At first blush, the former film soundstage that now goes by the name of the ND doesn't look like much of anything. It's essentially a giant concrete-and-girders cube.
And that's exactly what Mike Henry likes most about it.
'It's always evolving and can be a million different things,' said Henry, who partnered with owners of East Austin's 501 Studios to open the ND (formerly The Independent) in late 2008. ‘It's a chameleon and you can do just about anything with it, which lets us be open to just about any idea for a show, as long as there's a certain level of quality to it.'
That 'we'll try anything' mentality has helped the ND become one of the city's most inventive and forward-thinking venues since it rebranded itself following this year's South by Southwest conference.
In that time it's hosted national touring acts and scads of local bands just like any other space in town, but whenever possible added wrinkles to give shows a special edge and appeal. Like a May local bill that included an attempt to set the world record for the largest robot dance, complete with costumes.
Or Henry's favorite, a celebration of rap star Dr. Dre's birthday that featured music by DJ Mel, a video retrospective on the venue's giant screen wall and audience members drinking 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, complete with fitted koozies.
‘The days of throwing four bands up on a stage and charging $5 a person ... that's not very compelling anymore and not what I want to do,' said Henry, who booked Austin's revered Electric Lounge until its closure and now programs the ND with the help of creative director Krissi Reeves. Weekly poetry slams, improv and theater and more fill out the calendar, and the pair plan to have the ND active five or more nights a week by this fall.
While the vast space can be tough to engage with — especially in the case of a sparse crowd — when it's packed as it was for a showing of the World Cup final match, it's as lively a place as you'll find in town.
‘I call it the "Electric Lounge 2.0," because I still want to create a different experience for the artist and the crowd than you find anywhere else,' Henry said. ‘Now you're a curator as much as anything, and so the whole calendar speaks to what the room is and what it's about.'
The ND (formerly The Independent) at 501 Studios
Address: 501 Interstate 35 (for location purposes, Fifth and Brushy streets)
Web site: www.ndvenue.com
Booker: Main booker Mike Henry acts as the sort of palace guard in selecting shows and bringing in outside promoters such as C3 Presents, Transmission Entertainment, Do512 and others.
Bathrooms: Some of the best in town for a venue, at least in part because the facilities have to accommodate workers operating out of office space in 501 Studios. Spacious and cleaned after every show. George Costanza-approved.
Upcoming shows: Tonight: Casey Beans, My Golden Calf, Excited States (10 p.m.); Friday: The Soldier Thread CD Release Party (9 p.m.); Aug. 5: Future Clouds and Radar with Leatherbag, Polite Society; Aug. 13: AA Bondy with JBM, Milton Mapes
Parking: Public spaces outside the venue and surrounding buildings, with a paid lot nearby during events.
Cover: $5 for almost all local shows, while touring acts like Atari Teenage Riot (Sept. 27) get the Front Gate Tickets treatment and the prices that go with them.