Destination Blues - Austin, Texas

By Georgetown Fats
April 2011

We’re going to try a little something different here while still managing to wrap the whole message around the blues. Having been afforded the opportunity to travel extensively through North America, it is still safe to say I have a wanderlust for new cities and music scenes. While many seasoned travelers never see the city beyond their hotel bars and tourists maps, I long for that off tourist map adventure.

Destination: Blues will be a periodic column encouraging novice travelers on how to get the most out of the travel experience. My goal is to share some tales from the road and offer advice on what to expect and how to avoid some of the novice traveler traps. So put the money set aside for a Frommers Guide towards a bar cover charge, because there is a great big bluesy world out there for the taking.

With a wealth of blues, bands, bars and barbecue options, Austin Texas is my type of city. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s home town is also home to some greats like Jimmie Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Pinetop Perkins and Marcia Ball. It is Austin’s burgeoning blues scene that makes Austin a must-visit destination, though the barbecue and the weather certainly help. Several of my personal blues favorites, those of the new blues guard, like Scott H. Biram, Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears, Possessed by Paul James, and Old Grey Mule all call the Austin area home.

Having suffered through the iron lungs of an improperly sedated toddler and criminally arrogant mother, upon deplaning at Austin-Bergstrom Airport, the temptation to follow an intoxicating scent of barbecue over to Saltlick’s for a plate of ribs and a few Lone Star’s was damn near overwhelming. Though dangerously low on both barbecue and beer, I had a tight schedule to keep in order to make it to my first stop at End of an Ear records in South Austin for their “John Fahey Lives” event. I had just enough time to get a cab and head on down to my hotel and then off to my first scheduled show.

While discussing taxies and taxi cab drivers, rule number one for an ideal travel experience is to always be pleasant and respectful towards the cab drivers in a new city. If you don’t know your way, the last thing you’re going to want to do is give any attitude to a cab driver. Cab drivers are a wealth of knowledge that can be the difference between an enjoyable night out at a local watering hole, or a night in the ER for daring to go into the wrong bar. Cabbies always know the places where to eat cheap, sleep well, and for those inclined to go Charlie Sheen, most cabbies will look the other way as long as the tip is good and you’re respectful. Engage the cabbie in small talk, if they spend 12 or more hours in the car listening to NPR then oblige them in their political rants and always take their business cards. Like anyone who works on commission, repeat business is always appreciated.

My second travel tip is if you find yourself on the road with some frequency or tend to use your charge card in the place of actual currency, then seriously consider picking up a credit card with a hotel reward. Sleeping in an airport sucks. The benefit of having a gold or platinum card with a phone number to call for emergencies makes all the difference in the world. Without a hotel loyalty membership card, while you’re stranded at the Ramada Inn in Gloucester City, NJ, because that’s where the airline will put you if you’re stranded in Philadelphia Airport, I’ll be sleeping at a Hilton property in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia and having dinner at Warm Daddy’s blues club.

However, if your Hilton hotel shares property with a Denny’s, then it is time to adjust your expectations on your accommodations.

But I digress. After dumping my gear at my hotel, I hoofed it to to End of an Ear to see John Schooley perform John Fahey tunes in honor of the late Fahey’s birthday. While admitting to not being familiar with John Schooley, John Fahey or End of an Ear, I made the unadvised walk down from South Austin to Austin End in search of some good blues. What I got was an event better than the hype but before I go into the show, it is time for a few more travel tips.

In my less than humble opinion, Southerners are genuinely nicer than those of us North of the Mason Dixon line. It is not an act. There has to be some correlation between regular exposure to the sun which takes the edge off of our southern compatriots. However, as a caveat for the male contingent, if an attractive blonde hipster southern belle hands you a Lone Star tallboy in the middle of a used record store because “you look hot,” you can be sure it is just a beer. Texans like their guns, and have the right to carry concealed firearms. Though they are much friendlier than their northern counterparts, southerners are also generally much tougher than us too.

End of an Ear in South Austin is part used record store, part hipster hangout, part music hall. It possesses that special charm only found in a used music store which will never be found in a megastore, where someone looking for the latest Black Eyed Peas disc would receive the bum’s rush out of the door, but where a hipster or music aficionado can find a slightly used copy of The Brecker Brother’s “Heavy Metal B-Bop” or the latest releases off of Hillgrass Bluebilly or Alive Records. Stacks and stacks of used vinyl to be had for reasonable prices, a blind eye for those who BYOB’d and a small performance area where some of Austin’s local musical community come in and throw down between regularly scheduled gigs. Quite simply, End of an Ear is a musical utopia and a ‘don’t miss’ if you ever find yourself within the area.

After working my way through that tallboy and making some small talk with about dogs, hot rods, mutual musical favorites and my itinerary with my beer benefactor, John Schooley was ready to entertain the assembled. Dressed very much the trendy southern hipster, Schooley sat on a loan stool, put a well-traveled dobro in his lap and fingerpicked the perfect amount of rhythm and melodic lines from it. At no point did Schooley resort to any scripted guitar wanking, it was just a highly enjoyable set from a tremendous musician confident to put all of his emphasis and energy into his craft. When the biggest complaint about a free show is that it just went by too quickly, then it’s clear you were in the middle of something great.

While I was sorry to say goodbye to the End of an Ear, there was just enough time to catch a cab and make my way up to Antone’s for the Austin Blues Society’s weekly Monday Night Blues Jam. Though I have been known to frequent blues jams and/or open mics, it can always be a dicey proposition as the jam is only as good as the host band. Some nights and locales you’ll find a pick-up band of well-versed musicians enjoying the opportunity to play with folks they don’t normally get a chance to play with on a regular basis; other times you will find a revolving stream of amateur musicians attempting to pass off the works of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan as their own. In this regard, though they are the home of some wildly innovative and ground-breaking musicians, Austin and Antone’s are no different. Hearing that Pinetop Perkins is often in the audience to press the flesh and hawk his CDs when not on the road, I tried to stick out the chair surfing opening band as long as I could. After a wildly entertaining beer filled-game of “catch all of the cliches” with my Austin Blues Society dopleganger “Chah-lie,” we head out into the Austin night in search of an Austin establishment free of tourists and contemporary blues rock.

The Victory Club, located somewhere within Austin and off the tourist maps, opened on VJ Day and remains in business today. Having clearly seen better days, this worn gem used to be the place in Austin to catch James Brown and other acts when segregation was still an accepted practice. Though resembling an old elementary school auditorium which also doubled as the school cafeteria, The Victory Club is loaded with characters, aura, charm and great local musicians. Though I am told it is located in one of the rougher neighborhoods, The Victory Club on a Monday night is a great way to spend some time and catch some good juke.

Another travel tidbit is to always chat up a bartender who isn’t too busy. Much like taxi drivers, bartenders are a wealth of local information, and if you head to where those in the service industry head to in their recreational time, you will usually find yourself in a land of cheap drinks, great music and unpretentious atmosphere. That’s how I found myself at The Continental Club on a Tuesday night. Via word of mouth I had heard of good things of Toni Price, and confirmed through my bartender at the Doubletree that not only was The Continental Club a place to experience, but I should get their early as Ms. Price packs the place. It took me only a few moments after paying the cover to understand why Ms. Price can pack a large room on a Tuesday night.

Backed by a fiddle player and two acoustic guitarists, Ms. Price blended New Orleans blues with some country music and Americana. Looking very much like a long lost sister to Stevie Nicks or Janis Joplin, Ms. Price pored through much of her original material while working through a healthy amount of brown beverages. Though I don’t have much of a doubt about the brown beverage in question, Ms. Price actually became more musically precise as the evening wore on and she became a little less coherent with her in-between song banter.

In between sets, many of the club’s patrons crowded in the back alley of the Continental Club with open containers to consume some of the finest pit BBQ located within the city as well as other items. Ever the professional, Ms. Price worked the back alley crowd with aplomb and panache - she is a woman who clearly loves a good party. My only regret was not having the cash on hand to pick up a copy of her latest releaser “Cherry Sunday Orchestra Buffet” directly from the artist. Though the $15 bucks direct from the artist was a bit steep for a bar crowd, $15 bucks a disk being roughly the same price of three cans of Lone Star, “Cherry Sunday Orchestra Buffett” was an addition to the musical library I knew I had to make before leaving Austin. Luckily in a city considered to be the live music capital of the world, the Austin airport had everything I needed and a few purchases I didn’t need for me to stash in my carry-on for the ride home.

All in all, if you consider yourself a music fan or a devotee of the live music experience, then consider a vacation or schedule a business trip down to Austin Texas and be sure to tell any Austin-ite “Georgetown Fats sent ya.” It more than likely won’t open and doors for you, I just like to create awkward silence and wonder at random opportunities.

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