The Local Venues Bringing Tunes to the Live Music Capital of the World
These 12 spots welcome established legends and exciting newcomers to their famous stages
By Darcie Duttweiler
Hole in the Wall didn’t originally start as a live music venue. Named after the Hole in the Wall Gang from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the joint began as a restaurant dishing up blue plate specials for $1.29. Eventually bands began to show up and beg to play music near the University of Texas Austin, and the Hole quickly became a go-to spot for Austin’s folksmen, like Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley before transitioning into a weird 1980s venue and then settling nicely into a place where musicians felt like family. The sound quality here might not be ideal, but it’s a fun (albeit slightly dingy) place to sip cold brews and listen to bands try out their new songs.
Year Opened: 1974 | Music Genres: Rock, Folk
Famous Performers: Townes Van Zandt, Doug Sahm, Blaze Foley, Fastball, Spoon
Walking into The Continental Club, you can still feel its original 1950s rockabilly vibes — no matter what band is gracing the stage. You can almost imagine a row of vintage Cadillacs dotting South Congress Avenue and smell the hair grease as you step inside. That’s because in the late ’80s, the new owner decided to return the club to its former glory and even retouched the outside murals. While today the swanky supper club turned burlesque bar turned music venue plays just about any genre, it tends to stick to its roots with classic local performers like Dale Watson, Charlie Sexton and The Peterson Brothers. But some days you can stumble upon a once-in-a-lifetime show, like Robert Plant playing with Patty Griffin or Johnny Depp playing with ZZ-Top. Or, if you’re lucky, you will catch a show in the intimate upstairs Continental Gallery, which feels like a living room concert just for you.
Year Opened: 1957 | Music Genres: Rockabilly, Blues, Country, Swing
Famous Performers: Johnny Depp, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Plant, Wanda Jackson
Even if you’ve never set foot inside of the Saxon Pub, you surely recognize its 16- foot ornamental knight out front. Open since 1990, the Saxon has hosted well over 30,000 musical performances. The club often books six bands a night, performing from happy hour to last call. However, because the booking typically schedules the main headliners before the very end of the night, the Saxon is hugely popular with older folks who can’t stay out late on a school night – or want to fight the crowds downtown. It’s also a small but comfortable setting. Kris Kristofferson likened the intimate setting of the 150-person venue to “playing in his own living room.” Raise a shot for the bust of the late Rusty Wier that adorns the club to honor the Texas musician’s legendary 15-year run of Thursday night shows, which were said to sell more booze than any other nights.
Year Opened: 1990 | Music Genres: Rock, Blues
Famous Performers: Bob Schneider, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Monte Montgomery, Hayes Carll
The history of Stubb’s Bar-B-Q as it stands downtown is a wee bit hazy. Originally, Christopher B. “Stubb” Stubblefield had a barbecue joint in Lubbock in the ’60s and ’70s, where many famous musicians would, quite literally, sing for their supper. Eventually that original eatery closed, and Stubblefield moved to Austin, where he’d cook up some ’cue at the legendary Antone’s Nightclub. But it wasn’t until a year after his death that Stubb’s Bar-B-Q reopened in a historic 19th-century building on Red River Street as a restaurant and live music venue. Nowadays, it’s where some of the biggest names in the music industry stop by on their tour through Austin. The indoor venue hosts smaller, more intimate shows, while the 2,200-capacity Waller Creek Amphitheater is one of the largest stages in Austin.
Year Opened: 1995 | Music Genres: Everything
Famous Performers: Any and everyone from Bob Dylan to Adele
During the wake of a major renovation of the Texas Union Building on the University of Texas campus, the Cactus Cafe was created by the staff of the Texas Union, which had a rich history of live music and performances stretching back to the ’60s. Originally operating as a coffee shop, there wasn’t even a permanent stage when it opened, but the tradition of the Texas Union eventually cultivated Cactus Cafe’s reputation as one the finest listening rooms in Austin, known especially for its acoustics. To discover the “next big thing,” stop in for the club’s weekly Songwriters’ Open Mic on Tuesday nights.
Year Opened: 1979 | Music Genres: Country, Americana, Rock
Famous Performers: Townes Van Zandt, Nancy Griffith, Guy Clarke, The Chicks, Lyle Lovett
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its significance as one of the last remaining original Chitlin’ Circuit music venues, Victory Grill has a long history in East Austin. Johnny Holmes, a booking agent and band manager, opened the Victory Grill on VJ-Day (August 14, 1945) as a gathering place for black soldiers returning from the war, and the venue soon became a hotspot for touring black musicians during the time of segregation. Although it thrived, it eventually fell into disrepair and remained closed for many years, until Six Square stepped in to help preserve the historic venue, including its original bar and stage. Nowadays, you can nosh on fried chicken and catch live jazz and R&B shows most weekends.
Year Opened: 1945 | Music Genres: Blues, R&B, Jazz
Famous Performers: Etta James, James Brown, Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Tina Turner
Descending the stairs into the dimly lit subterranean jazz club of the Elephant Room transports you to the beatnik era of West Village. Amidst all of the downtown hustle and bustle of a scorching Texas summer and blasting tunes of whatever karaoke is happening on “Dirty Sixth,” there’s a quiet tsk, tsk, tsk of a jazzy cymbal and a sea of red candles. As Austin’s premiere jazz music venue for 30 years, the Elephant Room was aptly named when the owners discovered that the basement served as storage of the largest collection of mastodon bones west of the Mississippi. It’s still business as usual here, where jazz is performed starting at 6 p.m. every single day.
Year Opened: 1991 | Music Genres: Jazz
Famous Performers: Clint Eastwood, Norah Jones, Quincy Jones, Terance Blanchard Ernie Watts, Joe Lovano, Tom “Bones” Malone
Like many other iconic venues on this list, Emo’s wasn’t always situated on East Riverside, and it’s hard to talk about the current Emo’s without discussing its original spot. Many Millennials who grew up in the capital city may recall the seedy, disgusting bathrooms of the original music venue — as well as fondly remember the numerous punk rock gigs spent sweatily moshing near the outdoor stage. The rough-around-the-edges club opened a second outpost east before shuttering its Red River locale in 2011. The new venue now boasts a state-of-the-art sound system, complete with quality lighting and staging capabilities and attracts popular as well as up-and-coming acts from all musical genres.
Year Opened: 1992 | Music Genres: Everything from Drag to Punk
Famous Performer: Johnny Cash, Hole, Arcade Fire, Jimmy Eat World, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan
For any Austin country music fan, there is no more sacred ground than the Broken Spoke. It’s one of the last original buildings still standing amongst condo buildings on South Lamar, and it’s still the honkiest, tonkiest time in town. Owner James White, who recently passed away at 81, opened the Broken Spoke in 1964, started building the structure the day he received his honorable discharge papers from the U.S. Army. Before his death, it was business as usual for White, who greeted almost every patron with a smile. With its rustic interior, the Spoke may not be the swankiest place to dance in Austin, but its dance floor is still one of the most boot-scootin’ boogie good times. Don’t skip the chicken fried steak in the front restaurant area before cutting a rug with a partner in the back, and make sure to check out the photos of all the famous singers to grace the stage.
Year Opened: 1964 | Music Genres: Country
Famous Performers: Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Kris Kristofferson, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker
You can’t miss the Little Longhorn Saloon when driving down Burnet Road. The cozy live music venue was apparently outfitted with a steeple when then-owner Dale Watson was officiating a wedding there. Now, it feels appropriate as every Sunday, Ginny’s (as its often affectionately called after previous owner Ginny Kalmbach) gathers patrons around for its version of church — the famous Chicken Sh*t Bingo tailgate, where lucky winners will take home loot based on where a chicken has, well, you get it. Originally founded as Dick’s Little Longhorn Saloon, the bar became its current iteration in 1993 when the original owner passed away and left the bar to Kalmbach, who had been a waitress there since 1981. Since then, the honky-tonk institution wins over guests with ice cold, cheap beer and performances nightly by some of Austin’s favorite country musicians, like Two Hoots & A Holler, Alvin Crow and Billy Dee & Redd Volkaert. Pro tip: Don’t forget your dancing shoes.
Year Opened: 1963 | Music Genres: Country
Famous Performer: Dale Watson
Angela Tharp opened Flamingo Cantina on Halloween 1991 as a place to house her food trailer. Nestled in between two buildings on Sixth Street, the original spot was a space where Tharp sold tacos and beer, and friends’ bands would perform. In early years, the P.A. system had to be set up every night, and the venue was shuttered whenever there was rain. Finally, in 1996, Tharp threw an event called “Flamingo Fest” at Fiesta Gardens to raise enough money to put up a roof. The food truck is gone, but the “good vibes” music remains in this small venue. Patrons can even enjoy Winston’s Kitchen’s authentic Caribbean cuisine every Wednesday, when the Mau Mau Chaplains, Austin’s godfathers of reggae, hold down their weekly residency “Dreadneck Night” for 12 years and running.
Year Opened: 1991 | Music Genres: Reggae, Ska, Latin, Worldbeat, Hip-hop
Famous Performers: Lee “Scratch” Perry, Buju Banton, Mahotella Queens, Celso Pina, Capleton, members of Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Blackalicious
Mohawk might be the new kid on the block in terms of longevity, but this Red River live music venue has played host to both musical legends and local newcomers alike on both its indoor and outdoor stages, and is likely to stand the test of time. The Mohawk boasts “all are welcome,” and that could be said of its musical tastes. Austin’s music venues mostly started by focusing on a particular genre, and the Mohawk may have been one of the first to embrace all of them. We highly recommend perching at one of the top levels of the Mohawk’s patios to overlook the outdoor main stage, as well as the entire audience jamming out, but there’s really no bad place to enjoy a show here.
Year Opened: 2006 | Music Genres: Everything from Indie Rock to Rap
Famous Performer: The Roots, Of Montreal, Liz Phair, Future Islands, Big Freedia, Built to Spill
Although not currently in its original location (in fact, it’s the sixth location), Antone’s is still one of the top live music venues in Austin and is known for being the stomping grounds of the city’s favorite guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as its numerous stories of famous musicians who would randomly stop on by or even jump on stage — like Bruce Willis and Bono. Since 2015, it’s been nestled properly on East Fifth Street in a space fitting for the caliber of bands that come through and offers easy viewing from almost every spot and a great sound that reverberates the room.