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Austin: The nonstop sound of music

Austin (Chicago, Illinois)Restaurant and Catering IndustryDining and DrinkingBars and ClubsHotel and Accommodation IndustryRockabilly (genre)

Chances are, if you dig music, you've been to Austin.

This is, after all, the "Live Music Capital of the World," and it'san apt slogan: Austin has more live music venues per capita thananywhere in the U.S.

There's a ton of music here, and it's hardly limited to Texastwo-step honky-tonk country.

There's rock 'n' roll, blues and Tejano, indie rock, gospel androckabilly. There are mariachi bands, swing bands and cover bands.There's surf rock, there's punk rock. There's even a tiny bit ofjazz.

Every week, hundreds of local musicians hold residencies here;every year, thousands of national and international acts make stopshere. And every March, the entire music industry is celebrated hereat one big convention (nee party) known as the South by SouthwestMusic and Media Conference (SXSW). How big? One-thousandfive-hundred and eighty bands big.

But Austin's music scene goes way beyond what's in town for fivedays in March.

"Austin embraces both the artist and the entrepreneur, and allowsgreat opportunity for both to excel," says Jimmy Stewart,co-founder of Do512.com, aninteractive event calendar that showcases Austin's vigorous musicschedule. "It is an extremely laid-back place where an executivewith a six-figure salary still goes to work in shorts and flipflops, and plays bass with his band on Wednesday nights at hisneighborhood watering hole."

So .. . skip SXSW. Instead, visit in a few weeks, or a few months.Or any time, really. Here, music thrives year-round, every night ofthe week. Daytime, too.

It's on Sunday afternoons that legendary local guitarist DaleWatson provides the soundtrack to an unusual version of bingo atGinny's Little Longhorn Saloon in the North Burnet neighborhood onthe city's north side. Watson and his band set up in the back; inthe front, a plywood bingo board is set atop the pool table andcovered by a pen made of chicken wire.

Come evening time, once the crowd is rowdy on $1.50 Lone Stars andhas bought their spots on the bingo board, a chicken is broughtinto the bar and placed in the pen. The crowd roars, hoots andhollers, and men in cowboy hats sweet-talk the fowl as if it were awoman, coaxing and wooing it into loitering on their number.Sometimes the chicken's poop-waltz takes a few minutes; sometimesit takes 15. But once it plops, the game stops, and Watsondedicates a song to the sole winner.

It's in places like Ginny's that Austin's vintage music thrives inits natural habitat, with resident songwriters performing everynight of the week. Ginny's is about as big as a one-roomschoolhouse, and it often gets so crowded that there's barely roomto move around the little dance floor in the back, its linoleumworn through by decades of two-stepping.

Across town at the Broken Spoke, which opened its doors to a crowdof 300 people in 1964, Sunday is the only night that there's notcountry-and-western music (and dancing) till near midnight. Theglow of dozens of neon beer signs illuminates the big hall in backwhere Willie Nelson still drops in on occasion. In the front room,sagging Christmas lights glint against wood-paneled walls, LoneStar flows freely from the tiny bar, and chicken-fried steak can behad for $6.

Greasy food, cold beer and great music go hand-in-hand in thistown, where peppery Mexican queso and salty margaritas are ascommon as red beans, Wonder Bread and barbecued brisket. In theheart of the lively Red River district downtown, Stubb's BBQ servestraditional migas and Southern-style grits during its Sunday GospelBrunch (with a live band, natch), and spicy wings and fried greentomatoes are on the menu during rock shows at night.

In Austin, music goes with everything -- even morning coffee. TheSouth Congress outpost of Jo's coffee shop even has its own band.There's no cover and, as best I could tell, no set list. I happenedupon Tina Rose and the Jo's House Band playing in sunglasses on thepatio facing this open-air cafe. For everyone at Jo's that morning,it seemed perfectly normal to be sitting in 80-degree weather on aSunday in December, sipping a latte and reading the paper with agreat rockabilly band on the adjacent patio.

Then again, this is central Texas and it's sunny almost year-round,so outdoor stages are commonplace. Up the street from Jo's, Guero'sTaco Bar hosts bands in its garden Wednesday through Sunday, and inthe restaurant proper the other nights of the week. On Red River,Emo's, which has hosted punk rock and indie rock shows since the'90s, has two stages. Even on the far east side at Scoot Inn, theoldest beer joint in central Texas (proudly serving since 1871),there's a dusty beer garden; scaffolding for an outdoor stage wasin the works during my visit.

While downtown's 6th Street draws wild crowds to its lively pubsand piano bars, hard-core music fans know the best venues are thereally old, really dark ones.

Across from Jo's on South Congress is the Continental Club, whichopened as a supper club in 1957 and still hosts rockabilly andswing bands nightly. Even darker is Ego's, a cave of a bar lurkingunder an apartment complex just south of downtown.

Chris Maddock of Do512.com thinks there's a very basic reason forAustin's music vibe: "It's the thing that famously had hippies andhillbillies coming together to see Willie Nelson at the oldArmadillo World Headquarters. It's the thing that has half the cityat the parks just hangin' together the first sunny day of spring,which around here is in late January. It's the thing that makescollege kids cry when they have to leave the town -- although bythat time most of them are just 'getting it.' It's the reason whythere are so many thousands of songs about the town. It's soul. Ittakes some people leaving to realize how much this place has moreof it than just about anywhere on earth."

Soul and live music -- in Austin they're pretty hard to avoid. Andnot just in March. Or December. Here, it's every night.

Getting around:

Downtown is walkable, and cabs are common. However, a car comes inhandy.

Where to stay:

Downtown Austin is home to the requisite chains, but the kitschyAustin Motel (512-441-1157; austinmotel.com;rooms from $86/night) in the hip South Congress 'hood is a70-year-old establishment. Next door is the tastefully minimalistboutique-style Hotel San Jose (512-444-7322; sanjosehotel.com;doubles from $95 / night).

Where to eat:

Tex-Mex is the word here, but that's not all. Guero's TacoBar (512-447-7688; guerostacobar.com) has great margaritas andtraditional dishes. Around-the-clock Austin chain KerbeyLane (kerbeylanecafe.com) serves killer queso, plus moderndiner fare. The Salt Lick (512-858-4959; saltlickbbq.com)has been serving barbecue since 1969; there's even an outpost of itat the airport. For standard American food, South CongressCafe (512-447-3905; southcongresscafe.comWoodland (512-441-6800; woodlandaustin.com), is worth visiting for the decoralone. For burgers, Hut's (512-472-0693) is a must. Itopened as a drive-through in 1939 and serves 20 different kinds ofburgers, and the best onion rings on earth.

Where to hear music:

Everywhere, really. Some suggestions:

• In the Red River District: Stubb's Bar-B-Que(512-480-8341; stubbsaustin.com), Emo's (512-477-3667; emosaustin.com).

• South Congress: Continental Club (512-441-2444;continentalclub.com), Ego's (512-474-7091),Guero's Taco Bar (info above), Jo's (512-444-3800; joscoffee.com).

• South Austin: The Broken Spoke (512-442-6189; brokenspokeaustintx.com).

• East Austin: Scoot Inn (512-478-6200; eastinns.com ).

• North Burnet: Ginny's` Little Longhorn Saloon(512-458-1813; .musicroom.org/ginnys ).

Information:

Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-926-ACVB; austintexas.org . For an extensive list of which bandsare playing when and where, check out .do512.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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