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Waterloo Records' 40th-birthday gifts: first in-store shows in more than 2 years

Think back for a moment to April 1, 1982 (if you were alive then). In a small building just south of the river on Lamar Boulevard, a new record store opened in Austin that quickly had a significant impact on the city's music culture. Waterloo Records wasn't the first of its kind, but Austinites quickly acknowledged that it was the best, voting it the city's top record store in the first-ever Austin Music Awards poll the following year.

Waterloo has continued to win that award every year since then. It has become an institution: First a move north to its current location at Sixth and Lamar as CDs took off, then an expansion to take on space that would eventually become its vinyl room, finally persevering through music-industry downturns and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now it's time to celebrate. To mark its 40th anniversary on April 1 (no foolin'!), Waterloo will host its first in-store performances in more than two years, with Ray Wylie Hubbard at 3 p.m. and Heartless Bastards at 5 p.m.

The two-year hiatus reflects how seriously Waterloo has taken the pandemic. For awhile, the store shifted to curbside-only service, then gradually brought back in-store shopping but with limited capacity. There'll be capacity limits for these two in-stores as well, though the exact number of attendees allowed hasn't yet been determined. Attendees will be required to wear masks. There's no requirement to show a vaccination card or a recent negative test.

Waterloo Records will celebrate its 40th anniversary on April 1 with in-store performances by Ray Wylie Hubbard and Heartless Bastards.

Priority attendance will go to those who've purchased the artists' respective new albums at the store. Hubbard's "Co-Starring Too," which features guests ranging from legends Willie Nelson and Ringo Starr to locals Shinyribs and Bluebonnets, came out last week. Heartless Bastards' widely acclaimed "A Beautiful Life" came out in September.

Related:Our 2021 interview wit Heartless Bastards leader Erika Wennerstrom

Buy either record at the store, and you'll get a guaranteed-admission wristband. If you've already bought either album at Waterloo, bring in the receipt, or the album you purchased, and the store will give you a wristband. More guests will be admitted if capacity allows.

Are these in-stores a special event just for the anniversary, or will there be more to follow? Owner John Kunz says he's not sure yet.

"I hope so," Kunz said Friday by phone. "I'm trying to walk the tightrope between getting back to normal but not stressing out my staff. It could be a little bit of a juggling act as we move forward, and they may continue to be masked events."

Waterloo has had a handful of signing-only events during the pandemic, but these will be the first musical performances in the store since March 2020. (Around 20 acts livestreamed sets from the store with no in-person audience.) The absence has been felt keenly in the local community: Waterloo in-stores have been a rite of passage for many local acts when they released new albums, and fans appreciated the chance to catch a few songs for free in the afternoon before a nightclub show later.

More Austin music:Buffalo Nichols talks blues music, playing solo, moving here and more

It's also become a favorite stop for many touring musicians. Nirvana's 1991 in-store there, before Waterloo had built its permanent stage near the front doors, remains the stuff of legend. But many artists have returned even after they became big enough to no longer need the exposure. In recent years, we've seen lines form outside for in-stores with Wilco, Lucinda Williams, Panic! at the Disco, Black Pumas and more.

Panic! at the Disco plays a packed Waterloo Records in-store in February 2014.

Asked to recall his favorite in-stores over the years, Kunz cites a November 2000 Willie Nelson appearance that turned into a full-length show after Nelson's planned concert at the Backyard later that evening got canceled because of bad weather. He also has fond memories of South by Southwest in-stores by Shelby Lynne (2001) and Ben Harper (2003). "Richie Havens singing 'Freedom' in the store is also a moment I'll never forget," he added. "I'm starting to tear up right now, just thinking about it."

Kunz, who'll turn 71 the day before the anniversary in-stores, wasn't Waterloo's original owner, but he's been there nearly since the beginning. He and Waterloo founder Lewis Karp had worked for competing chain stores in Austin in the 1970s, and both wanted to start their own independent record shops.

Video:Austin musician Michael Fracasso's 2019 Waterloo in-store

After Karp opened Waterloo at 221 S. Lamar Blvd. in April 1982, Kunz abandoned plans to open downtown at a location that later became acoustic music haven Chicago House. Over the next few months, Kunz and Karp talked frequently about teaming up. They officially became 50-50 partners in October 1982. Kunz became sole owner after Karp left the business in 1987. The store moved to 601 N. Lamar Blvd. in 1989.

Waterloo Records owner John Kunz in July 2002.

Over the decades, I've attended at least 150 in-stores at Waterloo. (That's despite not living in Austin for more than half of the store's lifespan.) Favorite memories? Peter Case, the Balancing Act, the Reivers and more at the original store; SXSW events including Golden Smog (1996), Polyphonic Spree (2002) and Rosanne Cash (2006); Christopher Cross playing "Sailing" and other songs in 2014; a 2017 midafternoon solo acoustic set by Rodney Crowell that still ranks as one of the most emotionally powerful performances I've ever witnessed by anyone, anywhere; and Elizabeth McQueen's interview with John Prine the day before his final "Austin City Limits" taping in 2018.

No doubt you'll have your own list. In the meantime, a hearty welcome back to Austin's record shop for the ages. Here's hoping for many more in-stores to come.