Day 5: Austin, or The Only City in Texas That Weenie Liberals Like Me Approve Of
Woke up early on Day 5 and bombed to Austin. Stayed on the south side of town and made my first couple of stops in that area. The first was the Horseshoe Lounge.
Why did I go to this random dive bar, you ask? Because it’s the subject of one of my favorite country songs.
How much do I like this song? I saw Slaid Cleaves play a show in Berkeley a while back, and I had him sign the label (halfway peeled off, of course) on my beer bottle.
After peeling a label off a Miller Lite at the Horseshoe Lounge, I spent a couple of hours walking around South Congress Avenue. This is the strip that spawned a million “Keep Austin Weird” t-shirts, a five-or-six block stretch of funky shops that’s basically Telegraph Avenue in cowboy boots. But oh, the cowboy boots.
For what it’s worth, “weird” is a relative term. I mean, really, if you’ve seen one artisan market, you’ve seen them all. Rastafarian dudes and old hippies selling homemade jewelry and glassware. South Austin might seem weird if you’re from Abilene, but not if you’re from Portland.
I had dinner at Chuy’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant that came recommended from a friend and is probably the most famous of its ilk in Austin. It was fine—I had a combo with a taco, enchiladas, and flautas (sorry, forgot to take a picture) but I’d like to make a general statement that isn’t really meant as a specific knock on Chuy’s: The reason most of the Mexican food in America sucks is that people think that Tex-Mex is Mexican food. Ground beef crispy tacos and refried beans overloaded with melted cheese—the hallmark of Tex-Mex—is NOT Mexican food. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that a Mission burrito at El Farolito might not be all that authentic either, but at least the flavors are a little closer to the real thing. Spicier, more complex. I could write a thousand words on this, but I think you get the point.
That night I went down to Austin’s famous Sixth Street to catch some music. The police close the street to traffic at night, and the bars that line either side host a variety of live music acts—country, rock, blues. The thing that struck me most about the scene here was how friendly the musicians are. At the end of the first set I watched, I was walking out and one of the musicians shook my hand and thanked me for coming. At the second bar, where the Eric Tessmer Band played, people were walking up and talking to the band members during the set, including one middle-aged woman who gave the guitarist a hug in the middle of a song. Maybe it’s a southern hospitality thing, or maybe it’s because there are so many musicians in town that they have to make themselves more accessible, but overall I liked it. (For what it’s worth, I found the musicians to be similarly friendly in Memphis and Nashville. But those cities are also both southern and full of musicians, so while the respective dominant styles of music are different, they didn’t help me come to any further conclusions.)
A bit more on the Eric Tessmer Band: Their eponymous guitarist was fucking incredible. He had a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan in his playing (no surprise, I mean, they have a statue of SRV in Austin), but he played some licks that were so crazy they made me want to quit playing guitar, because I’ll never, ever approach what that guy could do. The show took on an amusing tone when the guitarist hooked his guitar to a remote amplifier connection, which allowed him to wander around the bar, then behind the bar, where he poured drinks for people and took shots with the bartenders, and ultimately outside on the street, where he smoked a cigarette, all while continuing to stay in sync with the band onstage.
Needless to say, I enjoyed this show. Thumbs up, Austin. You’re not really that weird, but I do hope we meet again someday.
Next Time: An extremely long post with lots of pictures about a city I love so much it’s going to kill me some day.