NTTC attendees will find a city that cherishes its roots but also celebrates its independence with dynamic music and museums

April 1, 2013
Austin is the capital of Texas, the seat of Travis County, the 13th-most populous city in America, the fourth-most populous in Texas

Austin is the capital of Texas, the seat of Travis County, the 13th-most populous city in America, the fourth-most populous in Texas, and the home of the University of Texas.

It was settled by pioneers in the 1830s who arrived and loved what they saw along the Colorado River. In 1839 — shortly after Republic of Texas Vice President Mirabeau Lamar visited the area during a buffalo-hunting expedition and proposed that the republic's capital, then located in Houston, be relocated to the area on the north bank of the Colorado River — the site was officially chosen as the republic's new capital and was incorporated under the name Waterloo. The name was later changed to Austin in honor of Stephen F Austin, the “Father of Texas” and the republic's first secretary of state.

That's the clinical information. But Austinites really aren't much into clinical. You can probably discern that from one of the city's favorite slogans: “Keep Austin Weird.”

The city is an eclectic, liberal, dynamic island in a largely conservative state.

Also known as “The Live Music Capital of the World” — a reference to the proliferation of musicians and the long-running PBS television concert series, Austin City Limits. Austin has more music venues per capita than any city in America.

The city's music revolves around the dozens of nightclubs on 6th Street and an annual film/music/interactive festival known as South by Southwest (SXSW).

Attendees at the NTTC's 65th Annual Conference and Equipment Show April 28-30 will find a city bursting with activity.

It starts at the airport, where visitors are entertained with live music as they walk through the terminal after deplaning. Musicians play in everything from grocery stores (Central Market, Whole Foods) to city council meetings, and also play outdoors at the Blues on the Green series and at festivals. They're at clubs, coffeehouses, bars, taquerias, auditoriums, and concert halls.

Check out honky tonker Dale Watson or twangy guitarist Redd Volkaert at the Continental Club for retro and roots music. If blues is your style, see veterans Jimmie Vaughan or Marcia Ball, or up-and-comers Gary C Clark and Carolyn Wonderland at legendary Antone's. The country two-steppers at the Broken Spoke put on a great show, especially favorites like Alvin Crow or Jesse Dayton. Acoustic singer-songwriters Eliza Gilkyson or Jimmie Dale Gilmore are featured at the Cactus Club. For jazz, the Elephant Room features Elias Haslanger blowing sax or Kat Edmondson scat-singing.

There are whole districts of clubs around downtown. Some present stylistically similar music in each room, such as Red River, where contemporary rockers play original material; others are more varied, such as the Warehouse District. Visitors can also check out Waterloo Records, one of the last comprehensive, independent record stores left in the nation. There are commemorative discs honoring those in the Austin Music Memorial in the Long Center for the Performing Arts City Terrace overlooking Lady Bird Lake. The historic Victory Grill is a stop on the rhythm and blues Chitlin Circuit of the postwar years. The bronze Stevie Ray Vaughan statue at Auditorium Shores is a popular place for photos.

The cluster of clubs that has recently formed around 6th Street east of I-35 are completely independent of the seven-block stretch of clubs on 6th just west of I-35 that since the mid-'70s has been known as “Sixth Street,” the focal point for live music. These emerging venues, which share the district with several new restaurants, occasionally book touring bands, but rely mainly on local acts, and so far draw most of their crowds from the surrounding neighborhood.

The White Horse, the most popular, presents a string of weekly “house bands” with a rootsy Austin vibe. The Sahara Lounge primarily mixes blues in with West African, Brazilian, and reggae music. Eclectic rooms like the ND at 501 Studios, Sahara Lounge, Cheer Up Charlie's, Frontier and sister bars Hotel Vegas and the Volstead Lounge also host a wide variety of up and coming homegrown talent.

Not everything new is happening east of the interstate. Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson's Rattle Inn opened downtown. Country and Texas singer-songwriters will dominate the two stages, with George Devore hosting Sunday night jams. Meanwhile, the 29th Street Ballroom at Spider House, near the University of Texas campus, has become a burgeoning rock venue. Spider House added the spacious Ballroom to its complex — with seven stages — a year ago.

Testing the taste buds

Culinary critics rave about Austin. A lot of buzz has been generated by James Beard award nominee and former Iron Chef America competitor, chef David Bull, whose recently launched Warehouse District venture Congress has already been granted five-star acclaim. National platform popularity has been gained thanks to celeb start-ups like Sandra Bullock's Bess Bistro and visits from renowned food personalities.

Celebrated staples are breakfast tacos from east side favorite Juan in a Million or Torchy's Tacos, as well as Tex-Mex treats paired with pitchers of margaritas at off-the-beaten-path places like the patio of Polvos on South 1st Street. Water-front locales include family-favorite Hula Hut on Lake Austin or the Oasis on Lake Travis.

At Elizabeth Street Cafe, opened by Larry McGuire of Lamberts fame, diners can experience French-Vietnamese plates.

Steak lovers can find pecan-wood-smoked primed angus rib-eye from fine-dining destination Hudson's on the Bend, a romantic Hill Country hideaway. For an in-town option, there's downtown hotspot La Condesa and the adjacent bar, Malverde, which has over 100 varieties of 100% blue agave tequila.

Shoppers flock to the boutique-lined sidewalk in the Second Street District. There are 700,000 square feet of shops at The Domain, but this Texas mecca is stacked high and wide with independent designers.

The retail scene in a city that considers cowboy boots a black-tie option runs the gamut, from newly minted designer label at female-flocked By George and modernly outfitted man cave STAG, to finds revived from the past at Amelia's Retro-Vogue & Relics. South side décor shop Aviary, which doubles as a wine bar for purchases paired with conversational glasses of Pinot and east bound Busy-Being, an accessory- and art-focused alternative shop nestled in the back corner of periodical play-land, Domy Books.

Austin is often ranked one of the fittest cities in the country. From cycling to stand-up paddle boarding, water-biking to leisurely canoe-paddling, Austin offers an abundance of outdoor activities.

You can walk or run along Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail. Located in the heart of the city, this 10-mile off-road trail is Austin's crown jewel. Here, city officials and luminaries jog alongside locals, enjoying the lush scenery and stunning skyline views. While at the lake, you can also kayak, canoe or try your luck at stand-up paddle boarding, the fastest-growing water sport in the world.

Looking to cool off? Head to Austin's beloved Barton Springs Pool, a natural spring-fed watering hole that's a constant 68 degrees.

If you want to tour the city, hop on a Segway. SegCity Segway Tours offer guided trips from Sixth Street to the State Capitol with several stops along the way. You'll learn interesting facts about Austin including the story behind the hundreds of bats that fly out of Congress Avenue Bridge each night.

Austin has some world-class museums, like the Blanton, with the nation's largest university-owned collection on exhibit.

There are galleries, like the Arthouse at the Jones Center, which feature new and established artists alike. Museums dedicated to diversity, such as the Mexic-Arte Museum and the Carver Museum, collect, preserve and exhibit Austin's cultural treasures. Ballet Austin at the Long Center showcases dancers and choreographers. Texas history is honored at The Bob Bullock Museum. And the city's eccentricity is celebrated with the Cathedral of Junk, the Austin Art Car Parade, and many more unusual displays around town.

On April 28 at 3 pm, Austin Lyric Opera will stage a performance of “Faust” at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Witness the ultimate struggle between good and evil in Gounod's dramatic tale of an aging scholar, an innocent young woman and the Devil himself. Featuring Gounod's melodies, this new production by Bernard Uzan was a “triumph” at its Arizona premiere.

The Blanton presents Through the Eyes of Texas: Masterworks from Alumni Collections, an exhibition of nearly 200 extraordinary objects from the art collections of University of Texas at Austin alumni across the country. Marking the occasion of the Blanton's fiftieth anniversary, this special survey will include ancient Mayan vessels, tribal masks, Chinese jade, Renaissance paintings, and Old Master prints and drawings, showcased alongside modern and contemporary works by major artists such as Claude Monet, Georgia O'Keeffe, Ed Ruscha, and Kehinde Wiley. Through the Eyes of Texas will tell the fascinating stories of these objects and their owners, as well as provide unique learning opportunities and a chance for visitors to experience significant works that span the history of art.

The unique nature of the exhibition enables the Blanton to display works outside the scope of its permanent collection — art and artifacts not normally on view in Austin. Among them are an Egyptian lion-headed goddess from 664-30 BC, an ancient Chinese urn from the Liao Dynasty, and an eccentric Mayan flint from the late Classic period. This grouping, along with a selection of tribal masks loaned to the museum from several private collections, marks the Blanton's first major presentation of ethnographic objects. Other highlights include costume designs for the Ballets Russes, a 1916-19 Water Lilies painting by Claude Monet, and a Robert Rauschenberg “Jammer” from 1975.

Zach Theatre, “the city's liveliest and most polished professional theater,” according to The Austin American-Statesman, is presenting “Mad Beat Hip & Gone”, through April 28 at Topfer Theatre.

The Lyndon B Johnson Library, built on a 30-acre site on the University of Texas campus, hosts more than 150,000 visitors each year. Realizing that “times were a-changing,” the library underwent a $10 million redesign, paid for through private donations, to bring new interactive exhibits to the facility. After one year of work, the new and improved LBJ Library was unveiled December 22, 2012. This date was chosen to honor what would have been Lady Bird Johnson's 100th birthday.

The Harry Ransom Center advances the study of the arts and humanities by acquiring, preserving, and making accessible original cultural materials. With extensive collections of rare books, manuscripts, photography, film, art, and the performing arts, the Center supports research through symposia and fellowships and provides education and enrichment for scholars, students, and the public through exhibitions and programs.

The Center features an exhibition that explores the career of Arnold Newman, one of the finest portrait photographers of the twentieth century. Marlene Dietrich, Harry Truman, John F Kennedy, Arthur Miller, and Pablo Picasso are among his celebrated sitters. The exhibition will celebrate the entire range of Newman's photographic art, showing many fine prints for the first time.

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum has a new special exhibition, Texas Music Roadtrip, which will explore the people and places that put Texas music on the map, from the explosion of ‘30s jazz in Dallas’ Deep Ellum, to the emergence of ‘50s Rock 'n’ Roll in the Panhandle, to the rise of zydeco, tejano, and country rock.

The Texas Capitol is widely recognized as one of the nation's most distinguished state capitols, having been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986 for its “significant contribution to American history.”

The Capitol anchors the northern periphery of the downtown commercial district and commands a sweeping view towards the Colorado River from its southern façade. Completed in 1888 as the winning design from a national competition, the Capitol's style is Renaissance Revival, based on the architecture of 15th-century Italy and characterized by classical orders, round arches and symmetrical composition. The structural exterior walls are “sunset red” granite, quarried just 50 miles from the site.

Self-guided tours of the Capitol and Grounds are available during business hours.

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.