Music is everywhere in Austin, so it’s not as if you have to look hard to find good tunes. Even the airport welcomes you to town with roving musicians.
This creates an enviable problem when it comes to selecting the best places to go for good music. On one hand, it’s hard to go wrong. On the other, you don’t want to miss out on something great.
The best-known venues are the biggest, such as Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater. But there are a number of smaller ones, too, that locals frequent to hear up-and-coming bands or big-name acts taking a break from tours.
Because people here know their musicians, the best bands will sell out, especially during one of the city’s many festivals. While your romantic notions of stepping into a dive bar and hearing a great up-and-coming act could come true, it’s always a good idea to order tickets ahead of time or arrive early to buy at the door.
Here is a sample of Austin’s best music venues.
Opened in February 2011, the Moody Theatre is one of Austin’s newest venues and the new home to the Austin City Limits Live series, which features everyone from Emmylou Harris to Cheap Trick. While most concerts won’t appear on the PBS show, all of them are part of ACL.
“The hall holds 2,300 people but feels surprisingly intimate,” says Ian Fletcher, a longtime Austinite and service industry veteran, who says the Moody “hands down has the best sound system, engineers, and lighting of any venue in Austin.” During the day Monday through Friday, take a behind-the-scenes venue tour. Through 2014, concertgoers and tour-takers can see a wide-ranging display of work by famed music photographer Jim Marshall.
The granddaddy of the Austin music scene, the Continental Club on South Congress is one the longest-running original live music venues in Austin. The small venue fits right in with Austin’s retro South Congress Feels neighborhood, and walking inside is like walking back in time. Expect to hear lots of homegrown talent (James McMurtry and Alejandro Escovedo are regulars) singing soulful ballads and Texas-style country.
Aside from supporting up-and-coming local artists, the Mohawk is best known for the sheer variety of its acts — it has showcased everything from Run-DMC to Lyle Lovett in its indoor and outdoor rooms. “I've seen a lot of talented rappers here before they broke into the mainstream,” Fletcher said, adding that the snug venue epitomizes its Red River neighborhood’s non-traditional yet welcoming attitude.
Stubb’s combines two quintessential Austin experiences: barbecue and music. Focusing more on a well-curated slate of known names, it still plays homage to less famous acts with unsigned artist showcases. Attend a “gospel brunch” for some soul with your food. The outdoor amphitheater, with a capacity of about 1,500, is an ideal place to spend a warm summer evening with a cold beverage.
If you only have time to wander through one part of Austin looking for good music, head to the Red River District. The Red Eyed Fly is just one of its venues with a dive-bar feel inside and rocking tunes on the patio. “It has an outdoor stage with a creek running behind it that I once watched the Trail of Dead throw their equipment into at the end of a set,” said entertainment writer Dan Nailen.
If you’ve wondered where Austin’s musicians go to hear music when they’re not playing, this is it. Fletcher recommends heading to the intimate space on South Lamar for “impromptu jam sessions made up of Austin’s finest musicians on any given night.” You’ll find Chris Duarte or another talented musician playing the guitar and singing for an appreciative crowd.