Nashville may be the seat of the country music industry. And yes, Detroit might be known as the birthplace of rock. But don’t overlook Austin, which holds the throne when it comes to the ability to hear live music coming out of every corner on any given night of the week.
The Lone Star State’s capital city isn’t called the “Live Music Capital of the World” for nothing; in fact, from country and rock to rhythm and blues, locals and visitors alike can catch as many as a dozen live bands in one night just by walking down a certain city street.
Here, we take a look at the best places to hear live music in Austin, from an underground jazz club and a classic blue-collar bar to a sound-filled city street and a hallowed hall of music history still keeping the beat today.
The Red River District
For music lovers in search of a sonic adventure, there’s no higher concentration of live music around than that of Red River Street, a stretch of which boasts a wide array of places to rock the night away. Toward the street’s southern tip, indie bands play Beerland night after night while The Mohawk often boasts a roster of rock bands with cult status and Elysium hosts dance parties set to the pulse of electro-pop, goth and alternative acts. The grande dame of Red River Street, Stubb’s BBQ — across the street from Hotel Indigo Austin Downtown – University — might look like a typical brisket house from the outside, but beyond its doors lie a down-home restaurant serving up smoked meats galore and two live music venues: an intimate indoor stage and a grand amphitheater running alongside Waller Creek. Top names and up-and-comers alike play on Stubb’s stages year after year, from local favorites (and soon-to-be national superstars) like Shakey Graves (born and bred in Austin) and Leon Bridges (hailing from Ft. Worth) to icons like Wilco and Lauryn Hill. (Pro tip: its weekly gospel brunch on Sunday isn’t to be missed.) And the best part is, Red River’s most musical spots are all within a few steps of one another.
ACL Live at The Moody Theater
Home to the esteemed PBS television show Austin City Limits, which arguably put the city on the nation’s music map 40 years ago, the ACL Live stage was named “Best New Major Concert Venue” by Pollstar in 2012 shortly after opening. Once inhabiting a humble space on the UT Austin campus, the show now tapes in the state-of-the-art Moody Theater on a stretch of 2nd Street renamed “Willie Nelson Boulevard” in 2010 after one of Austin’s most notable and beloved musical citizens. Including television tapings and regular live shows, the theater hosts nearly 100 acts each year; to date, legends from Robert Plant and Bonnie Raitt to hot modern acts like Sturgill Simpson and Andra Day have all graced the stage at some point.
The Continental Club
For a down-home dose of authentic Austin goodness, amble down South Congress Avenue past the vintage shops, local cafes and unassuming eateries and stop into The Continental Club, a longtime staple of good local music. Keeping the music going since 1955, it started out as an upscale supper club and later became what it describes as a “working man’s blue collar bar” that opened every morning at 7 a.m. Names like Joe Ely, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble were all regular performers in the ’70s and early ’80s, followed by a new wave/punk period with Social Distortion, The Replacements and The True Believers all stopping through. These days, you can hear rock, blues and Americana seven nights a week, often with a stacked lineup of two or three bands in a row. And on weekends, the party starts early — 3:30 pm, to be exact.
The Elephant Room
Tucked into an unassuming space at Congress Avenue and 3rd Street, just a short walk shy of the Texas Capitol Building, sits the best underground jazz club in central Texas. The Elephant Room forms the base of a stack of three establishments, with the upscale concept restaurant COUNTER 3. FIVE. VII above it and the sumptuous Swift’s Attic bar on top; foodies and music lovers can make a night of it by stopping into all three (with dinner reservations made well in advance). The club offers a nightly show at 9:30, preceded by a happy-hour show at 6 pm, when seats are a bit easier to snag. Descend the stairs into the dim jazz hall and forget your worries as its blue notes take you back in time for a couple of hours. Oh, and don’t forget the dirty martini, extra olives.