I can think of four cities in this country that have an outsized musical scene given their size: Nashville, Memphis, Austin and New Orleans. And each of these cities also features a musical “strip” of bars and clubs that feature FREE bands. You just strut on in, sit down, and if you like it, you stay and throw some money in the tip bucket. If it ain’t your thang, you pick yourself up and go next door. It’s a fun way to spend an evening. And these cities (well, maybe not Memphis as much) each have a huge local talent cluster that makes these bands worthwhile to see.
Three questions: First, why these cities? I think the answer for Nashville is it was always the capital of country music with the Opry being located there – that brought the musicians and that brought the record companies. New Orleans had this incredibly interesting cultural mix due to its southern port city location. And Memphis sits atop the delta, birthplace of the blues, and is the only sizeable city of note in the area, thus leading to a heavy blues-based, then rock-based, scene. I don’t know how Austin developed its scene, but Texas is a musically diverse place and Austin is the capital.
Second, why are they all in the South (I know Texas doesn’t like to be called the South, but it was part of the confederacy, which is good enough for those of us on this side of the Mason-Dixon line)? It must have something to do with the unique cultural elements of each city. Memphis has the delta, New Orleans has its southern port location, Nashville has Appalachia, and Austin is the heart of the musical hotbed of Texas. But Detroit, New York, Philly, LA, Seattle and other cities have big-time music scenes, but no “strip” or outsized musical scenes. Why not? Climate? People don’t care as much for live music outside of the south? Or most great American musical forms all came out of the South?
Third, why the strips? They must have come about organically in each place, and now are these thriving areas where sleaze, alcohol and music intersect. SoBro in Nashville has the honky-tonks and the Ryman, both of which are fun and great. New Orleans has Bourbon Street, which is worth a stroll on occasion, but can also be repulsive. Beale Street in Memphis isn’t as developed, but has a lot of clubs. And 6th Street in Austin is a worthy competitor with all of them.
Whatever, right? All I know is that 6th Street can be fun. And it can be gross – these aren’t plush clubs we’re talking about. But it’s always interesting. Our last night in Austin involved a bounce around 6th Street. We saw one really good act, one terrific vocalist, and a couple of average performers.
The Chuggin’ Monkey had the winner of the night. Have you ever seen Bonearama, the New Orleans based brass band that uses trombones as the leads? Well, Austin’s answer is Boss Street. They are a creative mix of the marching band with rock ‘n roll. Here’s a few pics and even a video of them doing Move Like Jagger. Really? Yes, really.
Friends featured this female vocalist, whose name I didn’t catch. Her guitarist had to go move his car before it got towed (now, that’s advance planning, right?) and she then did an acapella version of Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, which was great. She followed that up with Killing Me Softly, a song that I basically hate. But her version would have made Roberta Flack blush, and while it didn’t make me a convert, it was entertaining enough. And when the guitarist was there, they cranked out a few rock tunes in a worthy manner, including an early one by the Paul Rodgers band Free.
The Dizzy Rooster featured this band, who we thought were average. The young dude on lead could crank it out, but the drummer, ugh. Maybe he just having a bad night, but he was having a bad night. And if the drummer isn’t good, the whole thing is wrecked. We didn’t stay long. But I’ve been to this bar late at night before and seen some fantastic rock played there. Don’t knock it off the list.
The final act we checked out was D-Soul Davis at Maggie Mae’s. It was cool that he was playing soul music, but he needs a new guitarist and some horns. And song selection is critical. He did some great Motown, but the reggae? No, don’t go there.
We saw some other performers in different bars. Mainly we saw a couple of different guys playing a guitar by themselves, which can be interesting. In fact, the first time that I realized what a great songwriter Travis Tritt is was in some 6th Street bar during happy hour about a decade ago. This dude with a solo guitar kept playing Tritt songs, and they were all good. But we didn’t get that magic on Saturday night.
Austin features musicians in the most unlikely places. As I was leaving Waterloo Records, some guy with an electric guitar was set up on the street corner playing his butt off. When I strolled by, he was playing with his teeth, and started writhing on the ground. Here’s the weird part: it’s not a pedestrian friendly area, and I was the only pedestrian to be found. Now, that’s effort. And many years ago, I went to a roller derby match at the Austin convention center (don’t ask, but yes, it was very fun) and during breaks they had multiple bands playing. There was a one-man-band playing rock, and he was actually pretty good. I mean, it’s anything goes down there.
Well, that does it for this trip to Austin. As I told you, I’ve got two shows in Philly coming up this week, and need to get my head right for those acts. I hope you are seeing tons of music, or at least doing something to enjoy sweet summer. It’s already mid-July! Go get ‘em, team BRP, and have a ton of fun.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.