The Real Austin Tour

I wake up to a rainy and overcast city. My orange juice is half frozen in the fridge, which is obviously turned up too much, so I adjust it. The juice defrosts in time for me to leave the motel at just gone 10 am. Given the weather, I get another taxi to E 4th Street to find the Austin Visitor Center where I will take The Real Austin Tour with Austin Detours.

Texas State CapitolTexas State Capitol RotundaTexas State Capitol RotundaTexas State Capitol RotundaInside Texas State CapitolInside Texas State CapitolInside Texas State CapitolInside Texas State Capitol

Austin Detours ticketThe tour starts at 10.30 am and the minibus is nearly full. We have a guide and a driver today. Over the next couple of hours we drive around the city and its districts seeing various sights like the Texas State Capitol (where we get off and have a walk inside), the Graffiti Park at Castle Hill and the University of Texas amongst others.

The commentary is good and entertaining but we hardly stop at all, which makes it difficult to take decent photos. But then to be honest, there’s not really that much worth photographing: sorry, Austin. It’s a good introduction to the city. They take you everywhere – I think! – and it was as good as most US city tours I’ve been on.

Graffiti Park at Castle HillGraffiti Park at Castle HillUniversity of TexasStreet art around Austin

A Brewery Tour

We arrive back around 12.40 pm and my next tour starts at 1 pm, same pick-up point. There’s nothing around where I can get lunch so I have to make do with a bag of chips from the Visitor Center. This is not ideal given I’m about to embark on a Public Brewery Tour with ATXcursions… The tour blurb did say there are food outlets on route, so we’ll see.

This minibus is also almost full. Our guide is Dashiel who advises we’ll visit 3 breweries during the afternoon, but he doesn’t give much else away about anything else. Our first stop is Live Oak. Here we are given a tasting ‘menu’ and asked to choose two beers to drink. The glasses are about half a pint each. But there is no explanation of who the brewers are, why or when they started brewing, what their ethos or brewing style is. Neither is there a tour of the brewery or any background about it. Which I don’t think is very good. Dash does answer any questions but he should be giving us Live Oak’s ‘story’. So far all ATXcursions have done is driven me here in a minibus. Which given the brewery tasting room is open to the public and anyone can just turn up and taste the beers – and there are a few people who’ve done that – I’m wondering where the value add is from ATX? It’s an expensive tour at $75 for, I’m guessing, a pint at each brewery. OK, I don’t have to drive but I could probably get a taxi to take me around for less.

It’s the same non-event at the next brewery, Hops and Grain. Turn up, choose your beers, drink, then leave. We do get 4 beers here, but in smaller glasses. Here though there’s no advice offered at all. The beers’ names are just chalked up on a blackboard with no explanations. At least Live Oak’s menu had short descriptions of how each one tasted. So I’ve no idea what I’m drinking, which is not the point of a ‘guided’ tour. And I don’t think the onus should be on me to keep asking Dash about the beers.

As the tour progresses and everyone drinks their beers you can guess what happens. We all start chatting away as inhibitions drop and there is some good banter between us all. At least that part of the tour was good. In particular I meet Jon and his son Ben. Jon’s a local and Ben is visiting for the weekend. Jon is a few years older than me, early 60s I think, and he asks about my trip. And then I mention the other trips and show him this website on my phone… and Jon nearly has a meltdown. “Wow! I really admire you doing that”, he says. “I’ve gotta do something similar, go travelling and see places.” Turns out he’s not travelled widely and my exploits and travels seem to have lit a spark in him. I of course tell him to seize the day and just do it, wherever it is that he wants to go, before it’s too late. I enjoyed talking to both of them, and others on the excursion, but I really hope Jon acts on his clear enthusiasm for what I’ve done. Go for it, Jon!

Live Oak Brewing CoLive Oak Brewing CoLive Oak Brewing CoLive Oak Brewing CoHops and Grain BrewingHops and Grain BrewingHops and Grain BrewingZilker Brewing CoZilker Brewing Co

…But Not Impressed

Our last stop is Zilker, at which Dash finally gives us a little talk about beer. Such behind-the-scenes insight is not too difficult however given the brewing vats are actually in the tasting room… But his chat is not unique to Zilker though. It is a generic how-to-brew beer. Hey Dash, how is Zilker unique? What makes their beer different? I certainly have no idea.

Zilker Brewing Co panaorama

Zilker Brewing Co panaorama

The first point here is that this particular chat by Dash should have happened at Live Oak, the first brewery. Second, transporting a bunch of folks around three breweries to drink beer without any explanation of why each is unique or different is, frankly, pointless. I’m not impressed with this tour. No background, no behind-the-scenes insights, no meet-the-owner (or head brewer). I’ve drunk about 10 glasses of beer over the course of an afternoon but still have no idea (a) what most of these beers were in terms of style or taste or (b) how the breweries differed in their approaches, if they did. I actually feel slightly cheated by this tour. And it’s not good value at $75, especially given the lack ‘guidance’ and information provided.

All the beers I tried were good apart from one at Zilker. But their logo was cool so I bought a T-shirt! We’re back downtown at 5.30 pm and I still have not eaten properly since breakfast. The food truck at Live Oak was closed, there was nothing at Hops and Grain and the truck at Zilker had little to tempt me. Although beer fatigue may have taken over by then! Truth be told I’m not starving, or drunk, but I know I should eat now.

So I wander up and down 6th Street looking for foodie inspiration and end up back at BD Rileys Irish Pub. The menu looked good, and I order a French Dip sandwich. There’s a band setting up but they don’t start before I leave. However I end up leaving most of the sandwich, I think the beer has bloated me out! But at least I ate something before the final tour of the day. Yes, another one.

Live Music Crawl

I walk back up 6th Street to the Hilton Hotel to meet up with Austin Detours again for their Live Music Crawl at 7 pm. The first problem though is that 4 inconsiderate assholes on the tour are still eating dinner down the street at our specified departure time. Our guide, Dustin, discovered this when called them to see where they were. They eventually turned up 20 minutes late, which contributed to some of the later disappointments because our schedule was off. Listen, Detours: if booked guests aren’t there on time, you leave without them and do not impact the rest of the group or tour.

The Crawl’s publicity promised “the latest scoop in the current music scene.” This is just not true based on the three venues we went to. Another factor about the tour is that they say you’ll see “all different kinds of Austin live music” and “take you away from covers bands.” Now I have quite eclectic musical tastes and “different music” can be good (as can an excellent covers band) and often surprise you – providing the music is played well.

At our first stop, C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, this was far from the case. I have no idea of the band’s name, and have no desire to learn it, because they were terrible. The female lead singer had a decent voice, but the bass player had clearly forgotten to take her medication that day. Apart from playing with her back turned to the audience most of the time, she was acting like a nutcase and ruined every song by whooping and hollering at the most inappropriate moments. As for the two saxophonists, they could barely play a decent, in-tune note between them. They should have spent the evening at our next venue where there was a guy who showed how to play saxophone. I tried to keep giving this band a chance, but they kept showcasing everything that can be so bad about jazz music. Such as pointless, self-congratulatory solos, stupid out of place shouts and long-winded, meandering tunes. If this lot offers “the latest scoop in the current music scene”, then Austin is in trouble. It was self-indulgent crap.

Onto The Continental Club for some “Texas blues”: it sounded good in advance. We passed this club on the morning tour and the guide said it was a great place for music. Dustin tell us that “it’s a change of pace” and turned out it was. The TD Blues Specialists played some exceptional blues music in the early Happy Hour slot. The problem was the late start to our tour. By the time we got there, we only saw the last four numbers of the set, about 15 minutes or so. To say this was a disappointment was an understatement, given the great music, and musicianship, on show. All of the band, and the songs, were excellent. So the set finishes and the club starts to clear all customers out in preparation for the late evening band. But we just stand around like lemons in the emptying bar for 10 minutes waiting to be told what’s next. At least I saw some proper music, however short, properly played. Yee-hah!

After another minibus ride we arrive at our last venue The White Horse, a “honky tonk” as Dustin called it. As we pull up outside, it dawns on me what one of the biggest problems with this tour is. You spend more time during its 3 hours duration sitting on the bus than you do watching live music (at least we did).

The band, Missy Beth & the Morning Afters, can play OK and lots of the crowd are dancing along, but it’s just standard, run-of-the-mill country music, played well for what it was. But yet again, hardly the “latest scoop”. As you know, country music is not my scene and thankfully after a short 30 minutes or so, purgatory ends when this set comes to a close.

Dustin then says to me, “We’ll hang around for about 15 minutes or so”, to which I ask why given the live music’s finished. He gives no explanation. I say I’d like to go back to 6th Street now. He says he might be able to take me back and then come back for the others, which was decent of him. But I then saw most of the others in our group standing by the door, waiting to leave. So I wasn’t alone in wanting to go. I guess Dustin then canvassed opinions, because thankfully common sense prevailed and we all left a few minutes later.

…Not Recommended

I can’t fault Dustin, he did his job well but it was clear he was following strict orders (to the extent he wouldn’t depart without the late ‘Gang of Four’ earlier). The music I saw on the Crawl was not “the latest scoop”, nowhere near. Yes, they were “different” genres but two of the three were as average and traditional as any similar band of their sort. Well, OK, the jazz band were truly awful, with the excellent but sadly short-lived blues band being the exception.

I also found the sneering tone of Austin Detours’ snide remarks about covers bands in its marketing materials somewhat distasteful. There’s nothing wrong with a good covers band, and I watched a couple last night. Both were excellent. But last night, as I walked on 6th Street and ignored the obviously average stuff, I found a number of excellent bands playing new, exciting and original music.

So I wish I’d stayed on 6th Street again tonight and not wasted $60 on the Live Music Crawl. Because, as will become clear, on returning to 6th Street I saw much better music afterwards – excepting the brief blues interlude of course – than I did on the Live Music Crawl.

If however you want to see 3 different music venues around Austin, and you really do like a very, very broad set of musical styles, then try the Crawl. I however would suggest you trust your own ears and go-it-alone on 6th Street. Which is where I am now. The Police have closed off 6th Street with barriers between the main music venues. This is Dirty 6th Street.

Dirty 6th Street

There are three sections to 6th Street: West, East and Dirty. West 6th is the section that runs west from Congress Avenue. For the most part, the nightlife scene ends at North Lamar Boulevard. Locals, I’m told later, refer to the section of 6th Street that stretches from Congress Avenue to I-35 as Dirty 6th. East 6th is anything east of I-35.

My first stop is Burnside’s Tavern for a rocking trio called James Keith and The Moondogs. It’s really powerful rock music – all their own as well please note – but unfortunately I’m late to the gig and only catch about 15 minutes of them, including a noisily demanded encore from the audience. Real shame I missed more of them. From the little I saw they looked and sounded great, and the crowd really loved them too. There was lots of applause, whooping and dancing as their set came to a close.

Check out this short video clip on YouTube from the set.

The Blind Pig Pub has a band playing on its first floor that sounds good. The doorman tells me there’s a side entrance to get upstairs quickly because downstairs is packed solid with bodies, which I can see. Once upstairs though, I can hardly move because there are so many people. And it’s 99% college kids. I feel like everybody’s granddad. There’s a big college football game in town tomorrow with UoT playing a local rival. The band are playing very loudly but suddenly groups in the crowd start chanting their football team’s songs. It’s probably 75% guys, most of them 6 foot-plus and strongly built, and the two factions are in large groups all over the dance floor. There are hand signs, arms raised in the air and it’s become all a bit tribal. And to be honest, I feel quite scared. The atmosphere has very quickly become extremely hostile. It’s very unpleasant being in here now.

I think to myself that this could very easily kick off into something bad and nasty. I can feel the testosterone coursing through the air. But there are no security guards anywhere to be seen. I make my way as quickly as I can through the crowd towards the exit, which is not easy given how tightly packed we all are. I eventually make it to a doorway and swiftly go down the stairs and exit into the night air.

Glad to be out of the place, I wander into the San Jac Saloon just down the street to see Chris Smothers and his band. He’s playing his own material and it’s rock-lite with a country-ish tinge but I’d not call it pure country music. It’s very pleasant, good in fact, so I stay for about half an hour to watch and listen over a couple of beers. But I decide there should be one last stop for tonight, and venture out onto 6th again.

A block down I come across BD Riley’s again and I hear some blues wafting out of the window. Inside, Texiana Bluez are playing. They are a proper blues band with a lead singer who can play a mean harmonica. It’s 11.30 pm by now and they play some great stuff over the next half an hour until they take a break. I discover they’ll probably go on to around 2 am after they return but sadly I’m feeling weary and decide to head back to the hotel.

C-Boys Heart & SoulTD Blues SpecialistsThe White HorseJames Keith and The MoondogsChris SmothersTexiana Bluez

Watch this short video clip on YouTube from BD Riley’s.

It Well Could Be…

The Live Music Capital of the World, that is. I certainly had a great time and heard some excellent music. So as I leave 6th Street for the last time on this trip, I think that I’m sure I’ll be back one day. I wander for a while and it takes a few minutes to find a taxi that’s free, but eventually I arrive back at the Super 8.

Some thoughts about the music on 6th Street: the male guide on the Detours morning tour was a musician, as was Dustin this evening. Both of them made comments to our respective tour groups about bands on 6th playing covers. In both cases they was a hint of bitchiness about the way they spoke. Both also had a condescending attitude. I mentioned above about Austin Detours’ distasteful marketing speak on this topic.

What’s wrong with a band playing covers? The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, U2 – they all started out playing covers, like almost every other band does, before they developed their own song writing. But in my time on 6th Street I saw more original songs played than I did covers. I guess if you don’t seek out new or different stuff and just blindly go from bar to bar, all you might see are covers being played.

So here’s a closing thought. Could it be perhaps, that a musician who is not good enough to get a gig on 6th Street with their “original” music, can do little else but belittle those artists who are good enough, with whatever material they play, to get a gig there? What do you say, Dustin? Good night.

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