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Spiderhouse, 29th Street Ballroom a compound for local music

Staff Writer
Austin 360
03/27/12 Julia Robinson/ FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN; Feral Future plays the 29th Street Ballroom's bar stage on Tuesday March 27, 2012. Spiderhouse has added four stages and a bar expansion with the addition of the 29th Street Ballroom.

By Peter Mongillo

pmongillo@statesman.com

The Monday before the music portion of this year's South by Southwest festival officially started, the crowd on hand at the 29th Street Ballroom at Spiderhouse was so thick for a show featuring Austin-based OBN IIIs and San Francisco garage psych outfit Thee Oh Sees that it rivaled the throng of people at Mohawk later in the week for dubstep producer Skrillex.

The difference was that most of the people at Spiderhouse that night live in Austin, a lot of the same faces that were there at Bobby Jealousy's CD release party a few weeks earlier and countless other shows over the past year or so. In fact, there is usually one if not more nights every week when the venue is brimming with people there to see Austin-based acts.

A big part of the driving force behind the 29th Street Ballroom's recent success is Jason McNeely, who manages the venue and oversees the booking, and Brian Tweedy, who handles operations, including the bar. "There have always been a ton of great bands in this town, and there are always going to be, but there are times when it's easier to be in a band," says McNeely, who took over as manager about two years ago.

"When we first started, we would look at bands that we thought were really awesome and talented, and we wanted to give them whatever they needed to succeed."

One way McNeely makes that happen is by hiring musicians to work the door, sound and other jobs throughout the venue. It's something McNeely, a musician who plays in bands including Windsor for the Derby, understands firsthand.

"If you're in a band in a town, it's so hard to get a job," McNeely says. "I had to fight my way into every job I ever got."

That includes taking care to make art for most of the shows. Walk around the Ballroom and the place is covered with show posters designed by band members and Spiderhouse employees, some huge, door-sized prints from Rubberneck photo zine, and a larger-than-life print of Esme Barrera, a Ballroom regular who was killed in her home on New Year's Day and whose death sent a shock wave through much of the music community.

McNeely's love of concert art dates back to the mid-1980s, when his father booked the Back Room. "When I was younger, Frank Kozik was cranking out these posters; the whole town was covered in amazing posters," McNeely says. "Part of the excitement of curating a show is imagining what those band names will look like on a killer poster. I'm really super fortunate to know some amazing artists."

The 29th Street Ballroom, at 2906 Fruth St., isn't just a music venue. Along with the adjacent Spiderhouse, it's more like a compound made up of seven stages — the large Ballroom stage, a smaller bar stage connected to the Ballroom, a second large outdoor stage adjacent to the alley behind the buildings, one small stage inside Spiderhouse's main room, and three stage on Spiderhouse's patio.

"To me that was always one of the more important things, to have a proper stage," McNeely says. "I love theater stages. There was a period of time when it seemed like all the stages around town, they weren't exciting to me, they didn't have proper lighting."

The Ballroom is the most impressive of the rooms. McNeely, along with Spiderhouse co-owner Conrad Bejarano, a collector of antiques and other odds and ends, has transformed the room into one of the more original stages in town. The soundboard booth is built from old piano parts; the stage is flanked by antique wooden columns. One day last week, Bejarano had the bar in pieces as he added odds and ends like parts from an old fireplace.

Most nights, shows are booked both on the small stage inside the coffee shop and in the Ballroom. Other events, such as a weekly poetry slam, happen early, and music takes over after 10 p.m. On busy nights, the Ballroom will book four, five or more bands, who will play alternating sets on the bar stage and Ballroom.

The extra stage adds flexibility not many clubs have. "Thirty people can come out to a show, and it's going to feel like an awesome, high-energy show, or 200 people can show up and we open up the doors to the Ballroom and accommodate that."

It wasn't always like that. Bejarano and his partner, John Dorgan, purchased the building, an old blood bank, several years ago with the idea of expanding I Luv Video, which they also own.

The building got its start around 2008 as the United States Art Authority, which had an art gallery and hosted a variety of events, including theater and music. Enter McNeely, who had worked for Spiderhouse in the past, booking shows during SXSW. Back from tour with his band, Spiderhouse hired him to do sound, and gradually became more involved in booking the space.

"Jason is awesome. He makes such a huge difference," Bejarano says. "We've been through so many transitions in 20 years. It used to be just a sleepy coffeehouse, now we're a full bar and entertainment venue. That's the layer that we've always been in to."

In addition to building stages, McNeely and Tweedy seem to be constantly at work on other improvements, including creating a patio space outside the Ballroom, which is typically crowded during shows. They also changed the name to the Ballroom, in part to avoid confusion about what actually went on there, but also to connect the venue to the neighborhood.

"There was so much obvious potential for something amazing to happen there," McNeely says. "Twenty-ninth Street has always kind of had a strong identity to me, just a killer little spot, and Spiderhouse is like a little oasis."

While a lot of the bigger shows booked into the Ballroom feature bands from Austin's punk scene, including the Flesh Lights, OBN IIIs and Dikes of Holland, those bands are by no means the only type of music performed there.

Though outside factors — like the increasing difficulty of going downtown and the high concentration of live music fans living in neighborhoods around Spiderhouse — could contribute to the success of the venue, McNeely stresses the most import factor is the music.

"There are so many great bands," he says. "Every week new ones crawl out from under a rock. It's amazing."

Contact Peter Mongillo at 445-3696