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Conclusion on Austin as Live Music Capital of the World

November 23, 2012

I’ve been off the blog a bit as I had to travel from Austin, Texas to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Then I spent some time playing music with my friend Bruno Santos in Sao Paulo as I tried to hold back the grip of the fatigue of the lack of sleep on the flights from the U.S. to Sao Paulo. But that gave me time to digest the Austin experience a little bit in order to come good on my resolution last week to write on this blog my conclusion about whether Austin really is the live music capital of the world, as it likes to call itself.

I think my last night in Austin, on Tuesday, greatly filled out a very important aspect of the whole puzzle. I went from one open mic Internet listing page to another seeking out open mics on Tuesday night in Austin. I read the notes I had taken in Paris through Austin friends, as to where I should go on Tuesday night. I then walked the streets of Austin to find these places…. And one after another of the five or six or so choices that I had recently closed down or had not existed for a long time.

Even some of the most highly recommended open mics, such as the one at the Ruta Maya Coffee company and the one at the strange place called Whip In, no longer exist. Ruta Maya found itself being affected by high rents and it closed down its long-standing and legendary shop on Congress Avenue. Then, other places I visited either did not know anything about the open mic listings or had closed.

What does this mean? It means that in one sense Austin is either no different from everywhere else in the world with its fragile open mic scene – places rising and falling, opening and closing – or the economic problems have meant that it could no longer support a massive number of open mics.

Having said that, I was still able to find an open mic venue on Tuesday night, at a huge and interesting venue called Rusty’s, on 7th street. It turned out it is primarily a gay bar, but Tuesday night the majority of the audience was made of women – well, all right, mostly lesbians. That was absolutely no problem at all for me, and in fact, it was great to find yet another kind of open mic. Having said that, Rusty’s open mic has nothing to do with sexual predilection. Apparently the owner of the bar just loves music and so called for an open mic to answer to that need.

Unfortunately, there were not that many people present and not many performers. Those who were there were really interesting, though, my own personal favorite being the duo who call themselves “Baby Killers.” Nice name. I loved the dulcimer and cool vocals. I said it sounded a little like some kind of cross between early 70s folk and even progressive rock of that time – in fact, they consider themselves “Progressive Folk.”

Well, I just LOVED playing in Rusty’s. Standing on that huge stage and having this massive, voluminous room with a hugely high up ceiling, it was like playing in a concert hall. Beautiful – even if there were only a handful of people listening… at least they WERE listening.

So what about it? This boast of being the live music capital of the world? I learned that there is a special health coverage system for musicians in Austin. Venues, instruments, musicians, they are ALLLLL over the place. But the boast is really difficult to judge. In the end, I realize that there cannot be any live music capital of the world. There are only cities that have a more or less large musical culture. For me, few cities beat Istanbul for that. But if you look at the small size of the Austin population – under a million – and if you look at the small size of the downtown area and the concentration of live music, it is massive.

And it is great. And musicians seem to congregate there, and the city loves its musicians. So I would have to conclude that Austin is definitely one of the great music cities on earth – but there is no such thing as a live music capital of the world anywhere, in my opinion. It makes for a great marketing ploy, and a great statement of intent and love, in any case.

Weird Adventures in Austin Continue

November 20, 2012

The original challenge on this blog last week was for me to find out if Austin truly is the live music capital of the world, as it calls itself. I had no idea that over the full three next nights of my stay here I would not find out anything about that fact due to Austin ALSO being what it likes to call, a “weird” place, with a city motto of: “Keep Austin Weird.” I can now conclude on that part with a definite YES.

Austin is weird all right. But I’m hoping to establish over the next two nights whether it is the live music capital of the world. The weird bit got in the way on all three nights, although last night I finally, finally began having indications that this COULD be the live music capital of the world.

Weird? Well, the thing is this: Although I had basically resigned myself to the fact on Friday that I had missed the most likely open mic for me to do – a thing at a coffee house from 5 PM to 7 PM, because it was too early, I did nevertheless have an errand to run also. That errand was for myself and it had to do with going to the airport to pick up my passport, which I had left on my flight from Dallas to Austin on the Wednesday night, and which had finally been found.

Standing in the lobby of my hotel in downtown Austin, the reception desk people called the taxi dispatcher and ordered me a cab. After 20 minutes, and no cab, the reception called again. Each time they had been assured a cab would be sent – after all, this was a dispatcher for a cab company. They called a third time after another 20 minute wait. No cab, in fact, ever came in response to the call. That said, I did get a cab when one dropped off another person at the hotel. So I did get my passport.

That seemed a little weird, and what seemed weirder was that the reception people thought I was weird for thinking that was weird. It seemed it was normal in Austin. Okay, fine. So the next night, Saturday, I found the most wonderful looking open mic, at the Cigar Room in Lakeway, a suburb of Austin.

The deal was that the musician who got the best crowd reaction to his or her music actually would win $150!!! It is a weekly thing, and if there are four musicians or more, the prize money is there to be won. I was really, really excited about the challenge, and keen to try my crowd-pleaser songs (What’s Up!, Mad World and Father and Son seemed right.)

So I went to the hotel lobby and booked a cab.

Yes, you got it. You understand. No cab. Same deal as the night before. Exactly the same deal. Same story. Now I knew that Austin was definitely the crappiest cab capital of the world, no doubt. But again, the reception person in the hotel seemed to think I was the weird one, expecting a cab to arrive once it had been ordered. Was I in the Addams Family show, I wondered?

Anyway, the open mic was located 20 miles outside the city, it started at 9 PM, and it was already after 8 PM by the time I had spent an hour waiting for the cab. I decided to kill the idea, thinking that if I ended up in Lakeway with no cab at the end of the night I’d NEVER get back. Oh, I forgot to mention that during that hour wait I did also go out in front of the road and try flagging down a few of the empty cabs that passed by on the road out front…none of them stopped. I think they might have been scared of my guitar case on my back, but I’m not sure I understand. It was weird. I gave up.

So I asked where there was a good Mexican restaurant. And as I walked there to where the reception people had recommended, I passed by the coffee house that runs the open mic on Friday night that was too early for me (as I was at the race track at that time). I decided to ask them about their open mic. I then told them about my taxi cab story.

“Hey, we called a cab last night for a man here, and it didn’t come either,” said one of the women.

Okay. Austin is weird.

So anyway…. last night I finally decided to defy all cabs in Austin and walk into the downtown area to attend an open mic at the 311 Club located at 311 East 6th Street. From my hotel across the river it was only a 15 minute walk at the most, and I wanted to finally see Austin and see if there really was live music all over the place. To say nothing of my desire to play in the open mic.

So I navigate my way across the river and as I get to the center of the town I hear music everywhere and I begin to get excited. I am so looking forward to doing my own music at the 311 Club – which had several listings on the Internet for its open mic every Sunday night – that I don’t stop to listen to any of the bands.

I get to the 311 Club to find it all closed down and looking like it is out of business. Yes, well, that was kind of weird too. So no open mic.

Oh, and just before that I had run into Lisa, the MC of the Flipnotics open mic from Thursday as she drove up 6th on her pedicab. She offered me a free lift, but I said I could walk. Small city, Austin, I thought. And I was reminded of the only good night I had thus far had in this musical city.

But I decided just to walk down 6th and see if I could find any action, and taste the live music sounds. In fact, it started feeling a little like Istanbul, which I consider the live music capital of the world, with all the various kinds of music pouring out of the bar facades and a kind of wall of sound hitting you in the face in the street.

A few doors down from the 311 Club a guy outside a bar called Agave sees my guitar and asks if I want to go in and jam. I look inside, and there is a man at a mic singing a karaoke.

“With my guitar?” I ask.

“Yeah, just ask the man on the mic.”

That was it, I go into the long, dark bar with around 10 women standing at the bar and only one or two guys, and I get a beer, listen to the karaoke and ask the guy who was singing if I can plug in and play and sing.

“Yeah, go ahead!”

So I do. And then a couple of women want to use my guitar and play – it’s the birthday of one of them – and then I do another song. So we have a karaoke that has become an open mic in the most relaxed manner I have ever seen outside Istanbul. And I begin saying to myself, “This COULD be the live music capital of the world.”

But whatever it was, and weird is certainly part of it, I liked it. More adventures to follow!

Super Cool and Sometimes Weird Flipnotics Open Mic in Weird Austin

November 17, 2012

It was a sign. Definitely a clear sign. I was pressed for time and got back into downtown Austin at 7:20 PM. I had about six choices of open mics to attend, but a reader of this blog – the nicely-named Christy Moore – had suggested to me that I attend one called Flipnotics. I checked a list given to me by two Austin musicians in Paris, and Flipnotics was also one of the two best suggested for Thursday nights. So I looked for the address and found… it was 10 to 15 minutes walk down the street from my hotel, without even turning a corner…. Furthermore, it had been suggested that I show up by 7:30 to sign up, although the open mic starts at 8 PM. Could things be set up any better than that?

So, yes, I saw it as a sign. A freaky, really cool sign that the first open mic I should attend was a neat 15 minute walk from my hotel without me planning it. I went, got to this funky cafe-cum-bar called Flipnotics, and found the very cool Lisa setting up the stage. A few minutes later, around 7:45, she came out to the terrace where all the hippie-like musicians stood around discussing open mics, and told us the list was open. Oh, but first, she made sure that two or three musicians who did not get a chance to play the previous week were first to choose their spots on the list.

I knew from then on that I was in good hands, this was a class act, that Lisa was a true blue open mic MC. I would see that even more as the evening progressed. Oh, I almost lost faith when once she had got those first names on the list she basically said the list was open, go at it…. and it was each man, woman and weirdo to him or herself as we all descended like crazy people on the list to try and write our names in the 20 or so open slots. (I think there were 17 musicians.)

My mention of weird is NOT an insult. Austin, you should know – if you do not already – has as its motto: Keep Austin Weird. So I would have been disappointed, I now see in retrospect, if there was not some weirdness and weird musicians at this open mic. I was to be rewarded with weird!!! But only two of the 17 could really be called weird. So it was not in any way an impediment to the beauty of the evening. It was fun.

In fact the whole evening was fun. There was a real broad cross-section of musicians, songwriters, and even a bit of rap-type stuff. The place has a fabulous cozy feel to it – funky like I said – and Lisa is very strict about keeping the audience quiet to listen. And if you want to talk, you can go out a little beyond the terrace, or porch, and speak and warm up. Or you can go through the doors into the bar area and talk at the bar, order a beer or glass of wine – and some kind of Mexican food I do not recall the name of, but which I ate for dinner. It was okay.

It turns out that there has been an open mic at Flipnotics for years, but it had ceased to exist for a few years too before Lisa took it over a few years ago. Lisa is one of these special breed of open mic MCs who has a style about her that is really pleasant, and a basic openness and love of the musicians who come to perform. A real, cool, traditional open mic worth the visit. And that sign of it being just down the street could not have been more clear. Hope I do as well over the next few days….

Is Austin, Texas Really the Live Music Capital of the World

November 15, 2012

I arrived in Austin, Texas last night late and had a problem at the airport and no time to go out and play in my first open mic. But I will have plenty of time in the coming week to do so, and I just wanted to put up a quick post to lay out the challenge and set the stage for the coming days. On my worldwide adventure of attending open mics and jam sessions over the past four years I have found lots and lots of musical cities and made new discoveries. I had never been to Austin before, but I knew that it called itself “the live music capital of the world.” Naturally, my reaction to that was: Prove it.

My feeling was, this is another one of those American boasts that if it happens in the United States, it must be the best. The center of the world. The “World Series of Baseball Syndrome,” you might say. But two things have led me to believe that I might, I just MIGHT have my mind changed over the course of the next week as I taste the music scene and perform in the open mics in Austin.

That feeling not only has to do with the massive number of open mics and music venues that I see listed on the internet and in the local papers. It also has to do with the small taste of the city I have had in my first couple of hours there this morning before heading out to the race track.

And ultimately, can you imagine my enormous surprise when I went to the baggage claim belt at the Austin Bergstrom International Airport and found a bunch of statues of guitars above the baggage belt?!?!?! I had my own guitar on my back, and a feeling of come “home” was huge. I could not believe it! I almost felt comical, like someone who has show up by accident at a Halloween party in bizarre costume one usually wears out of eccentricity.

That may be pushing for metaphors, but it was an amazing and odd feeling. Keep tuned to see how things progress.

Having said all that. While I am seeking my own answer to the question, what do you think? Answer my poll question:

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