When he was still a relatively young pup, local blues guitarslinger Derek O'Brien first stepped onto the stage at the original Antone's Nightclub at Sixth and Brazos streets. The year was 1975, Antone's had only recently opened its doors and the still-green guitarist was set to back Delta blues pianist Sunnyland Slim, a legend in the Chicago scene. The club's founder, the big-hearted Clifford Antone, always dedicated to giving fresh talent a chance, had roped O'Brien in on the gig.
"I was on stage in the tradition of giving young players a chance. I was 25, so I wasn't as young as some of the guys today, but I had only been playing about five years," O'Brien says. "And I don't remember if the rhythm section was totally Chicago guys, but it was very intimidating. But the thing about Clifford is that he was really good to all those great old blues guys and they were happy, and because of him, it was a comfortable environment."
Four locations and 35 years later, O'Brien is an Antone's fixture who has backed an array of the blues' best — Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Albert Collins — as a member of the club's house band in the '80s. He's also one of many Austin blues talents to be patiently shepherded by the late Clifford Antone — from a young cat named Stevie Ray Vaughan to Austin's man of a thousand bands Bob Schneider in the '90s through to Gary Clark Jr. and Eve Monsees (today a co-owner of Antone's Records).
The club celebrates its anniversary this month with 35 days of shows representing every era of Antones' development — from kicking off with pioneer pianist Pinetop Perkins to '90s guitar heroes Soulhat to today's mercurial rockers White Denim. And even in Antone's absence, his dedication to cultivating a scene remains alive.
"Every young player that came to town or lived here that was coming up, Clifford tried to give them a place to play and to meet their heroes," says Chris Layton, drummer for the Arc Angels — playing the club tonight — and, alongside bassist Tommy Shannon and Stevie Ray Vaughan, a founding member of Double Trouble.
Even after four locations — the original on Sixth Street, a brief sojourn up north to Anderson Lane, a famous spot on Guadalupe Street and today's building on West Fifth Street, now the longest-lived incarnation — Layton says that at Antone's, he finds a sense of belonging.
"Every time the club went to a different location it was a whole new place," Layton says. "But even after all those changes, it's all like family now. I've known the people at Antone's for way more than half of my life, so it's kind of like going home in a way."
Which is not to say there haven't been changes. After Clifford Antone died in 2006, sister and co-owner Susan Antone picked up the torch, and today she books the club alongside manager Jessica Jarrett, who met the Antones through their fundraising work for American YouthWorks. Local booker David Cotton also books some nights at the venue, as does promoter C3 Presents, which fields most of the room's national and touring acts.
All of which means that Antone's days of being a straight-up blues club are in the rearview mirror; today you can see a blues legend like Perkins and an indie dance rock act like Miike Snow within a few weeks of each other.
"I have a philosophy that I always tell people: The kind of people that we wind up booking over the years, regardless of when it was or who it was, they're soulful musicians with their own rhythm," Susan Antone said this week. "You can hear any kind of music. But if it has soul, you're probably going to like it. That's my philosophy, and it has been for a really long time. There's so many talented people out there. And are they Muddy Waters or Junior Wells? No, they're not. But there are a lot of other different things that are terrific."
Not that there's no time for blues at Antone's. July 27 sees a Chicago blues show that would make Clifford Antone proud, with Perkins and guitarist and singer Hubert Sumlin. Marcia Ball anchors a tribute to this year's inductees to the Austin Music Memorial, including Clifford Antone and longtime Antone's fixture Stevie Ray Vaughan. Some of the club's most devoted female musicians — from Ball to Monsees to Toni Price and Angela Strehli — will play a blues jam July 29. And the month closes with Jimmie Vaughan, who Susan Antone described as "as much a part of Antone's as anybody else on Earth."
For Susan Antone, who tears up at mention of her brother, steering Antone's is a charge to keep.
"I feel very lucky to have been able to do this all these years. It's a responsibility, but it's a privilege. It's incredible to me that the club is open after all these years," she said. "I know that my brother back when he started it would have been like 'What? 35 years? There's no way it will last that long!' But I give all of that to the spirit of the musicians in this community. And my brother's relentlessness. He was a music man, and he loved Austin."