New Antone’s bring blues back to downtown Austin

Editor’s note: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Austin American-Statesman.

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — “I wanna hear Derek O’Brien play some guitar.”

It’s a Friday night at the new Antone’s, and one of the club’s co-owners, Gary Clark Jr., is savoring his first visit to the Austin institution he helped revive. Just back from an Australian tour, he’s at ease in the freshly christened downtown bar that is once again the city’s Home of the Blues.

For most of the night, Clark watches from the crowd, catching up with friends and fans that turned out on a mid-January night partly to welcome him home. But even when he inevitably slips onstage to sit in with the house band, what he really wants is to just watch and listen, as O’Brien and fellow guitarist Denny Freeman let loose with solos that cut straight to the heart of the blues.

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Clark may be the star of the moment, but he’s well aware that this rebirth would not have happened without the musicians who helped realize founder Clifford Antone’s dreams four decades ago. When Clark and his high school friend Will Bridges got involved with the effort to bring Antone’s back after a two-year absence from Austin’s environs, it was to make sure the city once again had moments like this.

“Blues does something at a cellular level where you can’t keep your feet from stomping, and I’ve got that bug,” Bridges told the Austin American-Statesman ( “That’s like the root, and people from country and indie-rock and folk and jazz can all meet on that common ground. They can all speak that common language. And because it is such a simple language, it leaves all this headroom for expression. That’s what the blues is really all about.”

He sums up his feelings in a few simple words: “I don’t want to live in an Austin without Antone’s.”

The new Antone’s occupies the old Maxey Glass building at 305 E. Fifth St., between Eddie V’s seafood restaurant and the Russian House bistro, and across from the new Westin hotel. It’s four blocks east of the club’s 16-year home at Fifth and Lavaca streets, which was followed by a few doomed months on East Riverside Drive before the club shuttered at the end of 2013. The building dates back to the early 20th century, at one point housing a Cadillac dealership with a showroom of cars on the second floor.

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This is the sixth location in the 40-year history of Antone’s. The club’s heyday, spanning the 1980s and most of the ’90s, happened just north of the University of Texas campus on Guadalupe Street, across from where Antone’s Record Shop still stands. A brief stopgap farther north on Great Northern Boulevard near Anderson Lane filled the year between Guadalupe and the original bar that Clifford Antone opened in 1975 at Sixth and Brazos streets, just two blocks from the new place.

The venue’s fate since Clifford’s death in 2006 has been marked by frequent turmoil. His sister, Susan, has remained a constant grounding presence on the club’s board of directors, but from 2010 to 2013, Antone’s was managed by former Emo’s owner Frank Hendrix. After the East Riverside misadventure, Hendrix departed and an ownership group headed by geneticist Spencer Wells took control.

But it wasn’t until after Bridges and Clark became involved in August 2014 that the push to reopen Antone’s finally began to take shape. While Clark’s celebrity lent cachet and credibility to the process, the real nuts-and-bolts player was Bridges, a budding entrepreneur who had experience both in reviving classic Austin institutions — Arlyn Studios, Deep Eddy Cabaret — and in creating new ones, like Lamberts Barbecue.

That was important, because balancing the old and the new proved central to relaunching Antone’s. Bridges says he and his partners wondered, “‘Are we being too nostalgic of the city?’ We used this analogy of trees in the forest: The old trees are decaying and dying, and we’re spending so much time crying about the old trees that we’re not planting new ones.”

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Bridges points to a conversation with Clark at Deep Eddy as a turning point. “I was giving him the full lowdown and saying, ‘What do you think — are we being too nostalgic? Should we just move on without it, or do we have to save that name?’

“And Gary, when he wants to, he can be incredibly articulate. He really thought about it and said, ‘I think the answer is both. Yes, we’ve GOT to save it. Because the name represents the culture we inherited from Clifford, we wouldn’t be doing this without him. But we’ve got to reinvent it in a way that is a rebirth, not just a continuation.’ He told me kind of what I wanted to hear.”

Open the stately wooden doors to the new Antone’s, and you’re latching on to a reminder of what came before. The handles are shaped in the letters “CJ,” an inner-circle nickname for Clifford, whose middle name was Jamal.

Inside, the club is a long rectangle with the stage at the other end, the classic red Antone’s logo sign centered behind it. A spacious bar lit by four hanging Parisian streetlamp globes runs along the east wall, with bathrooms across the way. Near the stage, the space opens up to accommodate about a dozen tables with chairs.

The feel of the place is modern — “we wanted the design to be kind of industrial, kind of subtle art deco,” Bridges says — but the walls reveal the history. Posters for historic appearances by B.B. King, Bo Diddley and James Brown hang alongside photos by Susan Antone and John Mintz of blues greats such as Buddy Guy and James Cotton, in action onstage or hanging out after hours.

One fascinating flier for the club’s first anniversary in 1976 boasts an unfathomable list of artists who played the inaugural year: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Albert King and John Lee Hooker, to name but a few.

“I had a young guy last night say, ‘Man, it looks like an art gallery in here!’ Bridges says with a sense of satisfaction. “He was like, ‘I never went to Antone’s so I really don’t know what it’s all about, but when I look at all this stuff, I kind of get it.’ And that’s exactly what we wanted. It tells a story; it gives you a sense of what it was like back in those days.”

A lot of time, effort and expenses went into making the room sound good. “We’re so used to hearing blues and roots genres in kind of rough-and-tumble sound,” Bridges says. “But when you give it the clarity that it wants, and when those guys can hear themselves, it really shines. Blues deserves the highest caliber of sound, and people are going to appreciate that.”

Upstairs is a whole other dimension that hasn’t yet been seen by the public, as construction crews are working feverishly to complete it in time for a slew of special events booked for South by Southwest in March. The centerpiece is a 320-capacity room with windows looking out over Fifth Street that will be a hub for catered banquets and private parties.

So far, the venue appears to have been quite well-received by the public, even as the crew is still working through some details. On the afternoon of our visit, engineers from Arlyn Studios were working to fine-tune the sound system. The bar counter could benefit from the addition of a courtesy water cooler at one end. One wonders whether a wooden floor might be more warm and welcoming than the current concrete slabs.

But significant care has been taken to enhance the Antone’s environment and “make it a club again,” Bridges says. “All clubs are venues, but not all venues are clubs. The most cherished iterations of Antone’s were without a doubt Sixth and Brazos, and Guadalupe. . Fifth and Lavaca was a great venue, but it wasn’t really ever a great club.”

Those efforts are apparent especially in the front of the space. A small gift shop carrying Antone’s merchandise — and soon, Bridges says, a “mini Strait Music shop” with strings, tuners and the like — adjoins an airy front foyer where patrons can come in from the sidewalk and gather before longtime door person Ilse Haynes admits them. On a recent weekend night, House Park Barbecue set up a stand there, echoing back to the days when the late C.B. Stubblefield sold Stubb’s barbecue out of the Guadalupe location.

The foyer also houses a three-seat antique shoeshine stand from Chicago that was salvaged from an antique dealer in Round Top. When longtime Antone’s shoeshine veterans Preston Carroll Jr. and Billy “Huggie Bear” Flores signed on at the new location, Bridges took it to heart.

“They’re very passionate about this trade, and the culture of it,” he says, with a tone of reverence in his voice. “They’ve got day jobs and other gigs, but they do this because it’s what they grew up with. And when Huggie Bear introduced himself to me — he was kind of like, ‘All right, I’m allegiant to you now’ — it was the most real thing. I felt like I was being handed the controls.”

Bridges, in turn, has handed the controls of the club’s most important aspect — booking the music — to precisely the right steward. Destiny must have intervened a decade ago when a young UT student from College Station named Zach Ernst enrolled in Clifford Antone’s blues history class.

“That was when I really became a junkie for this kind of music,” says Ernst, who first became active in the Austin music scene playing guitar with Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. “I’d look at the syllabus and read ahead of what we were talking about next week, and then go study up. It was his class that got me into this stuff on a deeper level.”

The gig with Lewis eventually led Ernst down subsequent avenues playing with Dallas gospel band the Relatives and R&B singer Bobby Patterson, but he also got interested in presenting music. He booked a series of Continental Club shows in 2012 and 2013 at the invitation of owner Steve Wertheimer — who in 2014 helped to fill the blues-scene void after Antone’s closed by opening C-Boy’s Heart & Soul.

The big break for Ernst came when Austin’s historic Paramount Theatre hired him as its music booker in late 2013. His schedule only got busier when Scottish rocker Mike Scott enlisted Ernst to tour extensively with his band the Waterboys in 2015. But when Antone’s came calling, it was an opportunity he just had to find a way to accept.

“I think I probably said, ‘Hey, I have no free time right now, because I’m on the road all year, and busy with the Paramount as a full-time gig. But if there’s anything I can do to help, this is the one thing that I’m into adding to my plate,'” Ernst recalls. “Because when I heard it was Will and Gary doing it, I had a lot of faith in them doing it the right way. Those guys don’t really miss when they go after something.

“So we just kept in touch over the course of last year. I guess it was early this past fall when I broached the subject with the Paramount folks and let them know about this opportunity. And we figured out a way for me to do both.”

In an unusual arrangement that suits the unusual circumstances, the Paramount has kept Ernst in his full-time role while also allowing him to do Antone’s-related work from the theater’s office. With a 1,200-seat room and generally pricier tickets comparing to a 400-capacity standing-room bar with more modest cover charges, Ernst sees little concern for conflicts — though he also books the Paramount’s smaller Stateside space.

“I’m not going to be going after the same acts that play the Paramount” for Antone’s, he says. “But adding this club will, if anything, bolster both venues, because I have more to talk about with agents.”

Ernst also sees a cultural synergy that could foster a rising tide to lift both boats. “Since I’ve been at the Paramount, I’ve focused more on the aesthetic of it being a roots room,” he says. “And I think that Antone’s is another classic roots venue. There’s a natural connection between the two, being these kind of historic downtown places. But they’re not really stepping on each others’ toes if I can manage it right.”

Out of the gate, Ernst doubled down on acts that represent the core identity of Antone’s, with artists such as Chicago blues great Bobby Rush and Louisiana zydeco master C.J. Chenier playing the club’s first month. Coming weeks herald a modest broadening of scope: Country band Crooks booked its farewell show on Feb. 13, and Bob Schneider, a regular during the Fifth and Lavaca years, makes his debut at the new location on Feb. 26.

A fortuitous break came when soulful 62-year-old guitarist and singer Carl Weathersby, who’d been playing Chicago blues clubs for decades dating back to a 1980s stint in Albert King’s band, moved to Austin in early January. Ernst quickly booked him into several slots. “That is the most exciting blues artist I’ve seen in years,” he raves, marveling at the kismet of Weathersby’s arrival on the scene.

But the heart of the Antone’s experience will reside in its residencies, which feature world-class homegrown blues talent for a modest $5 cover. Many of them are early shows that start at 6:30 p.m., including O’Brien’s revived “Blue Monday” series and Freeman’s “Antone’s Trio” shows on Tuesdays. A welcome new addition starting this week is a 6:30 p.m. Sunday residency for soulful singer Miss Lavelle White, who at 86 is one of Austin’s most valuable living connections to the history of Texas blues.

A surprise addition on recent Wednesdays has been an early show with Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon, who has come out of semi-retirement for trio gigs with guitarist David Holt and drummer Tommy Taylor. And Wednesday’s late shows have been rotating between Eve & the Exiles and the LeRoi Brothers, both of which include Antone’s Record Shop co-owners Eve Monsees and Mick Buck.

Bringing in such local blues mainstays was a priority for Ernst. “I wanted to make sure they were welcome and knew they could play in here as often as they want,” he says. “Antone’s is about the people, and the musicians and the artists, and making sure they all have a home here.”

Monsees uses precisely that word when speaking to American-Statesman videographer Kelly West: “It just feels like you’re home. There’s some great bars in Austin, but there’s something about Antone’s that’s really special.

“There’s a real sense of community with everyone, and I feel like you don’t see that with a lot of things anymore. I think it’s more apparent, now that Antone’s has reopened, how much of that was missing. Somebody like Derek, I used to just pop into Antone’s and he was there all the time, on the stage. And I haven’t really seen him that much the past couple of years.”

Monsees became an Antone’s regular in her teen years, when she and her schoolmate Clark would come to the club and hope to sit in with blues legends such as Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins. “The first big thing we ever got to do was play Antone’s,” she reminisces, never dreaming back then that both of them would end up having ownership stakes in the Antone’s legacy.

Blues-rock guitarist and singer Ian Moore, who grew up in Austin before moving to the Pacific Northwest two decades ago, also cottoned to Antone’s as a kid. “I spent countless nights as a young player outside the front door when I wasn’t old enough to get in,” he says by email. “I would listen to the music, and the waitresses would kindly bring me water from time to time.”

Moore returned to play the new place for the first time on Feb. 5. “I was really emphatic to Will that I wanted to be in the room early on,” he notes. “Though I’m not currently living in Austin, I do feel a bit territorial about some cultural stuff. I grew up with these places and these musics. Often I was one of a very small group of kids who cared about it, and I feel that though my music has a lot of different influences, I am definitely a child of Antone’s.”

Amid the celebration on that mid-January night when Clark jammed with his hometown friends, a wave of sorrow also filled the room. Earlier that day, longtime KUT and KUTX DJ Paul Ray, a pillar of Austin’s blues community and host of the beloved Saturday night program “Twine Time,” had died at age 73.

Before his esteemed radio career, Ray had been a charismatic singer who performed often at Antone’s and other local clubs, fronting bands that included guitarists such as Freeman, O’Brien, and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. A poster on the wall of the new club documents a June 1980 performance by Ray and singer Angela Strehli with the Cobras.

That afternoon, Freeman and O’Brien had shared stories and thoughts about their old friend. “He was a great singer, and just a great guy all around,” O’Brien said. Freeman made his feelings clear: “I’m heartbroken. He was my pal.”

On this night, they needed Antone’s more than ever. Before the show began, a small table with candles and pictures of Ray was set up near the door; over the speakers, a tape of a “Twine Time” broadcast played.

Soon Freeman, O’Brien, singer/harpist Greg Izor, bassist Johnny Bradley and drummer Jay Moeller took the stage. The guitar solos burned through the air like searing blasts of sonic-boom catharsis, the way this music sounds when it’s in the hands of folks who know how to play and really, really mean it.

Paul Ray was in the house. And Clifford Antone, too. The blues was home again in Austin.


Information from: Austin American-Statesman,