“Talking about process and dismissal
Forced removal of the people on the corner
Shelter and location
Everybody wants somewhere”
At the beginning of 2012, famed Red River music club Emo’s left downtown Austin forever. At the time, it couldn’t have felt more foreboding for music in downtown Austin. If anything it felt to many like the first step toward an inevitable end foretold by a series of unfortunate events. Several months earlier Emo’s owner Frank Hendrix had opened Emo’s East, a much larger, more modern and (some might say) suburb-friendlier location in the middle of strip mall central on East Riverside. West 6th was (and still is) sprouting high-income apartments and condos at an alarming rate, slowly terraforming the downtown area for the popped-collar crowd. It was no secret that both the city and developers would have loved to see the nearby Waller Creek Tunnel project give birth to Austin’s own version of San Antonio’s Riverwalk. Emo’s had been an anchor for live music on Red River and a landmark location known nationally for two decades. There was much uncertainty about whether the area could survive without Emo’s, but nearly two years later I believe that its leaving Red River may have been the best thing to happen to the area since the club opened their doors 20 years earlier.
Photo by Dave Newman
As a fan of punk music I had heard about Emo’s for years before ever moving here. If there was one club that was synonymous with punk and indie rock in the 90’s and 00’s in the region, Emo’s was it. My first show at Emo’s after moving to Austin four years ago was in March of 2010 and the headlining act was none other than punk and indie rock troubadour Ted Leo and in the time between then and Emo’s closing I must have seen at least a dozen more acts on both stages. It was easily the venue I frequented most in the city. On one memorable evening I even got to see Japan’s hardcore legends Envy, the band responsible for writing my all-time favorite song, ”Go Mad and Mark.” Emo’s was central to my early Austin experience and the same went for many other patrons and bands as well.
If there was one thing that was clear even from my earliest days in Austin it was that the city was in the middle of a series of growth spurts that didn’t look like they would end anytime soon. It was clear that music downtown had already been rounded up and corralled by the time I arrived on the scene, with 6th street looking more like NOLA’s Bourbon street, lined with clubs, pricey bars, and the kind of places you’d find a cover band long before original local talent. Red River at least retained some sincerity and the kind of atmosphere I expected from a place touted to be the Live Music Capital of the World. With its bookings and history, Emo’s was both anchor and beacon for the street.
At first, Emo’s leaving Red River felt like a shot across the bow from city planners and corporate developers looking to turn downtown into a hip destination for neo-yuppies with money to burn. As time went on however it started to seem that maybe the departure of Emo’s wasn’t that nefarious after all. The first real hint was the opening of Emo’s East around the time of SXSW earlier that year. It seemed innocent enough at first, but when the Red River locations closed one had to wonder if Frank Hendrix wasn’t just cashing out his chips. Not long after Emo’s left, the Beauty Bar (a less traveled, but also Frank Hendrix associated venue) closed as well, reopening as the Beauty Ballroom in the same strip mall as Emo’s East. The last nail in the coffin for my grieving for Emo’s came when it was announced that the venerable Antone’s on 5th and Lavaca would be closing as well and relocating to…you guessed it, East Riverside. Again, Frank Hendrix was involved and it seemed pretty obvious that no one had lost the war to keep live music in downtown Austin, one man had just given up on it.
It was easy to deify Emo’s back when it was still on Red River, but as more time went by without it, and shows that would have been within their walls moved elsewhere nearby, I began to realize that Emo’s really hadn’t been all that special in those final years. Emo’s Inside was always an awkward space and the sound was never quite right when I saw shows there. Emo’s Outside seemed to have better audio, but as a space it was more like someone’s run down garage than a music venue one pays to get into. And don’t even get me started about the rest rooms! If I never have to piss in a trough again it will be too soon. All this, plus Emo’s abandoning Red River, ultimately painted a picture of a club and owner that didn’t care anymore, at least not about supporting the musicians and fans who regularly came through their doors.
What made the Emo’s departure a victory instead of a defeat however was how quickly and efficiently the rest of Red River filled the gap. Like a healthy immune system working to repair the damage left behind by an excised tumor, the rest of Red River stepped up its game and reinforced the area. Red 7 (a club that I had affectionately referred to as being like seeing an bands at a basement show) completely revamped their interior space and created a better looking and sounding place to see and hear bands, but that still felt kinda DIY. Mohawk added two levels of balcony space, better sound, and a bar outside, in a move that (if anything) proved that they were there to stay. Even the old Beauty Bar space got a makeover when Holy Mountain took over the space and turned it into easily one of the nicest small stages in town.
Emo’s leaving Red River didn’t signal the end for live music in downtown Austin; it signaled a new beginning. Where before one club took much of the glory, several others grew into the light and in ways that Emo’s had become uninterested in pursuing. As refreshing as Red River’s current incarnation may be, make no mistake that the future of music downtown is still in jeopardy. This is a continuing battle to preserve the things that make Austin great without having to cede territory in the process. I think Mohawk’s owners sarcastically summed up my feelings rather well in their April Fools gag this year in which they released a press release about the venue moving to East Riverside:
“Red River is dead, everyone knows that. There is just too much music on Red River – strip malls are the new shit. Today, people want to see music where they can jam, but also score some dental work, get taxes done, or land a 2 piece meal at KFC…After this new location blows up, we plan to build one near Bastrop, which is East as fuck.”
Live music belongs near other live music and in the Live Music Capital of the World I’d hope that it would have a place downtown. Frank Hendrix and Emo’s didn’t care anymore – not enough to stick it out downtown anyway. There are plenty of us who do still care though and to all the bands, fans, and club owners who continue to support live music in the heart of Austin, I salute you.
Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @bjaudette.