District. Several clubs swing to a Cuban, Argentinian, Mexican, or Brazilian beat. Whether you come to dance to cumbia at a Mexican ballroom or you try the merengue, there’s a place for you in San Antonio most every night and weekend. First Fridays and Second Saturdays of the month are the main event in Southtown—shops, galleries, restaurants, and clubs stay open late, and special openings and art events flood the area. 

Rock venues in San Antonio are clustered for the most part on The Strip, the stretch of North St. Mary’s Street between Mistletoe Avenue and Grayson Street, just north of downtown and south of Brackenridge Park. Though it went through a period of decline, proximity to the Pearl has recently helped bring the Strip back. 

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River Walk clubs tend to be touristy, and many close early because of noise restrictions. Pearl has more restaurants than bars and clubs, though there are a couple of nice ones here, including Jazz, TX  and the Blue Box bar (312 Pearl Pkwy.); more are slated to open in the future. Downtown’s Sunset Station, 1174 E. Commerce St. (www.sunset-station.com; tel. 210/474-7640), a multivenue entertainment complex in the city’s original railroad station, has yet to generate much buzz except for spillover from events at the nearby Alamodome, but the neighborhood east of the freeway is beginning to establish its own identity, so check local listings or the Sunset Station website.

What can you expect to pay? When judged from a big-city entertainment perspective—Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Nashville—cover charges are very affordable. Small joints on the Strip may be free or charge $2 to $5 to get in on weekdays, $5 to $10 on weekends. A larger venue like Paper Tiger or a fancier one like Jazz, TX may charge $12 to $15 for shows that don’t involve advance tickets. Even high-end dance clubs rarely charge more than $20 to $25 for non-ticketed events.

For country and western go to Gruene Hall, the oldest (1878) dance hall in Texas.

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Smoking in San Antonio

Smoking is not allowed in indoor areas of restaurants and bars, but there are exemptions for the River Walk and Alamo Plaza, and inside cigar bars.

Conjunto: An American Classic

Cruise a San Antonio radio dial or go to any major city festival, and you’ll most likely hear the happy, boisterous sound of conjunto. Never heard of it? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Although conjunto is one of our country’s original contributions to world music, for a long time few Americans outside Texas knew much about it.

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Conjunto evolved at the end of the 19th century, when South Texas was swept by a wave of German immigrants who brought with them popular polkas and waltzes. These sounds were easily incorporated into—and transformed by—Mexican folk music. The newcomer accordion, cheap and able to mimic several instruments, was happily adopted, too. With the addition at the turn of the 20th century of the bajo sexto, a 12-string guitarlike instrument used for rhythmic bass accompaniment, conjunto was born.

Tejano (Spanish for “Texan”) is the 20th-century offspring of conjunto. The two most prominent instruments in Tejano remain the accordion and the bajo sexto, but the music melds more modern forms, including pop, jazz, and country-and-western, into the traditional conjunto repertoire. At clubs not exclusively devoted to Latino sounds, what you’re likely to hear is Tejano.

Long ignored by the mainstream, conjunto and Tejano were brought into America’s consciousness by the 1995 murder of Hispanic superstar Selena. Before she was killed, Selena had already been slotted for crossover success—she had done the title song and put in a cameo appearance in the film Don Juan de Marco with Johnny Depp—and a 1997 movie based on her life boosted awareness of her music even further. The rest of the country may have moved on, but Selena’s reputation has only grown in San Antonio. There’s a shrine to her in Mi Tierra and Selena cover bands have cropped up, include one called Bidi Bidi Bonda, after her song by the same name.

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San Antonio is to conjunto music what Nashville is to country. The most famous bajo sextos, used nationally by everyone who is anyone in conjunto and Tejano music, were created in San Antonio by the Macías family—the late Martín and now his son, Alberto. The undisputed king of conjunto, Flaco Jiménez—a mild-mannered triple-Grammy winner who has recorded with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson, among others—lives in the city. And San Antonio’s Tejano Conjunto Festival, held each May, is the largest of its kind, drawing aficionados from around the world—there’s even a band from Japan.

Most of the places to hear conjunto and Tejano are off the beaten tourist path, and they come and go fairly quickly; more common are bars that have designated “conjunto nights.” A couple of possibilities for more regular play include Far West, 2502 Pleasanton Rd. (www.farwestsa.com; tel. 210/290-4900), specializing in live Tejano; and VFW Post 76. Better yet, just attend one of San Antonio’s many festivals—you’re bound to hear these rousing sounds.

The Gay Scene

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In addition to the Bonham, Main Avenue just north of downtown has several gay and lesbian clubs in close proximity. They are not segregated by gender or even sexual preference so much as they are by scene—dance club versus pick-up club or sports bar. From south going north, you’ll encounter Pegasus, 1402 N. Main Ave. (www.pegasussanantonio.com; tel. 210/299-4222), your basic cruise bar; Sparky’s Pub, 1416 N. Main Ave. (www.sparkyspub.com; tel. 210/320-5111), a gay-friendly English pub, cafe, and wine bar; and, a few doors down, Knockout, 1420 N. Main Ave. (www.knockoutsa.com; tel. 210/227-7678), where the focus is sports. The hot dance club of the moment is Heat, 1500 N. Main Ave. (www.heatsa.com; tel. 210/227-2600). A few blocks away, the Silver Dollar Saloon, 1812 N. Main Ave. (tel. 210/227-2623), is three venues under one roof: a gay Tejano bar, a heavy metal/thrash music space, and bar with a Goth/New Wave dance vibe.

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.