Austin bills itself the "Live Music Capital of the World," and I didn't want to leave town without seeing any. I asked my local connections where to go and they said, "It doesn't matter." So last night around 8 I walked out of the hotel and into the club district. I went first into a pub where a bluesman with an acoustic guitar was singing and blowing the harmonica, mostly old standards from the 50s and 60s. He was pretty good, but I was in the mood for something rowdier so after half an hour I headed out into the night. In truth, the density of live entertainment in this little district is amazing. Within four blocks along 5th and 6th Streets and the streets in between there must be at least 30 clubs featuring live music, and at 9 o'clock on a Thursday somebody was playing in half of them. The doors were wide open on this warm January night, so I just wandered around and listened until I found something that sounded good. Barkers were in the doors of the bars shouting, "No Cover! Two-fifty beers!" Blues was the dominant form, and rhythm & blues, shading into country rock, but there was also jazz and at least one hard rocking band. I listened for a few minutes to a blues trio, guys on drums and bass and a skinny white woman singing and playing keyboards, and another time to one of those bluesy rock bands with three skinny white guys playing and a fat black woman singing. (Do they hang out together after the show?) Then I heard something that made my ears perk up and slid into a classic, narrow dive bar. Two young guys were playing guitars, one accoustic and the other electric. They were both pudgy, but the guy on the electric looked presentable enough. The other guy was fat and double-chinned and wearing an old ball cap with a faded logo advertising something I didn't recognize, and a sort of stupid, staring look in his eyes. He looked like a mechanic you would be afraid to leave your car with. But they could play. It's been a long time since I heard two guys put out that much energy and make that much noise. They had a sort of Marshall Tucker-Charlie Daniels sound, and they did a great version of "Can't You See" that had a bunch of 50-year-old men up stomping and singing along. Their "Street Corner Girl" was nearly as good. I stayed until they finished, around 11, tipped them and went home happy.
The high ratio of entertainers to audience was great for me but must be hard on the players sometimes. I got great seats in both bars I went into, since there were only about 25 people listening to the bluesman and maybe 30 listening to the country rock guys. Without the energy that comes from a crowd it was up to the performers to create everything. The bluesman seemed to be feeling the lack, and he made some half-hearted attempts to get people more involved. They two young guys just played like this is what they do for fun, audience or no, and that worked much better. Without cover they can't be paid much (if anything), so I put money in all the tip jars. Since I listened to a whole evening of music for the price of two beers, I could afford it.