Unlike every other good thing discovered in Austin, I first learned about Antone’s in Mopac traffic. I was crawling north towards Route 183 when a ’70s-era van edged in front of me. On its back were hundreds of stickers. Stubb’s. Saxon Pub. Austin Beerworks. As a recently re-located East Coaster, I was still learning the language. But one of them stuck out: Antone’s. With a personal name and classic-looking logo, it looked like my kind of place.
From there, Antone’s was a folktale. Everywhere I looked, I saw references to a legendary blues venue closed only months earlier. Whispery rumors through faded bumper stickers and the weathered remnants of show posters pasted to bar bathroom walls. Whenever I mentioned it to locals, most would sigh and say, “I miss that place.”
Walking into the new Antone’s location on 5th Street between San Jacinto and Trinity, I felt like an outsider. A carpetbagger just in from the big, ugly isle of Manhattan to scam another slice of Austin’s mystique. Despite being here over two years, I was still a damn Yankee.
But when I left, I was invigorated. Heart aflame with the timeless power of 12-bar blues, I knew this new joint was something special. More than a simple name struck in neon, this version of Antone’s isn’t a simple re-open. It’s a phoenix reborn, ready to make its mark on the Austin music scene once again.
The first thing that will strike you as you walk into the new hall is the physical space. Longer than it is wide, the room balances openness and intimacy with surprising efficiency. Show posters lining the white brick walls read like the Blues Hall of Fame. You’ll catch a glimpse of legends like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ray Charles. Giants of the genre who have played at Antone’s since the original opened on the corner of Brazos and 6th in 1975.
The new club’s co-owner, Austin native Will Bridges, has a deep connection with Antone’s. As a kid, Bridges would hang out at the club, thanks to friends of the family, and listen to legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan run wild, playing the best blues on the planet.
But as the Austin music scene grew more competitive, producing more venues, Antone’s felt the pressure. More national attention meant larger venues were crowding out the smaller clubs. The scene became a race to accommodate this new “Live Music Capital of the World.”
With this new (the sixth) iteration, Bridges hopes to return Antone’s to its club roots. A place where people can come after work, hang out and dig some exceptional music.
“People are coming for the Antone’s experience, not just to see a particular artist,” Bridges shared. “If you can get that momentum going, it allows you to do what Clifford did, which was present music again, not just promote it.”
Instead of pushing established acts to sell tickets, Bridges wants to focus on building a brand people trust. I’ve never heard of Little Freddie King, but if he’s booked at Antone’s, I know he’ll put on a quality show.
Classic Austin Meets Modern ATX
It starts, as it always should, with music. When I visited at 5 p.m. on a Friday during happy hour, Eddie & The Evereadys were warming up. With a long bar on the left and cocktail tables dotting the stage’s edge, Antone’s achieves the club vibe Bridges was aiming for.
When the band began to play, the state of the art sound system sung. Though the saxophone is one of the hardest instruments to get right on a mixing board, the solos maintained an even tone, while the vocalists balanced perfectly with the band. The acoustics at Antone’s are exceptional.
The updated elements don’t end with the speakers. Antone’s has opened a beautiful upstairs event space. Originally a Cadillac showroom in the 1920s, the original wood floors and lighting create a retro, yet modern, space.
The 300-person capacity room not only serves as an event venue (they already have a wedding booked), but it will also function as an overflow room for sold-out shows. Can’t get into a ticketed concert? You’ll be able to go upstairs at no cost, grab a drink and listen via two monster speakers.
Antone’s isn’t all about the new. Having connections to the old school joint means honoring those who made the club an Austin treasure. Tons of time was spent consulting with the original patrons, making sure they gave their blessing.
“We didn’t want to reinvent it,” said Bridges. “We wanted to bring it back to Clifford’s original intentions, while still being scalable to accommodate larger shows.”
This became clear as The Evereadys’ set came to a close. It turned into a mini jam session. One by one, ancient soul singers, seemingly plucked straight from the posters on the walls, lit up the stage.
It all ended with Soul Man Sam. Wearing a finely-checkered shirt and pastel blue pants, Sam was led to the stage like James Brown. Creaky and aged, he barely made it. But when he stood to the mic, he sprung to life, as if he was plugged into a blues generator pumping pure soul into his veins. Belting gravely soul though vocal chords seasoned by the decades, he whipped the Casual Friday crowd into a Jack Kerouac frenzy.
And when he was done, he unplugged, turned to his friend and was led off stage. The crowd buzzed, coming down from the performance like patrons at a Baptist revival. Energized with the spirit of heart-jumping music.
Soul Man Sam is Antone’s. A classic, reborn though the magic of 12-bar chord progressions and thunderous, stirring power. Folks who are afraid the sixth iteration of this Austin treasure is just another re-skin need not worry. If the Antone’s experience can make a damn Yankee feel like a member of the family, old timers and newbies alike will feel the same fire.
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
What’s your fondest Antone’s memory?