Austin, Texas is a mecca for music lovers
Forget overblown Texas cliches, Austin is different.
Consider a street scene from downtown Congress Avenue. Under the neon signs advertising eateries and bars, a priest gently daubs ashes on a young woman's forehead. Meanwhile, two cops weave their mountain bikes between actors taking a break from filming a TV commercial. Bookending the avenue is the State Capitol building with its rotunda dome and Corinthian pillars, lending the streetscape an air of grace and dignity. In the space of one kilometre, a traveller can encounter neon, cops, Catholics, classical architecture, food, drink and shopping, all of which bodes well for fun in the evening.
In Austin, the party starts after sundown.
But first consider Austin as the Texan state capital. It is unlike any other city in Texas, proud locals proclaim. It's a liberal oasis in a sea of conservatism and definitely not flashy or brash, that much is evident in the architecture and the demeanour of the residents. Take Kyle, for example. I meet him in an Austin brew pub over a pint of American pale ale. He drives a Prius and works in something to do with animation. The successful Instagrammer - he posts about his life and family - recently visited Israel, all expenses paid thanks to having 100,000 followers on the platform. Hates Trump, liked Obama, loves Austin. He's typical of the friendly, enlightened, and urbane Texans found dancing in a bar or gulping oysters in a restaurant.
Look at the worn lino on the floor of the Continental Lounge to find the beating heart and tortured soul of the venue. Thousands of cowboy boots have pounded the '50s era lino into pure rock and roll patina.
There's a rhythm in the pattern that marks the passage of time. In front of the stage, what's left of the lino fades to a muddy brown, which gradually fans out to a grey delta of linoleum squares lapping the edge of the dance floor. And if that dance floor could talk, it would say "Rock me, baby, rock me all night long." Yes, BB King has played the Continental, as have Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tony Joe White, Lightnin' Hopkins, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Muddy Waters and Willie Nelson.
All the greats have played the Continental and many still do. But the artists don't need an international reputation to be great and some are heartbreakers, too.
It's Tuesday night at the Continental. Denny Freeman and Danny B Harvey are on stage blasting Texas blues rock to a packed house. The dance floor is a mess of plaid, boots and black hats gyrating to Denny and Danny's distorted guitar licks. The crowd is wild but civilised in a way that Kiwis mixing music and liquor can rarely be. Wait staff work the room, topping up highballs with local IPA. Despite a crush of hot bodies, they never spill a drop.
Anna Marie Lewis strides on stage for her guest vocal spot. The niece of Jerry Lee Lewis is a tall, blue-eyed blonde and has Texas hair. Lots of Texas hair. When she sings, she beams a smile as wide and bright as the chrome grille on her pickup parked out front. The 26-year-old rakes the crowd with tractor beam eyes that render men transfixed. Her set ends, hearts break, and the band plays on.
Austin folk are rightly proud of their live music scene. Any night, they say, you can find good live music and Antone's Nightclub's Fat Tuesday Celebration on Sixth Street is a good place to start.
On the Fat Tuesday in question, Interrobang are going full throttle. Big blaring horns, people dancing and patrons powered by a sublime pairing of booze and bonhomie. This is a place of raucous jazz, loose dancing and a glimpse into a scene that Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy might recognise and proclaim cool.
Uptown, upstairs and across railway tracks is The White Horse. It's similar to Antone's but on the night I visited, it was more couples whirling away on the dance floor than a hollow-eyed Coltrane-esque smoky jazz joint. The band was mellow and the players of uncertain vintage, but decidedly older than the band at Antone's. These guys would have tales to tell. Maybe they jammed with Duke Ellington in his tour bus (some were that old) or witnessed John Coltrane's life and talent wither at the end of a needle. It's that type of authenticity that is on offer in Austin.
On Willie Nelson Boulevard, not far from the music joints on Sixth Street, is a brutal looking building that requires exploration. This is the home of Austin City Limits, the longest running music series in American television history. It's a full-size auditorium hosting free weekly concerts. As rich as that is, it is our tour guide who mines the real gold. He has worked at the Moody Theatre (it's all the same place) for decades, so he knows the stars well. And yes, it's true that country legend Lucinda Williams really is difficult to work with. But is this reputation deserved? Lucinda says if she were a male performer, no one would mind that she was picky and demanding. Because she is a woman and expects the best out of a studio, musicians or whatever, she gets unfairly labelled by the patriarchy, she says. Sounds about right - but noooooooo, Lucinda really is difficult, our tour guide whispers into his open palm.
"She annoyed a lot of people in Austin."
And, let's face it, Austin people seem pretty laid back.
We're in the Moody Theatre where the bands play. Roadies hump PA gear on to the stage in readiness for a show later in the day. The gear changes according to the demands of the artist. The theatre has its own PA gear, but some artists will only play with their own. Those artists can be the difficult ones, says the tour guide, and when pressed, he mentions Don Henley of the Eagles.
"Precious about everything. A great guy and fantastic musician, but very precious."
On the subject of bands and excessive demands, the guide divulges a trade secret. When Van Halen were touring in the 1980s, among other things, they wanted bowls of M&Ms in their dressing room - but the brown ones had to be removed. This wasn't a childish abuse of power or privilege. It was a test to check whether management had read every word of the contract. If they got to a venue and there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, the band knew that the promoters were not taking them seriously and they would act accordingly.
First time visitors to Austin don't need to worry about small print. This city's agenda is about having a good time.
More information expedia.co.nz
Getting there: Book through Expedia. It's easy and a one-stop option. Fly direct to Houston on Air New Zealand and take a very quick internal flight on United Airlines to Austin. Prices start from $1524. See expedia.co.nz.
Staying there: Stay at the Westin Austin Downtown, which is a hop and skip away from the entertainment district. The hotel has a roof top bar and swimming pool. Rates start from $290. See westinaustindowntown.com for more information and expedia.co.nz for the best rates.
If you fancy something bigger - maybe you're visiting Austin with a large family or group of mates - try Homeaway.com. You can book a place to fit your holiday lifestyle and at competitive rates.
Being there: - Bring a big appetite, as food and drink is reasonably priced. For crazy good and insanely cheap tacos, try Tacodeli. A taco costs as little as US$2.50. For lunch try Perla's on Congress Avenue for sublime cocktails and the best red fish in the state. A seafood main costs between US$29 and US$35. Austin Eats food tour is hard to beat. Lucky's Puccias and Pizzaria is worth a look for a tasty and authentic puccia from US$7 to US$12. See austineatsfoodtours.com.
The writer travelled courtesy of Expedia and Brand USA.