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For Austin’s music scene, change is inevitable

Touring the venues of the Red River District

Live Music Capital of the World: It’s a well-known and deserved moniker for Austin—the Texas capital city has more live music venues per capita than any other city in the nation. And the center of Austin’s music community is the Red River District, a collection of about a dozen venues that, since the late 1980s and early 1990s, has operated within a four-block span on and around downtown’s Red River Street, between 10th and 6th Streets.


"Clubs like Emo’s [that opened in the 1990s] helped plant the flag that said, ‘Red River is a music street,’" says Graham Williams, owner of local concert promotion company Margin Walker Presents and former longtime booker at seminal club Emo’s, which shuttered its original downtown location in 2011. "This is where people go to see bands. Sixth Street is where to go get drunk and puke all night, and this is where people go to see music."

Though that sentiment is unanimous among venue owners, operators, music fans, and city officials alike—the city even officially renamed the area the Red River Cultural District in 2013 in an effort to preserve its creative spaces—the district’s rise has come with its fair share of challenges, including drastically increased rents over the past few years (causing a handful of mainstay clubs to shut down or relocate), encroaching commercial developments, and a burgeoning homeless population that overflows the adjacent Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

For newcomers to downtown like Jason McNeely, co-owner of Barracuda, one of the biggest challenges is getting city officials to allocate funds for simple beautification, like improved sidewalks and additional trash cans, that could increase feelings of comfort and safety in the neighborhood, which would in turn, theoretically, increase everyday foot traffic.

"We’re trying to fight off urban decay," says McNeely, a longtime Austin venue operator who invested in Barracuda, a replacement for local favorite Red 7, toward the end of 2015. "I look at certain downtown Austin areas that have had major revitalization efforts, but we’re the only area that’s considered an official venue district in the Live Music Capital of the World, and we are getting a lot less attention than other neighborhoods have gotten."

Cheer Up Charlies co-owner Maggie Lea agrees that aesthetic improvements need to be made to increase foot traffic, but her venue in particular is affected by new urban developments, particularly a Holiday Inn venture, Hotel Indigo, and an under-construction Hyatt, which initially threatened the existence of the natural limestone rock wall that served as the venue’s iconic outdoor stage backdrop. Though many see the developments as inevitable and integral to the area’s growth, rumblings over construction in the district’s north end helped spark a movement dubbed ‘Defend Red River,’ which has been adopted by many Red River public figures—such as Mohawk general manager Cody Cowan, the Sidewinder co-owner Ritchard F. Napierkowski, and Williams, to a degree—as a key, community-driven force working to preserve the district’s vitality.

"Red River has more venues, more people coming to it, more going on, and more support from the city than it ever has before," says Williams. "All the other challenges are just things that happen with any growing city and any growing market, and I think everyone just has to adjust to that and keep it going. [Defend Red River] is saying ‘Hey, we’re fans of all these customers and all this growth and all these things that are happening, but if you’re building hotels, great—let’s make sure that these hotels work with us and are a part of Red River, not against it.’"

A crowd at the outdoor Mohawk venue in Austin.

Colin Croom, keyboardist of Chicago rock band Twin Peaks, does a midair flip after jumping from a high wall at the Mohawk during the group’s September 20, 2016 show on the venue’s outdoor stage. Though that sort of behavior may pose a liability, it’s in line with the hardcore punk ethos carried over from long-gone Red River venues like Emo’s, where, in the early days, much wilder things occurred, "like people getting beat down with cymbal stands and mob fights," says general manager Cody Cowan, who got his start at Emo’s on Sixth.

"It’s an adult environment," he explains. "You can’t tell people how to act, think, and interact with other people. You can call timeout if people start doing illegal or dangerous things, but otherwise people should just be able to let off steam, have fun, and enjoy whatever it is they’re getting out of this."

Cody Cowan stands next to the stage at the Mohawk, an outdoor venue in Austin.

"It’s a great time in terms of the wealth of experience in Austin," says Cowan. "I have over 500 years of experience at Mohawk alone counting up peoples years of experience in the industry. And I think that story can be found to be true at most venues around town. Just the collective experience is overwhelming ... That allows for a wealth of knowledge, creative solutions, and know-how to keep costs down and to keep the experience for bands and guests excellent."

Jess Williamson on stage at Cheer Up Charlies, the stage has a psychedelic floral pattern being projected on it.

When it moved from its East Sixth Street location to the Red River District in early 2014, Cheer Up Charlies (known lovingly by locals as "Cheer Ups") took full advantage of the natural limestone rock wall that lines one corner of its patio, often projecting colorful visuals across its sprawling face during artists’ performances (seen here with local songwriter Jess Williamson, June 21, 2014).

Maggie in the patio at Cheer Up Charlies, sitting at a table with a large parachute canopy on top.

"We’re on the board of the [Red River] Cultural District and I feel like that’s our best effort to defend Red River," says Maggie Lea. "I feel like, if you’re not the squeaky wheel and you don’t talk to the city all the time, you’re just not gonna get any attention. We’ve been working on beautifying the street, getting more trashcans out here … that’s my concept of defending the street. Let’s care about it. Let’s get people down here again."

A packed crowd in front of a stage with lights and the band HAIM performing.

A sold-out crowd at Stubb’s BBQ’s 2,200-capacity outdoor amphitheater goes wild for Los Angeles outfit Haim, who headlined this year’s Waller Creek Conservancy benefit concert on October 5, 2016, one of hundreds of events the venue hosts each year. Key industry players revere the barbecue restaurant/music joint, which opened on Red River in 1996, as one of the keys to the Cultural District’s vitality. "Stubb’s bred a lot of the smaller venues around it," says Williams. Adds Barracuda co-owner Jason McNeely, "Stubb’s is, in my opinion, one of the spaces that Austin can really be proud of. It is very enduring and iconic. Watching them do what they’ve done over the last decade has really been super inspiring to me, for what is possible downtown and on Red River."

A view of the street in the red river district with many venues.

In 2015, massive rent hikes at two essential Seventh Street spots, Holy Mountain and Red 7, caused both venues to cease operations. Subsequently, operators of the latter club combined forces with partners at long-running Red River venue Red Eyed Fly, transforming it within a span of days into the Sidewinder (left), which now neighbors classic clubs Beerland and Elysium, both established in 2001.

Napierkowski in front of the stage made of stone with purple light at his venue.

"Defend Red River and the Red River Cultural District aren’t here to halt development," says Napierkowski. "We’re to make sure that new people come and in and realize what we already have … that we can keep the local flavor alive. In other cities, there’s not really one strip or street like this. Philly has a sort of Sixth Street with a few venues. New Orleans, same deal. New York City is getting tighter in certain areas, but even it’s fragmented. We all basically try to get along in the sense of a familial way, and we have community outreach that you really don’t see other places. A lot of the agreements with the city and Mayor Steve Adler are starting to happen. I’m still a realist, but I think we need a few optimists just to get that positive energy back."

Band frontwoman Jennifer, surfing the crowd while playing guitar.

Jennifer Clavin, frontwoman of Los Angeles-based band Bleached, crowd-surfs during the group’s April 4, 2016, concert at the Sidewinder. Upholding the punk and DIY roots of its predecessor the Red Eyed Flynot to mention former Red River mainstay Emo’sthe club’s operators welcome audiences and bands to get a little extra rowdy, within reason. Says co-owner Ritchard F. Napierkowski: "We let people relax a little bit and actually enjoy that environment. It’s controlled, despite being chaotic."

Street view of the Empire Control Room & Garage, with a mural on the side of the building and a small crowd hanging on the sidewalk out front.

Since opening in 2013, the 15,000-square-foot Empire Control Room & Garage (at Red River and Seventh Street) has grown to include three full stages: the "garage," converted from a former auto shop into a covered outdoor platform; the "control room," the indoor performance space decked out with 300-degree projection capabilities; and the "patio," which typically hosts outdoor dance parties adjacent to Waller Creek. The venue can run multiple events simultaneously on any given night, making it one of the most effective multipurpose event spaces in the district.

A crowd watching Austin-based hip-hop collective LNS Crew, performing in front of a wall that says Empire Automotive Service.

A scene from Austin-based hip-hop collective LNS Crew’s performance during the inaugural Weird City Hip-Hop Festival (September 27, 2014) depicts the beginnings of Empire Control Room & Garage’s outdoor "garage" stage. Since then, the stage has been expanded, fully covered (within the former auto shop apparatus), and decked out with permanent lights and sound equipment.

A band member and a fan both flipping their long hair at a show.

Mexico City rock outfit the Risin’ Sun performs to a full house on November 25, 2016, at Barracuda, which took over the vacant space (formerly Red 7) in late 2015. Says McNeely (who also co-owns Hotel Vegas on East Sixth): "People see the place packed out and just assume, ‘Goddammit these guys must be fucking cleaning up.’ But we have a long way to go before breaking even financially with Barracuda. Every single person involved in the partnership is dedicated to the idea of creating the dream venue that we’ve always wanted. For us, it’s really about that we wanna contribute to bringing the neighborhood, our block, back to the potential that it always had."

The manager at Barracuda leaning on the pool table at the venue, next to a large window with some stained glass colored panels.

"I feel hopeful about the future of Red River because I think there’s a very intelligent, very motivated assembly of people who are very dedicated to navigating ourselves out of the situation that we’re in right now," says McNeely. "We’ve been meeting and talking to people that are involved in planning and development, partnering with the Waller Creek Conservancy and different neighborhood groups and exploring ideas and strategies to curb urban decay. With Barracuda … we just jumped in at a moment in time where it’s important for us all to come together with all the development happening around us to define the neighborhood for what it is and what its potential is."

Inside of Swan Dive, the venue has off white walls, with a wall of glass windows next to the band and some nooks with booths.

Swan Dive, which historically housed part of seminal Red River punk spot the Cavity Club (where GG Allin famously started a riot and was arrested for assaulting fans with his feces in 1992), now boasts one of the most distinct interior spaces in the district (its lavish-looking white lounge spaces, booths, and quirky bits of architecture can be seen here during Austin band Carry Illinois’s set on December 12, 2014). Since the closing of the original Emo’s location on Sixth Street in 2011, the multipurpose venue is now Red River’s southernmost live music haven.

Graham Williams by a wall on the street outside of the venues.

"Everyone’s jobs and livelihoods depend on, to a degree, more community," says Williams. "The worry shouldn’t be that people are developing here. The worry is, how do we keep and hold onto the things that are great, the things that are the reasons people are moving here? How do we hang on to those and protect them? And that’s where the Defend Red River thing comes in. It’s not saying, ‘Stay out of Red River.’ It’s saying, ‘Keep Red River vital.’"

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