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Bands on the boat

Austin club scene hits the waters of Lake Travis for casual concerts

Chad Swiatecki

It's not like shows by Austin punk band the Krum Bums are ever calm, laid-back affairs; lead singer Dave Rodriguez is a mohawked blur whenever the fivesome hits local stages, charging around in every direction and climbing rafters with alarming regularity.

But get Rodriguez and his band on a boat with more than 100 beer-soaked fans on a sunny day, and things become even more unhinged.

"Last year on a boat, we all played wearing superhero underwear and capes, so I had this huge sheet on," he recalls of a now-yearly party on Lake Travis thrown by local club Emo's.

"They gave me an extra-long mike cord, so I jumped off the boat onto this nearby little island — with the wind catching the cape, it looked awesome — and I'm singing to all these people who are in the water and on the boat. It's a party where you know you're with a lot of good friends and fans, so you just cut loose and have fun the whole time."

The uninhibited fun that Rodriguez and his band have had on the water in recent years is becoming increasingly common, with promoters from many different segments of the Austin music community throwing boat party concerts as a kind of deluxe experience for bands and fans.

In addition to the Emo's series of boat parties with the Riverboat Gamblers, the Krum Bums and Zlam Dunk, there has been a variety of one-off parties this summer from promoters of bands and clothing labels, and this Sunday comes a Transmission Entertainment concert with New Orleans "bounce" rapper Big Freedia that's likely to be the biggest spectacle of this summer's boat party schedule.

Those who have participated in a boat party concert as a fan or a performer say the appeal is pretty universal, with a small group of around 150 patrons paying a premium ticket cost of $20-$50 to see their favorite bands or DJs for roughly four hours on a sunny day in the water. In most cases the admission cost includes all the beer/liquor and food a customer wants, with promoters chartering a tour bus for the trip to Lake Travis to reduce worries about driving later.

As Rodriguez suggests, the atmosphere at a boat party is completely different from a standard show, with fans dressed in bathing suits diving into the water and dancing with abandon whenever music is heard.

After attending his second boat party concert last week, Austin resident Chris O'Brian said the select company of a boat party lets fans relax and have more fun than is possible in a club filled with strangers.

"It's a hot day out with all of your friends, or people who know the promoter in some way, so you have a connection with them and you don't have to worry about who you are talking to or keep an eye on your bag," O'Brian said after a party thrown by Austin clothing line 331/3, which included music from an assortment of Austin DJs and touring artist Mexicans with Guns.

"I go out to clubs pretty much every night or every other night and even though (a boat party) is more expensive it's better because you start right off dancing and having fun, then you're swimming and diving, or riding in a little wake boat and doing whatever you can think of to make the most of it."

Gabriel Campbell, owner of the 331/3, opted to throw a boat party to mark the launch of the company's latest selection of graphic streetwear and said the expense and logistical hurdles of bringing multiple DJs, a full sound system and roughly 120 people out to Volente Beach and getting them onto a boat for four hours was justified by the customer loyalty and publicity generated by the event.

"It's not something you could do every week, but having a party like this once or twice each summer is a great idea if you want to make a name for yourself and put yourself on the map as someone who knows how to have a good time," Campbell said. "People like it because it's a change of pace, and it's a more exclusive thing because you're just telling people you're already friends with or you know will be cool and have a good time with everybody else."

And for bands and DJs the parties are a chance to socialize closely with fans who they might meet only briefly at a club show.

"It throws you out of your element in a good way because it's not often I'm playing a show in shorts and a tank top, and it's nice to get out of that rut you can get into just playing in clubs," Riverboat Gamblers singer Mike Wiebe said of his band's boat show that kicked off the Emo's summer series.

"It's cool because you're out there hanging out with fans who I've maybe only ever said ‘Hi' to at a show, but now we get to drink a bunch of beers and have a good time for a few hours. It's nice that it's a really limited thing, and not many people can say they've seen a band they really like in such a cool setting."

Rett Scudder, owner of Beach Front Boat Rentals, said rentals for parties featuring bands and DJs have always been a part of his business, but this year has seen a noticeable increase in frequency.

The uptick comes during a prolonged drought that as of this week has Lake Travis within 13 shore-feet of 2009's historic lows, but Scudder said the low lake levels don't affect day-to-day business practices beyond moving his dock farther down the beach on a weekly basis. While some companies and parties keep boats docked for their festivities, Scudder's practice is to drive to a lake cove or to Starnes Island so customers can swim while bands are performing.

No one can say for sure when boat party concerts got their start, but in Austin one of the authorities is Transmission Entertainment booker Rosa Madriz, who invited then-up-and-coming Austin band White Denim to play on a boat for a 2007 summer party for her former company, Green Potato Ventures.

Madriz said the party was a surprise hit, selling out in a matter of days and confirming that clubgoers who aren't that familiar with the sun would venture out of their comfort zones for a special occasion with a band they really enjoyed.

"It was kids who you never really see during the day, and were mostly pale and white," Madriz said, laughing. "They liked it because it's a pared-down scene that is grittier, but it's also relaxing because you're with people who you normally know from being in the clubs with you."

Madriz agrees that the number of boat parties in Austin has increased dramatically this year — "Out of nowhere, it seems like everyone is doing a summer boat series of some sort" — and looks forward to Sunday's outing with Big Freedia. That outing launches Transmission's Summer Camp Series of shows including added activities and themes, such as a Neon Indian show plus games of laser tag.

Big Freedia "was a natural choice since she was already coming into town for a show the next night, so we knew we had to get her on a boat," Madriz said of the now sold-out party. "There's not going to be many moments where that entire boat isn't moving from people dancing."