Craving live music? Austin outdoor venues offer an oasis in a time of pandemic purgatory
It’s a mantra that’s been passed from musicians and venue owners to mayors and senators over the course of the coronavirus pandemic: Live music venues were among the first to close and will be among the last to reopen. So, 13 months in, just where are we in that re-emergence?
Many of Austin’s top music destinations remain shuttered for now: from iconic South Austin haunts the Continental Club and Saxon Pub, to Red River anchors the Mohawk and Cheer Up Charlies, to Congress Avenue jazz joint the Elephant Room, to University of Texas campus haven Cactus Cafe. Larger rooms such as ACL Live and the Paramount Theatre recently began presenting a handful of limited-capacity shows.
For now, many people might feel most comfortable seeing live music outdoors. The good news: There’s a whole lot of options for hearing bands in open-air environments. They range from popular restaurants and bars that were using outside spaces before the pandemic, to intriguing new places that have opened during the past year, to outposts on the far reaches of town with more room to roam.
Over the past few weeks, we visited a dozen of these places. Here’s a list of where we went and what we caught at each place, with a focus on the experience. This is far from a complete list of outdoor music venues in the Austin area, but it’s a broad sampler for exploring what’s out there.
LONG CENTER LAWN
The home of the Austin Symphony hasn’t opened its main hall for shows yet (Black Violin is booked for May 22), but a partnership with concert presenter Luck Productions resulted in a run of socially distanced shows on the venue’s north lawn last fall and this spring. We caught a momentous tribute to the late Billy Joe Shaver in November and a lovely local double bill of Patty Griffin and Carrie Rodriguez in March. (701 W. Riverside Drive)
Coming soon: The Drop-In, a weekly series of free shows on the spacious front terrace on Thursday beginning May 27 and running throughout the summer. Artists will be announced soon at thelongcenter.org.
Did the South Congress Mexican restaurant ever stop having live music beneath the heritage live oaks in its adjoining garden space? If so, it wasn’t for long. Sun Radio’s popular “Texas Radio Live” shows continue to be broadcast from there on Wednesday, with local acts playing music for patrons and passersby most every other day of the week. We caught a recent Sunday afternoon show by long-running local group Blue Mist, watching from just outside the short stone walls because staff has been diligent about limiting capacity to the actual space (which features a bar and taco/tamale stand). (1412 S. Congress Ave.)
Coming soon: Nick Diaz, April 17; the Jon Blondell Project, April 23; Jimmie Dreams, April 30.
It’s right there in the name: Austin Beer Garden Brewing. A fixture on Oltorf Street since 2013, ABGB has a great indoor stage, but recently it adapted some of its rambling outdoor square-footage to accommodate late afternoon and early evening shows on a flatbed stage tucked into the south edge of the property. We heard reggae tribute band Hail Marley on a warm Sunday afternoon along with a few dozen regulars who browsed through adjacent flea market booths or kicked back at picnic tables with pizza and beer. (1305 W. Oltorf St.)
Coming soon: Buffalo Gals, April 24; Mitch Webb, April 25; Fuzz & Friends, Wednesdays. Sound engineer Paul Minor says ABGB hopes to bring back local fiddle great Warren Hood’s long-running Wednesday residency in June, possibly indoors depending on how local COVID-19 numbers look at that time.
RESIDENCY OF THE MONTH:Warren Hood is ABGB's ace in the hole
FAR OUT LOUNGE
The Far Out opened just north of Slaughter Lane in 2019 with a gameplan of presenting live music in its spacious backyard. That strategy seemed almost Nostradamic after the pandemic arrived. The venue recently built a larger stage, with tables and chairs under canopy tents and lots more room outside the canopies. We heard lovely indie folk-pop duo Deer Fellow there on March 31, with an appreciative midweek crowd of around 60 patrons. (8504 S. Congress Ave.)
Coming soon: Dale Watson and Mike & the Moonpies (separate shows), April 24; Buzz Electro album release, April 30; Motown Mondays with Matchmaker Band (continuation of a weekly residency held at the Highball pre-pandemic).
Closer in on South Congress, Sagebrush opened during the pandemic in a historic stone building just north of Stassney Lane. They’re doing shows both inside and outside. Though the indoor space is beautifully decorated, for now we prefer the sizable backyard, which offered a near-perfect Austin experience on a Friday in early April with local band Harvest Thieves playing original tunes plus a kickin’ Doug Sahm cover under a balmy twilight sky. (5500 S. Congress Ave.)
Coming soon: Ramblin’ Rose 4th anniversary party, April 24; Santiago Jimenez Jr., April 30; David Ramirez and Grace Pettis, May 8. (A note: The Sagebrush website often doesn't specify which shows are happening inside and which are outside. Co-owner Denis O'Donnell says: "Generally shows are only outside Friday and Saturday 7 to 10:30 p.m., weather permitting.")
Like Sagebrush, Meanwhile opened during the pandemic. But whereas Sagebrush is centered on its indoor space and fortuitously had a spacious lawn out back, Meanwhile was designed around its large outdoor footprint. A stage near the bar area faces picnic tables on an astroturf lawn. Dozens more tables and chairs run to the north and east for those more inclined to take in the music peripherally. Live music is on Tuesday and Thursday; we caught a Tuesday show by Texas Tycoons, known for their pre-pandemic Monday residency at the White Horse. (3901 Promontory Point Drive)
Coming soon: David Shabani, April 22; Brannen Temple, April 29.
Situated between Indian Roller and Moontower Saloon in the fast-growing area along Menchaca Road just south of Slaughter Lane, the Armadillo Den opened late last year and, like Meanwhile, is built around a large outdoor courtyard. Dozens of tables stretch to the wings of a funky stage with a small school bus parked in the corner for ambiance. We caught two shows recently: a Sunday afternoon show with groove-heavy outfit the Nick Swift Band and a Tuesday early evening guitar pull with Phil Hurley, Chris Beall and Keith Davis. (10106 Menchaca Road)
Coming soon: The Watters, April 25; Jo James, May 2.
SAM’S TOWN POINT
Sam’s was the South Menchaca neighborhood bar for decades before the area’s recent growth spurt. An outdoor stage was built before the pandemic and has become quite useful during it. In early April, country-rocker Nikki Lane, who used to live in a house on the property, played an unannounced show there and brought up her pal Lana Del Rey for a surprise cameo. We stopped in a few days later for a terrific touring show by Shannon McNally, previewing songs from her upcoming Waylon Jennings tribute record with a band that included guitarist Charlie Sexton and keyboardist Bukka Allen. The catch: It was indoors, and the Sam’s inside space feels pretty tight, with low ceilings. We were more comfortable watching from the patio door. As with Sagebrush, the Sam’s website often doesn’t specify whether shows are inside or outside. It may be wise to call ahead (512-965-6028). (2115 Allred Drive)
Coming soon: Ida Red, April 18 and April 25; Amy Lavere & Will Sexton plus Ray Bonneville, April 30; Steel Mondays with top local steel guitar players.
Held in an open park space across from the Apple store, the Northside Rocks concerts at the north end of the sprawling shopping/living area have a slightly awkward feel, as bands perform in a shaded enclave along a sidewalk rather than facing those on the turf space behind. Still, any spot is good for hearing the tunes, and it’s a nice surprise for passersby who might stumble upon the music. As Suzanna Choffel put it on a recent Saturday afternoon gig, Domain shoppers’ reactions were like, “Could it be? Is it? Live music?” It was, and even fellow local musician Ray Prim happened upon the scene by chance, catching a few tunes and offering sound-mix advice. (3120 Palm Way)
Coming soon: Harvest Thieves, April 17; Aaron Stephens, April 24.
LONE STAR COURT
The Domain development is extensive enough to have its own hotel on the south end, and Lone Star Court has been presenting music in its outdoor courtyard since well before the pandemic began. That small, covered, open-air plaza next to the swimming pool is a more enticing draw now. We caught Metroplex singer-songwriter Rahim Quazi playing originals on guitar plus a nice cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” on piano during a set that overlapped with Choffel’s performance on the north end. (10901 Domain Drive)
Coming soon: Tom Ben Lindley, April 23; Sophia Johnson plus Johnny McGowan, April 24; Andrea Young, April 29.
The dream project of retired hedge fund manager Steve Kuhn, Dreamland is a one-of-a-kind property, combining mini-golf courses and pickleball courts with an impressive stage on an astroturf lawn and a smaller bar area for more intimate shows. We attended a mid-March benefit for farmers hurt by the recent winter storm that featured a stellar lineup including Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis, Jackie Venson, Ray Prim, Sir Woman and Rochelle & the Sidewinders. Since then, the Sidewinders have become regular Sunday afternoon performers. (2770 W. U.S. 290, Dripping Springs)
Coming soon: Pat Byrne, April 16; Bob Schneider & the Moonlight Trio, April 21; DreamFest, first annual festival featuring Carolyn Wonderland, Del Castillo, Zach Person, Beat Root Revival and more, May 1.
The pride of New Braunfels for more than a century, this classic dancehall has adapted well to the pandemic, replacing its communal long-rectangle tabletops with smaller round tables that separate groups into pods and limit overall attendance. Though the hall has a roof, its walls are open screens, allowing for good air circulation. We headed down in early April for a near-perfect Sunday afternoon with Irish expat Pat Byrne and his band, playing old favorites plus songs from an upcoming album. (1281 Gruene Road, New Braunfels)
Coming soon: Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights, April 30; Los Texmaniacs featuring Augie Meyers plus Beat Root Revival, May 8; Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, May 22.
More to explore
We haven't visited these spots yet this year, but they've also been doing live outdoor shows during the pandemic:
The crown jewel of the Red River Cultural District, Stubb's began doing socially distanced shows in May 2020, operating off and on since then. Coming soon: The big news is that Stubb's has lined up five full-capacity shows with red-hot Austin band Black Pumas May 26-30. They're already sold out. It's the first major run of shows without capacity limits in Austin since the pandemic began. (801 Red River St.)
EMPIRE CONTROL ROOM AND GARAGE
The progressive club built in the shell of a former auto shop reopened its outdoor space in October and has been booking limited capacity shows ever since. The venue has been arranged to enforce social distancing with tickets sold by the table or pod. Coming soon: Govinda with Trouble in the Streets, April 17; Sara Landry, April 23; Think No Think, April 24; Matthew Logan Vasquez, May 7; Nané, May 15. (606 E. Seventh St.) — Deborah Sengupta Stith
NUTTY BROWN AMPHITHEATRE
Long established as a large outdoor venue on the west edge of town, Nutty Brown has been presenting occasional limited-capacity concerts stretching back to last summer, including some touring shows. Coming soon: Parker McCollum, April 16-17; Bob Schneider, April 30-May 1; Hayes Carll, May 14; Randy Rogers Band, May 15; Eli Young Band, May 22; Shinyribs, May 29. (12225 U.S. 290)
Marquee downtown venue ACL Live and its sister club, 3Ten, have just recently been dipping a toe back into live music, but the adjoining restaurant Trace has been featuring early evening sets by local acts on its patio for a while now. Coming soon: The Watters, April 21. (200 Lavaca St.)
SOUTH CONGRESS HOTEL
The new-ish boutique hotel has launched a Central Standard Times series in its patio bar area that will continue at least through the summer months. Coming soon: Ben Ballinger with Day Joy and Eastern Leaves, April 22; Mike Melinoe with Peyton Stilling and Buenos Diaz, April 29. (1603 S. Congress Ave.)
CENTRAL MACHINE WORKS
An East Austin brewery with an expansive beer garden that opened in 2019, Central Machine Works is mixing live music with DJ sets and film screenings. Coming soon: David Touchton, April 17; Paul Val, April 24. (4824 E. Cesar Chavez St.)
A multi-purpose venue in the north-end suburb of Cedar Park, Haute Spot presented some great drive-in shows last fall. Now they're gearing up for a spring season of concerts where attendees aren't limited to their cars and parking spaces. Coming soon: Quiet Company with Darkbird, May 1; Ray Wylie Hubbard, May 7, Gina Chavez, May 8, Old 97's, June 4, Jack Ingram, June 18. (1501 E. New Hope Drive, Cedar Park)