All about the music
You can’t actually see Sixth Street from the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue at Auditorium Shores. But you could question if the monument would be there without Sixth.
The late guitar hero honed his skills on Sixth. Back in the day, Sixth Street was home to legendary blues club Antone's. The Steamboat Springs venue on Sixth was Vaughan and Double Trouble's home base. But Antone's took a detour to Guadalupe Street in the 1990s before settling in another entertainment district on West Fifth Street. Steamboat sailed into oblivion in 2001.
Change is the way of life in terms of bars. But you’d think the most famous entertainment district in The Live Music Capital of the World would still ring with notes night after night. Sort of. But kinda not.
Since those musical heydays of the past, a concerted push has put as many condominiums downtown as music venues. Some of those residents expect their new addresses to include a full night's sleep. So there are now noise ordinances that regulate where and and how far live music travels. And it's possible, simple generational changes mean Sixth Street at night is a different clientele looking for a different kind of entertainment. The symbiotic relationship between Sixth and live music is no longer as certain. But there are buds of hope.
“I think we’re very much in a transition,” said Josh Allen, executive director of the 6ixthStreet Austin nonprofit that represents businesses and landowners in the East Sixth Street Entertainment District. “I think people recognize Sixth Street is an entertainment district. Live music is certainly an expectation of the brand, the global brand Sixth Street is. Without that, seems like you’re swimming upstream.”
Today Reckless Kelly is a regionally popular group that can fill halls with fans across the western United States. But back in the early 1990s, when Reckless formed around Braun brothers Willie and Cody (after immigrating from Idaho), the band was just learning its live licks. Their schoolyard seven nights a week was Sixth Street. Reckless' main classroom was Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar.
“That’s kind of why we moved to Austin, we heard there were a lot of clubs,” Cody Braun said. “Then, Sixth Street was all live music. There was rock, blues, country, reggae. It was really a happening place to be.”
To celebrate 15 years on the road this summer, Reckless wanted to return to Lucy’s. But what was once Lucy's on Sixth is now a bar best known because its bachelor owner goes on television regularly looking for true love. Lucy’s moved farther west between Fifth and Sixth streets, against a sleek high rise condo tower.
“There’s not as much live music down there by any stretch of the imagination,” Braun says of East Sixth.
Braun blames a lot of it on the city’s noise ordinance which limits sound to 85 decibels at the property line. Part of the ordinance’s purpose is to allow all the new full-time downtown residents to get some peace and quiet. Braun says it has muzzled the mingling of music that used to be in every doorway of Sixth.
“Condos have the power to tell bars and clubs that have been there for 20 years they can’t have live music so they can get a night’s sleep,” Braun said. “They made it as difficult as possible. A lot of people just got sick of it.”
Allen of the 6ixth organization said that may be a difference between east and west when it comes to Sixth Street. Using Congress Avenue as a dividing line, Allen says most people see east as an entertainment district. Although there is a string of bars - several with live music - along West Sixth, the noise conflicts play out where there is more of an amalgamation of living and playing.
One club pointed to by many as a live music icon on East Sixth is The Parish. For a decade and a half, its stage has supported everyone from local bands to Pete Townsend of The Who. Sbout a year ago it was taken over by Doug Guller, who also owns Bikinis on Sixth street.
Guller dumped more than six figures into the club for better sound and band amenities. He says he’s seen some clubs try live music for awhile and then fade on the street.
“The venues that have always been a music scene are still around and still thriving,” he said. “I don’t think the music scene has ebbed and flowed. I think it has progressed.”
One new club trying to make a go of it with live music on East Sixth is The Stage on Sixth Street. It is one of three commonly owned clubs emphasizing music, the others are in Nashville. Open since March, co-owner and general manager Brandon Reineke said attendance has been reasonable, as have police enforcing noise ordinances.
“I’ve had a visit, but no one’s complained,” Reineke said. But the owner added he placed bands on the street side of the facility so the speakers would point away from the street. During renovations, he removed all kinds of metal and installed sound-absorbing ceilings to ensure compliance.
The Parish is also designed to keep the music in the club and away from the street. Owner Guller said he doesn’t believe the sound should be a cacophony wafting out over the streets and into the night sky.
“That kind of experience is not what The Live Music Capital of the World is all about,” Guller said.
During a steamy July weekend night, you could see the effects of both clubs. The Stage had a live country band and a reasonably sized crowd for 11 p.m that also was probably a few years older than the typical Greek-oriented/horomone-driven Sixth Street population.
Down the street at The Parish, you couldn't even tell there was live music from the street sounds. But upstairs the club was showing off its sound and light systems with a DJ essentially conducting a rave. The next night, the home-grown Band of Heathens played a send off before their midwest U.S. tour.
Reineke said he visited Austin with his family when he was a child and found it to be “a cool city.”
“It’s the vibe, and there’s a need for country music on this street,” he said. “Anyone who comes to Texas expects to hear country music.”
But Reineke also says there are more disc jockeys working Sixth Street clubs than live bands. Particularly in the large number of small dark “dive bars.” Still, the Nashville immigrant says Austin's reputation will live on.
“This is always going to be the Live Music Capital of the World,” Reineke said.
Guller said parking remains one of the major problems for people considering coming to East Sixth. It is too scarce and expensive for many patrons.
“People are already moving to go to other places, to other entertainment districts,” Guller said.
Allen counters, studies show there is a large amount of parking available within about two blocks to the north and south of East Sixth Street and there are plans for a few high-rise parking garages to service new towers just off the entertainment district.
“Much of that is a perception issue,” Allen said of the parking.
Musician Braun said although there were plenty of party people during his days playing on Sixth, they seemed to also have an equal interest in the music. He questioned if people haven’t gotten more interested in power drinking and meeting prospective mates than seeing fresh guitar licks.
“I hope they keep it the Live Music Capital of the World instead of the Shot Bar Capital of the World,” he said.