I was really excited as we ventured north out of San Antonio, miniscule rental car firing on all cylinders. We were headed for Austin, a city I had wanted to see since I was in my teens. Known as a live music mecca and home to great food, Austin always sounded like a city that would suit me well.
So the drive was packed with anticipation for both Angela and I, but it was also boring – the interstate offers no compelling views, and any romantic notions I had of seeing cowboys rounding up the herd as I drove were quickly squashed. No herds, no cowboys, only billboards and concrete. I did see a guy wearing a cowboy hat at a gas station, but he was also wearing a Kanye West t-shirt, so I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count.
We arrived at our hotel a couple hours after leaving San Antonio, the drive a bit slow as traffic surrounding Austin was insane. We dropped our bags and as it was early evening, immediately ventured out to take in Austin’s live music scene.
We really wanted to catch some great Texas blues while in the heart of the Lone Star State, so first on our list was the Saxon Pub. The Saxon is an intimate performance club that books great acts and has kind of taken over the mantle as home of the Texas blues since Antone’s closed its doors a while back. It’s a great venue, but they don’t serve food, which caught us off guard. I think they’re playing it fast and loose with the term “Pub”. Anyway, we ordered a pizza from a nearby restaurant and had it delivered to our table. We were both hated and envied by everyone sitting nearby.
I left my camera in the hotel, so this was a cell phone capture from the show. Small stage, big sound.
On this night WC Clark was playing. WC is known as the “Godfather of Austin Blues” and he’s played with everyone including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli, James Brown, BB King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Bobby Blue Bland…you get the idea. If you’re a blues fan, this is your guy.
Watching a 75 year-old man hold court for the night, and do so with passion, energy, and incredible dexterity, was really something. He played well beyond two hours, and I got the sense he would have played for longer. We spoke with him afterwards and he couldn’t have been nicer; full of stories and tales from the road, and I could have happily spoken to him all night.
Austin is a city with a flavour; thankfully that flavour is spelled B-B-Q. I don’t eat much BBQ anymore, as I adopted a pretty healthy lifestyle about a year and a half ago that (sadly) doesn’t include slow cooked ribs and pulled pork. But when you’re in Texas you need to try the BBQ – it’s like having tapas in Spain or vodka in Russia. It just has to be done.
So the next day we went on the hunt, voyaging out to the legendary Franklin Barbecue. We got going a bit later than I had originally planned, but hey, vacation, so that’s how it goes. My laissez faire attitude to BBQ line queuing cost us, though – the line-up at Franklin’s stretched out the front door, down the street, and around the corner into the parking lot by the time we got there. Angela and I were starving, but we wanted to give Franklin’s a try so we joined the line and stood there. And stood there. And stood there.
Apparently people love to savour their BBQ, and turnover of tables isn’t all that quick. Others came prepared with lawn chairs, coolers, and beach balls. An aspiring juggler worked on his technique in line, and a family of four threw around a football. It was a BBQ tailgating party for which we were woefully unprepared. After forty minutes of waiting a friendly Franklin employee came out with samples (tasty slow cooked sausage) and informed us it would be about two hours before we would be seated. Hungry before we joined the line, we decided to give up our spot and go somewhere else. We walked over to another place we had heard about that was just a few kilometres away. Closed. We tried a third place…two hour line. We had been walking around for ages, we were hot, tired, and had passed “famished” in the rear view mirror about an hour ago. So we walked into P.F. Chang’s, grabbed a table and enjoyed some chain restaurant Chinese food while vowing to get our BBQ on another day.
Later that day we hit the Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial statue at Lady Bird Lake Trail, on the south side of Lady Bird Lake. The park has acres of green fields, running trails and other rec facilities. It was a perfect day with blue skies and fluffy white clouds, the park busy with people walking their dogs, playing Frisbee, and rowing in the lake. It was an active, hopping place with happy, optimistic people. I felt like I should be flying a kite while the “Full House” theme played softly in the background.
I’ve been an SRV fan since I played my first guitar at twelve years old, so this was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. If you’re not familiar with Stevie, he’s one of Austin’s favourite sons, a blues legend and guitar hero to millions of people around the world. I saw him perform a few months before he died in a helicopter crash, and it’s one of my favourite memories from the world of music. Fired up after seeing the statue, we headed into the city centre and loved all the music-inspired art and guitar shops.
We made our way to the Texas State Capitol and wandered around. It’s an impressive building, and Texans love their history, so if you’re into this kind of thing, it’s definitely worth some time.
Built in 1888, when it was opened it was billed as “the 7th largest building in the world”. While in the middle of the rotunda, we saw people scurrying around, whispering to each other across the hall – from fifty feet away from one another. We had no idea what they were doing, but learned later it was built as a “whispering gallery” where sound travels clearly from one location to another. Now I want to go back and test it, but it seems like a long way to go to check out a nifty trick of acoustics.
It’s a neat building and interesting for history and architecture nerds, but you don’t need to schedule a whole heap of time here.
The impressive ceiling from inside the rotunda.
The next day we embarked on the Great BBQ Hunt Part 2 before getting ready to head out of town. We struck gold at Stubb’s a well-known BBQ joint in the middle of the city. We only had to wait about ten minutes before being seated. I ordered a sampler plate, offering small tastes of beef brisket (oh so tasty), pulled pork, and home-made sausage. Angela’s sampler sported pulled pork, turkey, and brisket. The food was exceptional, no sauces (“the food speaks for itself, we would never use a sauce here on the pulled pork” the waitress told us when we asked what the pulled pork sauce was like – she was right, it was amazing), and we enjoyed every bite. It might have taken two days for us to get our BBQ fix, but in the end it was worth it. When we return to Austin, Stubb’s will be at the top of the list.
We packed up the car, taking in some of Austin’s fantastic murals and graffiti as we made our way out of town.
A musical town, a great food town, and a town with history, we liked Austin. It felt a little rougher around the edges than San Antonio, but we enjoyed our time there and will happily return.
Driving south, we were shifting into beach mode. Next up – Rockport and the Gulf Coast!