Most music venues in Austin have remained closed during the coronavirus pandemic. But here’s a novel twist: A new venue is actually opening this weekend.
Sagebrush, at 5500 S. Congress Ave., will feature live music in its spacious outdoor back lot starting at 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The new venue is a partnership between Denis O’Donnell, Marshall McHone and Margaret Bentley, all of whom are co-owners of east Austin bar the White Horse, which has been shuttered since mid-March.
Indie/roots-music singer-songwriter Jonathan Terrell is booked for both nights. Saturday’s bill also includes Dave Insley, Mayeux & Broussard, Garrett T. Capps, Candler Wilkinson, Ben Ballinger, Danny B. Harvey, Rattlesnake Milk, Annie Marie Lewis and Robert Allan Caldwell. Other performers on Sunday are Doug Strahan, Corey Baum of Croy & the Boys, Mrs. Glass, Warm Sugar, Golden Roses, David Touchton, Jordan Matthew Young and Blake Van Buren.
Before the pandemic hit, the venue’s owners had planned to open Sagebrush in April. They’d recently closed the Hard Luck Lounge, a somewhat similar indoor-outdoor space on East Seventh Street, but saw an opportunity to gain a presence in South Austin with the old stone building on the west side of South Congress Avenue just north of Stassney Lane. The building most recently had been home to Club Casino, which state officials shut down last year.
Renovations to the inside space have been in the works for months, with two stages built into a room that McHone says is approximately 5,000 square feet. But the back lot became key to the decision to open with live music, given that outdoor spaces are widely accepted to be safer during the pandemic. McHone says he’s not sure of the lot’s exact dimensions, but he estimated it’s at least three-fourths of an acre.
"It was a huge old parking lot that had a grassy area that wasn’t used for anything," McHone said. "We're just taking all of the space back there and converting it to seating so we can spread everything out and give everybody as much room as possible. If people want to bring a blanket or a camping chair or whatever, they can find a space that they can claim as theirs and be be left in peace."
RELATED: Stubb’s opens its outdoor space at limited capacity for music and dining
Picnic tables and smaller tables which chairs have been set up in the yard. Bartenders will sell drinks from a beverage trailer. The indoor space also will be open, with a limit of 75 people inside to meet the recent state-mandated threshold of 25% occupancy. (The room’s official listed capacity is 299.) Masks will be required inside. "There will be a door guy with a sanitation station checking to see that everybody’s got their mask on when they go in," McHone said.
Sagebrush plans to operate daily from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m., with live music on most days. At present, no music lineups beyond the opening weekend have been announced. For the time being, all music will be on the outside stage, made from a platform atop a trailer with dimensions of 3 feet high, 16 feet long and 12 feet deep.
"There's room for musicians to space out" on the stage, McHone said. "We've told musicians to bring their own mics, although we do have the capability to sanitize them. We just want them to feel comfortable."
McHone said the decision to open Sagebrush hinged partly on financial realities. He noted that the White Horse was able to get a Paycheck Protection Program loan to help cover expenses while closed, but Sagebrush was not eligible because it hadn’t yet opened for business when the pandemic hit. The owners already had begun paying rent and had hired workers to get the place ready to open.
"We’re on a tight budget now," McHone said. "We're kind of forced to go ahead and try to make it work with the rules that they have. We’re just lucky we were able to change gears and go to an outside kind of venue."
Though the state’s 25%-occupancy limits don’t apply to outdoor yards, McHone says the Sagebrush likely would limit entry if that became necessary. "I can't imagine we’d allow more than 300 people" outside, he said. "We’ll have somebody controlling the gate."
The opening-weekend lineups feature many acts that have performed regularly at the White Horse. "I had (Sagebrush) booked till August and have had to reach out to each performer as these commitments were made before the pandemic," noted co-owner O’Donnell. "Some are not comfortable to play yet, some are real ready to play, and others are on the fence."
McHone added that "most of them were ready to do something sensible. There are some who have some risk and have some underlying issues. And we're happy to have them say, ‘We’ll do it later on.’ They’re amazingly talented musicians, and we'll have them anytime we can get them. But we want to minimize the risk as much as possible."