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Live Music Austin: The Top 20

Sometimes, it’s not the music, it’s the venue.

Dale Watson and his Lone Stars at the Broken Spoke.

That special tone produced by vibrations racing across oak floors, encouraging toe-tapping and two-stepping. The social intimacy of seats pulled up around a stage like an electrically warmed campfire. The taste of cool refreshments and the low murmur of conversation that complement topnotch musical artists performing in an intimate room. Famously, Austin and environs are home to more than 150 choices for live music. Not all are packed along Sixth Street or in the nearby Warehouse or Red River districts. In fact, many of the finest are far away from the party din of downtown streets.

In August 2005, I visited 100 Austin-area music venues. Yes, that makes three a night. And my ears rang for weeks with folk, punk, R&B, metal, Tejano, hip-hop, blues, jazz, rock, jam, reggae, country, and classical music. Yet the cram course lent me insights into the hotspots visited an estimated 7.5 million times a year by locals and tourists eager to hear one of the city’s 1,800 musical acts or the hundreds of touring shows that truck through Austin on a regular basis. The following is a subjective Top 20, selected from among the 100 places I visited—testimony to the incredible variety of musical experiences available seven nights a week in this acclaimed Live Music Capital of the World.

1. Antone’s

213 W. Fifth St., 512/320-8424

Reverence is the overwhelming tone at the latest incarnation of this famous blues club, which, with its posters and memorabilia, looks like a shrine to the music. What works splendidly for pilgrims and the wide range of musical acts is the subtle sound mixing, the spacious stage spread along the room’s long wall, the double bars, and the cool-down areas on either side of the main floor. The spirit of the late founder, Clifford Antone, suffuses the place.

2. Back Room

2015 E. Riverside Dr., 512/441-4677

Headbangers, rejoice! This home for unreconstructed metal—as well as hip-hop and classic rock—thrives just off East Riverside Drive, with tsunamis of sound crashing down from the speakers that frame the tall stage. When the first three chords emerge, guys and gals with inventive hair, tattoos, and hard-core uniforms surge forward to the gaping pit. Or you can perch on cocktail chairs behind the mob, enjoying frosty pitchers of beer from the bar. Make sure to peek at the new beer garden out back.

3. The Backyard

13101 W. Texas 71, Bee Cave, 512/263-4146

An idyllic evening under the stars, or a painful roasting on a Hill Country griddle—depends on the season. In some ways the very model of a modern outdoor venue, The Backyard can make a big-venue act seem like a campout with best friends. Or not. The pit is spacious and serves both the body-pressers and the more demure idlers. Go early, as the traffic can back up for what seems like miles. A smaller adjacent venue, The Glenn, offers intimacy as well as other entertainment options, such as outdoor movies.

4. Beerland

711 Red River St., 512/479-ROCK

Are we in prewar Berlin? The stage in this punkish club recalls a Weimar cabaret, which fits the theatrical nature of its musical acts. Despite the crush at the bar, amazingly cheap drinks are not hard to come by. Even more than the omni-present Emo’s (see page 20 of the print issue), this club serves as the heart and soul of Red River Street. Capacity limits keep it from feeling too clammy.

5. Broken Spoke

3201 S. Lamar Blvd., 512/442-6189

It’s hard not to love this classic South Austin roadhouse. The restaurant up front (known for its chicken-fried steak) could not be more casual and comfortable. The novel central bar is convenient, but the beating heart of this institution is the deep, smooth dance floor in back. Low ceilings and considerable seating at the sides make the whole experience seem like a family reunion. Bands play a stage at the far end for audiences young and old, and almost all comers have the time of their lives.

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