Hole In the Wall finds its groove again
After last decade's woes, venue near the University of Texas campus re-establishes itself as a quality destination for live music
Losing beloved live music clubs is a big part of being a citizen of the Live Music Capital of the World: If we were New England, such joints as Liberty Lunch, Soap Creek, Steamboat, the Black Cat and the Armadillo World Headquarters would be our Kennedys. On June 30, 2002, fans started packing the Hole In the Wall — the only nightclub on the Drag for almost all of its 29 years — at 3 in the afternoon to pay their last respects.
It was front-page news, yet another piece of Old Austin being lost forever.
Only the Hole didn't close up for good. The owners of Austin's Pizza bought the building in April 2003 and cleaned it up, vowing to retain the spirit of the original and buying the name to prove they were serious. They kept the bathroom graffiti and encouraged the daytime stool-flatteners to keep coming back.
Chief among the improvements was opening a beer garden with a separate bar, so grad students could discuss Eastern philosophy and Vince Young over pints of ale without having to shout over the Rockland Eagles.
And yet the vibe wasn't the same. The front room was overlit with neon beer signs and the bigger back room hosted too many sober bands that were too far away. And the new owners never could match the crazy food menu (R.I.P., elfagator sandwich) of Hole past.
It should be noted here that the original Hole did not close because it was evicted or was hit with a big rent increase. The club was losing money even while "paying 1960s rent," as Realtor Robert Knight put it, and the hounds of Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission were on them for unpaid permits.
After the Austin's Pizza business was bought by J.D. Torian in late 2005, Torian decided to concentrate on his pizza delivery side and looked to find a club owner who would lease the familiar building at 2538 Guadalupe St. and keep the Hole thing going.
This is where Will Tanner comes in. A native of San Antonio who followed his father as a railroad man, Tanner engineered the train route between El Paso and Alpine for a few years before opening a club near the University of Texas at El Paso called Moontime in 2002. His friend Ben McCormack was hired to book the club, which was renamed the Black Market when rock bands became more of a focus. Tanner and his partner, Austin Allen, later opened the Palomino Tavern across the street and are weeks from debuting a third club, the Lowbrow Palace in El Paso.
With a newborn and a 2-year-old, Tanner and his wife, Trisha, moved to kid-friendly Austin, a longtime goal, in 2005. Here, he became familiar with Southwest Airlines flight schedules to and from El Paso and looked into local business opportunities. A chance meeting with friend of a friend Torian led to Tanner buying the Hole In the Wall in February 2008.
Under Tanner, booker McCormack, general manager Nathan Hill and happy hour booker Denis O'Donnell, the Hole has been reborn as a vital live music venue with character. On warm months when the students are in town, the club regularly tops $100,000 a month at the bar — an unheard-of gross during the club's glory days. Even more impressive is the Hole's return as an incubator of young, talented bands, with such acts as Frank Smith, White Dress, Mike and the Moonpies, Focus Group, the Beaumonts and Leo Rondeau finding a home on the Drag.
You have to go back to the black box Continental Club of the mid-'80s, which closed to lines around the block, to find an example of a legendary Austin nightclub that didn't stay dead, but instead came back strong with a new identity.
"Will's strength is balancing what he's inspired by with what people want," said McCormack, who is a schoolteacher by day. "His passion and knowledge of music runs pretty deep." Like everybody who works at the Hole, Tanner is a musician, though his band Through the Trees (with McCormack on guitar and drummer Rob Jasinski, who owns Cream Vintage next door) never plays the Hole lest there be a scent of nepotism.
Meet the new Hole
The new, efficient version of the Hole works, in part, because Tanner retained as much of the old joint as possible, including the framed drawings of the old regulars. "A lot of the changes we made were small," said Tanner, who recently had his 40th birthday. The beer garden bar was lowered; the single door linking the inside and outside areas was switched to a double door formerly blocked by a shuffleboard table. The lighting in the front room was dimmed, the neon signs diminished. Little things.
But the old "Cheers"-like character ("where everybody slurs your name," the old Hole was tagged) of the place has somewhat returned. "Our main philosophy is that everyone's welcome," said Tanner. "When you come inside, you're our guest." Big thing.
"The old times are great, but we're looking to create some good ol' days of our own."
The craziness of the Hole, where the Leroi Brothers once brawled onstage and the entire audience once chased a guitar thief down the street, came crashing back on Christmas night when a drunken Santa Claus fell through the big front window while doing a karaoke turn. Also, the current Hole's online presence, complete with a disconnected phone number, is only slightly better than during the years Blaze Foley was 86ed.
Same as the old Hole
During its 1985-2000 heyday, the Hole was not really a hangout for students attending the University of Texas, right across the street. The music was loud and unavoidable, the tone seedy. Rather than be part of the Charles Bukowski story unraveling inside the door that still has a baseball bat handle, students would pass by in droves on their way to the Texas Showdown in one direction or Cain and Abel's in the other.
But the Hole 2011 is heavy with student clientele. To cater to the college crowd, it's important to have a place where they can escape live music. But more and more students are coming inside when they hear the strains of something they might like. On a recent Monday happy hour, the live room was packed for the Carper Family of nouveau bluegrass pickers, while the beer garden was almost empty.
In recent months, the club has stepped up booking touring acts: Jonathan Richman will play the Hole on Wednesday and next Thursday. "The word is getting out," said McCormack, who books three or four touring acts a month. "The thing I loved about going to the Hole in the old days was that you never knew what you were going to get. It would be a hard rock band one night, then a honky-tonk band, then a singer-songwriter." The new Hole's nod to the old days was especially evident a couple weeks ago when the Sons of Hercules and the Hickoids played. And new regular Churchwood bears a strong resemblance to the great Ballad Shambles of yore.
With monthly rent in five figures, Tanner said the Hole In the Wall isn't exactly profitable. "I guess, considering the economic state, we're doing well just doing a little better every year."
A headache for years, the kitchen has finally found its format, with a mini-tacos plate ($7) a standout and a retro gastro delight in the return of the reality sandwich ($6).
But, in its strongest ties to the early years, the Hole In the Wall is still is built around bands playing music, which takes place in the front room on weekdays and in the bigger back room on weekends.
"I knew going in that when you run a live music club, you have to find some other payment besides money," said Tanner, who rebuilt the club's sound system, with an assist from production manager Paul Minor. "And I get that every night, when you see the interaction between the band and the people who come out to see them."
Club owners are a special breed, but they're also just like the rest of us. Who wouldn't want to host a great party? It's just that Will Tanner and his fellow nightlife warriors try to throw a great party seven nights a week.
It's a musicians' bar
Hole In the Wall staffers are members of the following bands:
Bexar County Bastards
East Cameron Folkcore
Through the Trees