His voice booming with gritty soul while he tickles rollicking melodies out of Korg keyboard that sounds like an old roadhouse piano, Oscar Ornelas evokes a bygone era — when the blues were king — at his Monday night residency at Stay Gold, a swanky little nightclub at 1910 E. Cesar Chavez St.
“In Texas, blues is everywhere,” Ornelas said.
The San Angelo native, who released the excellent soul-stirrer “Some Gospel” in 2019, began his musical career playing in the church as a child. As he grew older and more serious about his craft, he realized his hometown had three dominant sounds.
“You’ve got to do blues, country or Tejano,” he said. Ornelas gravitated toward the blues, because he loved the classic rock it inspired, and he appreciated the shared lineage that tied it to the jazz he was playing at school. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing in local blues clubs, an understudy to older musicians who had played around the world.
In his late 20s, Ornelas relocated to Austin and spent a few years kicking around Sixth Street and working as a side player before finding a home for his soulful tunes in East Austin.
If you’re looking for a classic Austin sound in one of Austin’s booming nightlife districts: Back when Stay Gold was a neighborhood watering hole called El Leon, it was one of the first clubs Ornelas played in Austin. The residency gig is “kind of like full circle for me,” he said.
When El Leon owner David Contreras was ready to retire, he agreed to lease the building to the current team. The hip new space bears little resemblance to the old Tejano bar, but Ornelas’ barreling piano jams echo the old-school blues rock that helped define Austin’s music scene in its early days.
The sound: Ornelas thinks of this gig “almost like a lounge set,” he said. He likes to keep it soulful with a laid-back vibe. He usually kicks off with an opening set that mixes his bluesy originals with “choice covers.”
A generous bandleader who indulges in extended jams featuring each of his players, Ornelas primarily plays keys, but he occasionally picks up a saxophone. He frequently features special guests during a second set around 10:30 p.m. On one Monday in January, singer-songwriters Guy Forsyth and Jeska Bailey sat in; on Feb. 10, Speedo Jones, a seasoned blues player from New York City, will stop by.
He closes the night with a “midnight jazz” set that sometimes unfolds as a 30-minute instrumental jam.
“I like to get weird with it,” Ornelas said. “We just throw anything we can think of out there.”
The vibe: The bar lighting is dim, and candles flicker on tables ringed with smartly upholstered midcentury modern wingback chairs. Plush benches line the walls creating cozy spaces to snuggle with a sweetheart or bond with your friends.
“I’m not trying to blow people away with the volume,” Ornelas said. He wants to present technically adept music in a low-key atmosphere. “People can have some conversations,” Ornelas said. “It’s a cool, chill little place over there, so I just try to mimic what they’ve got going on.”
The venue: With carefully considered design elements, the modern incarnation of the bar is more upscale than the neighborhood hangout it replaced, but it maintains a welcoming atmosphere. The interior section of the club is cozy and tight, with ample and comfortable seating providing a good view of the narrow stage at the back where bands perform in front of a glittery backdrop. Outside on the spacious patio, lush arrangements of tropical plants spring from wide cinder-block planters. Small tables that invite intimate conversations sit across from a row of wide benches arranged in U-shaped formations around low tables for large group hangs.
Oscar Ornelas says: “I have a lot of good friends who are excellent musicians, and we don’t typically get to play on the weekends because we’re always so busy. It’s like a little avenue where we can all get together and jam and stuff, have some fun.”
Bar manager Emily Darr says: “We love Oscar! He is a big sweetheart along with being an amazing musician. High energy! He’s kind of got a great New Orleans vibe about his music.”
If you go: Ornelas begins his first set at 9:30 p.m. There’s no cover to get in, but take a little cash to drop in the tip jar, because you’re not a jerk. Mondays are relatively relaxed, and you might be able to find a spot in the club’s small parking lot, but if not, there’s plenty of free street parking available in the surrounding neighborhood.
The bar boasts an extensive selection of whiskey, with over two dozen top-shelf varieties. They also feature eight signature cocktails ($10), a rotating selection of draft beers and reasonably priced house wines available by the bottle ($24-$27), the glass ($6-$7) or the half bottle. You can also order glogg, a traditional Swedish hot mulled wine ($7) or a frosť ($10), if you prefer your wine frosty. If you’re hungry, food truck Alley Cat serves up “Hawaiian soul food” on the patio. The menu features a variety of poke bowls, Hawaiian tortas, tacos and snacks.
Find more information about Stay Gold at staygoldaustin.com.
Pro-tip: There are no specific drink specials on Mondays, but the club’s ever-present specials are shot-and-beer combos. Combos include the Ponyboy ($9), which is a shot of Jameson and an Austin Beerworks Fire Eagle; the Greaser ($6), a shot of T.W. Samuels Whisky with a Pearl; and a Selena (not Gomez) ($9), a shot of Espolon with a Modelo Especial.