Outside Cheer Up Charlies, one of Austin's East End venues.
Is Austin’s Sixth Street starting to lose its swagger?
The nine-block main drag that runs through downtown Austin, Texas is home to dozens of small venues, bars and rooftops and has always been a chaotic mix of booze and hard charging rock and roll. During South by Southwest, the busy avenue is the unofficial epicenter of the unorthodox music conference and festival, and most weekend nights, the street is packed with college students, revelers and bands looking for their big break.
With its proximity to the Austin Convention Center and downtown hotels, the busy street is a big draw for out-of-town visitors, but increasing drink and ticket prices, coupled with a nonstop flow of out-of-town partiers is increasingly turning off local residents. Since 2010, Austin has seen its music scene shift to the other side of Interstate 35, the unofficial demarcation between downtown Austin and the city’s growing East End.
A handful of pioneering bars has given way to a new entertainment district in recent years focused around East Sixth Street, with punk, indie rock, country and dance music finding homes at venues like Hotel Vegas, Cheer Up Charlie’s, The North Door, The White Horse, The Eastern and Gypsy Lounge.
Those small, independent music venues operate alongside more typical watering-hole bars like Liberty, Sputnik, The Brixton, The Volstead, Rio Rita and Shangri-La in a pedestrian-friendly circuit that encourages club hopping and lets music fans check out a wide selection of acts on any given night.
That growth is what caused the move in late 2011 of legendary downtown club Emo’s to the new $2-million, 1,700-capacity Emo’s East hall on East Riverside in southeast Austin. Doubts about the viability of the property persisted after the closing of a Beauty Bar franchise on the same property as Emo’s, but the recent announcement by blues and rock club Antone’s, which helped launch Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr., that it had plans to take over the vacated Beauty Bar location is prompting many to give the area a second look.
“There are so many new clubs that have opened there, we had to ask, ‘If this isn’t a movement, what is?’” said Raoul Hernandez, music editor of the free weekly Austin Chronicle newspaper which highlighted the burgeoning entertainment district in a February 2012 cover story.
Hernandez said one strength of east Austin is that many of the club owners and managers have deep roots in storied Austin venues that have mostly disappeared as the city has grown and real estate prices have soared.
“I feel like The White Horse is an east side (country stronghold) and they can really do no wrong,” said Hernandez. “And at the North Door you’ve basically got the owners of the old Electric Lounge while the Hotel Vegas guys came down from (University of Texas bar) Spiderhouse and they’ve been really successful really quickly.”
The rise of east Austin comes as the existing downtown corridor faces aggressive redevelopment that could change its complexion in the next decade. The departure of Emo’s has left a noticeable hole on Sixth Street – the small indoor club and large outdoor area are still vacant – but downtown is still home to live music magnets Mohawk, Stubb’s, Beerland, Red 7, Club De Ville, Metal And Lace, Elysium, Swan Dive, Red Eyed Fly and Barbarella.
While the two districts don’t quite connect physically, they’re close enough to form an L-shaped stretch that city leaders and club owners see as the heartbeat of the Austin music scene.
The far eastern end of that “L” is about to get another boost from James Moody, owner of Mohawk, its booking arm Transmission Events, and the three-day Fun Fun Fun Fest. Moody plans to open a 1,000-plus capacity warehouse space next year that will feature live music as well as other events. That new space will give Transmission a home for acts like Ty Segall and TV On The Radio that have outgrown Mohawk’s capacity.
Moody said pockets of industrial and large commercial buildings nestled around the new east side clubs give the area “more authentic Austin ideals” than new upscale projects like the high-end ACL Live Moody Theater inside the W Hotel, near downtown’s west side.
“They are already our type of customers (on the East Side) and we wanted to be a part of that,” Moody said. “We’re doing stuff like the warehouse because we like the attitudes over there. It feels a lot like Brooklyn.”
The success of East Side seems to be in the hands of Emo’s, as many music industry professionals watch the club as one of the key economic indicators for the region. Owner Frank Hendrix sold the Emo’s brand and the building’s lease to C3 Presents, the Austin promotional giant behind Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits Festival and President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration bash.
Since the purchase in early February, C3 has scaled Emo’s schedule back considerably. In early June, there were only four events on its calendar through the end of August including national acts Japandroids, Courtney Love and James Blake, a departure from its reputation as an Austin incubator.
As a result, the once-distinctive club brand has become a lesser presence on the Austin scene, said Tim Hefner, booker for Ground Control Touring. Hefner’s underground punk and metal festival Chaos In Tejas got its start at the original Emo’s in 2004. Hefner said he gave the new East Emo’s location a chance in 2012 when he booked his festival there. For this year’s May 30-June 2 show, he’s going to try out Moody’s warehouse, which is still under construction.
“Emo’s is different from most other places here by being in a strip mall,” Hefner said. “That’s something I see a lot in California, where venues are in these commercial strips, so I guess to a lot of bands it doesn’t seem too different.”
Like most music lovers in Austin, Hefner is a fan of the anything-goes spirit of the east side, where live music is an every night occurrence instead of a weekend specialty. Full concert calendars featuring up to 20 acts per week have made clubs like Hotel Vegas a hive of activity for the city’s underground punk and noise scene.
Jason McNeely, co-owner and booker at Hotel Vegas, said he and other club owners have found themselves in a sort of perfect storm where affordable rents and a fraternity of music lovers going into business for themselves have combined to shape the next phase of Austin’s musical identity.
“I wouldn’t want to relocate to any other place in the city,” said McNeely, who has lived in Austin since the mid-’80s. “At this exact moment, being in the middle of this thing with clubs like Cheer Up Charlie and the White Horse, I couldn’t have stumbled onto a greater opportunity.”
Interviewed for this story: Raoul Hernandez, (512) 454-5766; James Moody, (512) 415-9265; Timmy Hefner, (512) 743-2234; Jason McNeely, (512) 820-3343