Listen to Austin 360 Radio

The White Horse arrives

Team from Hole in the Wall have created lively music venue

Peter Mongillo
Robert Allan Caldwell performs at the White Horse. Popular Austin-based bands dot the club's schedule, with some claiming a regular night every week. Caption 4

Denis O'Donnell takes a drag off his cigarette as people pass by to say hello. He knows a lot of them by name. They're headed into the White Horse, a 9-month-old bar and live music haunt that he co-owns with Nathan Hill on Comal Street, in the heart of Austin's eastward nightlife expansion.

A black sign bearing the bar's name and lit up like a Las Vegas Christmas tree looks down on the building, directing people to the front door with an arrow. It's still early, around 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, but in a few hours, the place will be crowded with people there to talk, drink and dance to live music. That night it's Them Duquaines, and although plenty of people are probably there to see that band, there's a good chance they already trust it will sound good regardless of who's on stage.

"We're really good at throwing a party," O'Donnell, identifiable by his beard, long hair and cowboy hat, says. "My mantra has always been don't trust the skinny cook. That really got out of hand."

In terms of its existence, the White Horse isn't even a toddler — it opened at the end of last year, before the owners had even secured proper alcohol permits. That didn't matter to the thick crowd that showed up, beer in hand. Although the reality of running a bar indicates there's still a good chance the place might not last, at the moment, it's doing extremely well, with a thirsty crowd that fills the place regularly to hear a steady stream of live country, bluegrass and blues.

Their own place

Hill and O'Donnell first got to know each other about eight years ago, when they both worked as managers at Kerbey Lane near the University of Texas campus. Hill moved a couple blocks down the street to the Hole in the Wall. O'Donnell joined him a while later and began booking happy hour shows. The two became part of a team, along with owner Will Tanner and booker Ben McCormack, that helped usher in a new era of popularity for the campus institution.

If you've done any drinking at the Hole in the Wall, you know it's not a leap to attribute at least part of that success to O'Donnell, the super friendly bartender/booker/banjo player who would regularly stop by your table to say hello. "Everybody knows Denis," says Hill, who sports a fairly heavy collection of tattoos but is low-key in appearance compared with his partner. "Everybody asks who the (expletive) is Nathan?"

It didn't take long for Hill and O'Donnell to begin talking about opening a club themselves. For O'Donnell, it's a family tradition — his family ran a bar in Astoria, Queens, in the 1960s. "It's in my blood," he says.

Owning the place also frees O'Donnell, who moved to Austin from Houston in the late '90s, to play music, to do things he might not be able to do were he working for somebody else, such as stepping out from behind the bar to sit in with bands on the banjo.

Building a scene

Unlike a lot of the places that are labeled "music venues" in Austin, the White Horse functions just as much as a bar, opening at 3 p.m. each day. Even when music is playing, the layout of the club, with a long bar occupying one half of the room and the stage situated at the far end, is such that people can sit down and talk without the music being the main event. A fenced-in front patio with a taco truck offers another area to gather.

At the bar early one afternoon last week, with the sun outside still glaring at full strength, it's so dark inside the bar that it's hard to tell whether it's 4 p.m. or midnight. Hill, drinking a can of Pearl, says his time at Hole in the Wall taught him it was just as important to have a place for people who weren't there for the bands. "I realized that chasing people with music wasn't the best idea," Hill says. "You have to give people a chance to hang out, the ability to stay away from it if they want to."

That experience, along with the example of Austin institutions including the Continental Club and the Saxon Pub, also helped Hill and O'Donnell understand the value of band residencies. Popular Austin-based bands including blues trio Mrs. Glass and country band Mike and the Moonpies are among the groups currently claiming a regular night at the White Horse.

"A lot of times a band gets up and says ‘All right, if you liked us, check out our Facebook page,' " Hill says. "We figured it would help, just letting people know there was a schedule."

Silas Lowe, who has played the White Horse as part of the Atomic Duo, says that as a working musician, he appreciates the effort that Hill and O'Donnell have made to cultivate a scene. "They treat the bands really well, and they hire really good bands all the time," Lowe says. "It's trying to build on the idea that if communities and venues and consumers invest in music, people will have access to consistently good music."

Realizing a dream

Although the quick transition of the space from the Club La Trampa (the "Entrada" sign from that era continues to hang over the front door) to the White Horse seems to have happened overnight, the club has been years in the making. O'Donnell and Hill researched potential locations for four years and were held back by several interested investors who fell through. When they finally did secure financial backing, the space at 500 Comal St., between Fifth and Sixth streets, was ideal. "The setup is perfect," O'Donnell says. "I've always loved this place. There's a long bar on one end, a stage on the other, not bottlenecking everybody."

It also had a musical pedigree. The space was once occupied by the Back Door, which Willie Nelson played (after that is was home to Daddy-O's).

The location is ideal, at least at the moment. The White Horse is in the middle of a cluster of bars, restaurants and music venues — the Liberty, Hotel Vegas, the Brixton, among others — that have come to represent a shift in Austin's nightlife scene over the past couple years to the east side of Interstate 35. According to data from the state, alcohol sales at the White Horse for April and May were $129,466 and $156,924; those numbers are on par with or higher than similar bars in the area.

O'Donnell says that even though he already had developed relationships with musicians he planned to book, he wasn't sure people would show up. "I had a ‘please help me' bill," he says. " ‘Please, please, please would you play for me.' We were stretched so thin it would have crashed."

Back in front of the club, more people make their way inside as the evening gets going. Even though the crowds have been consistent, things aren't perfect. O'Donnell says the building needs more work beyond a new roof they installed before opening, including improved air conditioning. "It's hot as (expletive) on the weekends. Nobody put any money into this place for decades." Even when he's talking about problems, however, he seems excited. "This is a dream come true."

Contact Peter Mongillo at 445-3696

The White Horse