by Robin Tierney
A round-robin of rockers commandeers a pedestrian bridge for an impromptu concert. A country band courts curbside fans from a pickup truck. Tough tenor jazz saxophonists duel in a church sanctuary. Weekly food-market specials include live music. The prim history center pulsates with artifacts from the cosmic-cowboy ’70s. Soul-stirring riffs of blues-guitar legends swell in the wind.
It’s either a music fanatic’s fantasy—or a typical day in Austin.
Here in the heart of Texas, Austin swings all week with live shows. And to really rock up to its reputation, the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” supersizes the party several times a year—including the March South By Southwest Festival (SXSW), an April outdoor arts extravaganza, and the best excuse for a long weekend getaway in September: the Austin City Limits Festival. Named for the music TV series that has run nearly three decades, this year’s festival features Elvis Costello, Wilco and some indie-spirited 150 bands, crossing every genre.
Complementing the music, this friendly state capital serves up a feast for all senses: food, art, nature, history, even bats. Nearly everything can be reached on foot or by free ’Dillo trolley. One of the nation’s 20 largest cities, Austin appears on a wide assortment of “top 10” lists, including best place to live, do business, and date.
We began our music-lovers’ pilgrimage in the historic East Sixth Street district. This saloon-studded strip hosts a raucous spectrum of honky-tonk to hip-hop, throngs of all ages, and street performers wielding wicked bass guitars.
Southwest in the Warehouse District, the music played on at Antone’s, which stoked the career of home-grown blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. These days, you might catch SXSW award-winner Bob Schneider between tour dates. The singer-songwriter titled his new CD “I’m Good Now,” but no choir boy, his impassioned tales run from profane to profound.
For traditional country, we hit the revered Broken Spoke dance hall, where Alvin Crow fiddled to the dancers’ delight as in decades past, all documented in the “Tourist Trap” photo gallery alongside Western swing king Bob Wills, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton.
Austin by day offers an equal abundance of diversions, including superb freebies for art lovers. Stroll north to “the Drag,” the collegiate strip near the University of Texas campus, to the Guadalupe Arts Center studios for a peek at local works, including Chris Warner’s fantasy masks and Alejandra Almuelle’s enchanting, Peruvian-influenced animal sculptures.
Having moved to splendid new digs, the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art houses one of the world’s finest Renaissance and Baroque collections. We’ll never forget our intimate tour of five centuries of dramatic paintings by Claude Lorrain, Peter Paul Rubens, and other European masters, and the exquisite etchings of John Taylor Arms.
For instant immersion into local culture, nothing surpasses the city’s festivals, which include the international SXSW indie music and film summit to the Old Pecan Street Festival, a free hometown affair in late September. The Austin Fine Arts Festival in April featured works from a couple hundred juried artists, some homegrown, others traveling cross-country. Beaded sculptures glittered in the sun, kinetic metalworks spun and clinked in the breeze, and funky, rough-hewn folk art inspired grins.
The huge weekend street party grooved to acts like Ruthie Foster’s blend of roots, gospel, and devilish church tales, and the Gourds’ fiddle-driven fusion of zydeco, two-step, and joyful noise. Children had fun, too. Admitted free, they put their creativity to work, performing with the inventive Groove Labs band, creating sunglasses, and painting murals.
The festival’s Sunrise Soiree opener dished up a convenient, tantalizing taste of the town with a local chef cook-off. Benefiting the Austin Museum of Art, this is partying for the greater good.
Clearly, Austinites love food. Their culinary specialties combine brazen flavors, fresh organic ingredients, and diverse regional cuisines. Chili peppers rank as a major food group. And no mere bastion of barbecue, Austin is a gracious host. Vegetarian and low-carb diners will find a jackpot of choices on the menus, while those preferring to eat without boundaries will experience nirvana.
As for libations, you can quench your thirst with craft beers at Copper Tank, bubble tea at Veggie Heaven, a Moon Quake Shake at Flipnotics Cafe, or an avocado margarita at Curra’s Grill. The only disappointment for foodies is that you’d need to stay a few years to sample all of Austin’s good eats.
Then there are the fresh food markets for home-baked tortilla chips, breads, Texas pink grapefruit, and other regional delicacies. Enjoy them while picnicking at Barton Springs, the Lamar pedestrian bridge on Town Lake, or Mount Bonnell, rising 785 feet above Lake Austin and the city.
For shopping, visit the SoCo District on Congress Avenue south of the bridge. Some of the popular shops have gotten pricey, but bargains still exist. Wares include handcrafted furnishings, tribal and Mexican art, stained glass, and vintage items.
For truly cheap thrills, look around outside the stores. Scattered through Austin are whimsical shop-topping sculptures, such as the giant rabbit looming above Uncommon Objects on South Congress. This quirky “outsider art” helps explain the local slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.”
At dusk, people assemble at the Congress Avenue Bridge to witness another Austin spectacle. What is reputedly the largest bat colony in the United States lives in the eaves of the bridge, and spring through fall, thousands of Mexican free-tails take wing at sunset. A silent parade of what looks to be soft black hankies gradually blots out the sky.
We hiked westward along Town Lake, in search of the statue of Vaughan, who died in a 1990 helicopter crash. There we paid our respects the traditional way: by snapping photos.
We returned several times to the lake, a dammed portion of the Colorado River that divides Austin, joining hundreds of natives running, biking, kayaking, and swimming under the canopy of pecan and oak trees.
After touring the Texas State Capitol, distinguished by locally excavated, stunning pink granite and the Lone Star-graced dome, we stumbled upon the Austin History Center. There, a collection of poster art transported us back to the psychedelic ’70s. Cosmic cowboy period pieces hyped Arlo Guthrie, Joe Ely, Marcia Ball, the Vaughan brothers, a young Bruce Springsteen—and the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters. Named for the armor-shelled native critter, this cavernous music hall, which opened in 1970 and closed 10 years later, cemented Austin’s reputation as a worldwide center for country and western. It’s where Nelson united rednecks and hippies through cold beer and country rock.
We planned on getting a good night’s sleep before leaving Austin, but while crossing the river, sounds erupted from the adjacent pedestrian bridge on which we had picnicked earlier. Curious, we stopped to investigate. It was an unscheduled punk-metal play-off. Tia Carrera, a trio showcased at SXSW, hammered their hearts out for the peaceable crowd — until the police pulled the plug.
Just when we think we’ve heard it all, a flood of smoking fretwork fills the air. Perched by the open windows of a Sixth Street saloon called Friends, Eric Tessmer sublimely channels the spirit of Stevie Ray. Barely old enough to get into a bar, this guitar prodigy plays like a man possessed.
We’ll sleep when we get back home.
Robin Tierney writes about music, health, dog care, travel and business from Washington, D.C., when not on the road.
Some good eats
614 E. Oltorf St.
6801 Burnet Road
This local favorite serves mouth-watering interior Mexican specialties such as chicken fajitas, red snapper, and vegetarian enchiladas. Don’t miss the avocado margarita. Indoor and outdoor seating.
1901 E. Cesar Chavez
2414-A South Lamar
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to love the healthy Tex-Mex creations here, such as spicy migas, enchiladas verdes, sunflower tamales, and home-baked gingerbread cookies, tofu pumpkin pie, and peanut butter empanadas.
6416 N. Lamar
Beginning as a 24-hour gas station-beer joint in the early 1930s, this Austin icon is where Janis Joplin got her start. Now you can get your fill of southern comfort food, homegrown music and awesome memorabilia reflecting the Austin spirit. The 301 W. Riverside location (512-472-9304) is in the cosmic shadow of the long-gone Armadillo World Headquarters.
604 Brazos St.
Built in 1886 by a cattle baron downtown, this marvelously restored landmark offers the lavish ambience of an era past.
Hotel San Jose
1316 S. Congress Ave.
This trendy, friendly, and colorful oasis started as a 1930s motor court and comes complete with pool and courtyard lounge.
Mansion at Judges’ Hill
1900 Rio Grande
This small luxury hotel offers a gorgeous interior, high speed internet and gracious service.
Miller Crockett House
112 Academy Dr.
Old timey, fun bed and breakfast in a lovely garden setting close to Town Lake.
Austin is served by Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, located off Hwy 71 near Hwy 183. Go north on 183, then take I-35 into town. Numbered streets run east-west; Congress Ave. and river-named streets run north-south.
Maps and Information
Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau
201 E. 2nd St.
The Driskill Hotel: Stories of Austin’s Legendary Hotel/A Cookbook for Special Occasions
Now available for purchase at The Driskill or by phone at (512) 391-7133.
Conceived as a piece of Texana to celebrate the rich heritage of Austin’s oldest hotel, The Driskill Hotel follows the history of The Driskill from its founding in 1886 through a chapter on the hotel today. It chronicles the hotel’s major events and ownership changes, as well as special guests and significant occasions.
The book also offers recipes for special occasions. These simple recipes utilize regional flavors and ingredients, as well as basic kitchen utensils. Any home chef will be able to prepare these easy recipes, which help to bring the elegant luxury of The Driskill home.
Table of Contents
Introduction, A Grand Dining Tradition
History, The Vision of Jesse Lincoln Driskill
About the Chef, David J. Bull
About the Recipes, Ten Guidelines for Great Cuisine
Breakfast in Bed, The Heritage Suite
Sunday Brunch, The 1886 Café & Bakery
Hot Summer Picnic, The Brazos Street Terrace
Texas Feast, The Crystal Room
Victorian Tea, The Driskill Lobby
Romantic Dinner for Two, The Driskill Grill
Wine & Cheese Reception, Maximillian Room
Thanksgiving Feast, The Citadel Club
Christmas Brunch, The Driskill Ballroom
New Year’s Eve Reception, Driskill Mezzanine
Epilogue, Excerpt from “A Cowboy’s Prayer”
Praise for The Driskill Hotel
“In its first foray into the world of book publishing, The Driskill Hotel has created a cookbook as opulent, classy, and pure D Texas as the hotel itself. This is a publication that can proudly share a coffee table with your finest art publications and glossy photography tomes.”
– Austin Chronicle
“The Driskill Hotel,… written by David Bull, the hotel’s national award-winning chef, and Austin writer Turk Pipkin is a feast of food and fact about a local landmark.”
– San Antonio Express-News
“Decadent, and so festive… The coffee-table style book is 125 pages of fascinating reading, menus, and recipes for modern-day entertaining.”
– Austin American-Statesman