The 25 Most Significant and/or Notorious Nights in Austin Music history: UPDATED #17-25
By Michael Corcoran, on August 28, 2014 , on the artslaboraustin.com at artslaboraustin.com/the-25-most-significant-andor-notorious-nights-in-austin-music-history-21-25/
#17 Run-DMC at Liberty Lunch June 19, 1985
The Beastie Boys opened for Madonna at the Erwin Center six weeks earlier (and were booed off the stage), but the first national hip-hop artist to headline in Austin was Run-DMC at Liberty Lunch on Juneteenth, June 19, 1985. This was a year before Raising Hell and its Aerosmith collab on “Walk This Way” drew down the bridge between rock and rap, but Run-DMC had already become the first hip hop act to record a million-seller with King of Rock. Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl McDaniel and Jam Master Jay played Austin on a day off from the Fresh Festival, hip hop’s first national package tour, which they headlined. They were taking off!
So it must’ve seemed strange when Harold McMillan of the sponsoring Black Arts Alliance picked up the trio at Robert Mueller Airport with his beat-up Datsun B-210 and took them to the seedy Stars Inn Motel on I-35 near 32nd Street. “They were saying ‘Hey, man, this ain’t in our rider,’ but I had to tell them we were just a broke black arts organization,” McMillan recalls. The BAA paid Run-DMC $5,000 and ended up making a profit of $6,000 on the $10 show, according to the 1985 financial report kept at the Austin History Center.
McMillan’s Datsun with the holes in the floorboard wasn’t the lowest ride the rap icons took during their 24 hours in Austin. When they showed up at Liberty Lunch before the show, they realized that they’d left their records on the Fresh Fest tour and enlisted co-promoter Louis Meyers to take them to the record store, pronto. Meyers took them in a pickup to Sound Warehouse on Burnet Road so they could buy vinyl to rap over. “They just climbed in the back of the pickup and we were off,” says Meyers.
The sold-out crowd of 1,200 was about 50/50 black and white- unheard of in Austin at the time- and they were united in ecstasy when Run-DMC charged out onto the stage. Only problem was that the plywood Liberty Lunch stage had some play in it and every time one of the rappers jumped or even stepped hard, the record would skip. Jay was doing his best to keep the beat going, but it soon became apparent that the only way to save the show was for Run and DMC to be as stationary as possible. They did a lot of that folding arm pose.
It was a thrown-together benefit for an arts organization, but that Run-DMC show is significant for not only being the first high-profile rap show in Austin, but the first here to validate hip hop as a live music event. This wasn’t held at some dance club on Sixth Street, but the proving grounds of Liberty Lunch. Back in 1985, just six years after “Rappers Delight” people still didn’t know if rap was more than a fad. When you felt the power of Run-DMC live, you knew it was here to stay.
#18 Buck Owens Birthday Bash at the Continental Club August 12, 1995
Austin is a Buckaroo town, more Bakersfield than Nashville, so it was natural that local musicians do a tribute night to the ‘60s honky tonk hero whose twangin’ #1s include “Act Naturally,” “Sam’s Place” and “Waiting In Your Welfare Line.” Guitarist Casper Rawls, then of the Leroi Brothers, and drummer Tom Lewis of the Wagoneers, put the first Buck Owens Birthday Bash together in 1992 and the show was such a blast that it became an annual Continental Club event. Every Travis County country musician of note put it on their calendar and, as a courtesy, Rawls invited Owens, a native of Sherman, Texas, every year.
And in the fourth year, the country legend showed up. Only four people from the club- Rawls, Lewis, clubowner Steve Wertheimer and singer Kelly Willis- knew ahead of time that it was going to happen and even they weren’t 100% until Owens came in the front door about an hour into the show. Wertheimer whisked the ultra-special guest to a roped-off spot at the corner of the bar, but he’d been spotted and it shot through the crowd: “Buck Owens is in the house!”
The seed was planted a year earlier when Owens, deeply touched by the birthday tribute, sent Rawls one of his red, white and blue guitars. On the pick guard Owens had engraved “To Casper, I might see you August 12, 1995!” Buck’s private plane was enroute to Austin that day, with singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale and Buckaroos pianist Jim Shaw along for the jam.
After checking things out for a bit, Owens took the stage to sing a duet with Kelly Wills on “Loose Talk” and the crowd went nuts. Later Owens joined Rawls and the house band for three numbers: “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “I Don’t Hear You” and “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail.” A birthday cake and a raucous singalong of “Happy Birthday” followed. It was a party no one present would ever forget.
Lewis says one of the night’s moments that stays with him came late in the show, when Buck came from his stool in the back corner to the side of the stage to watch the Derailers, who wore matching suits like the Buckaroos and modeled their sound after the Telecaster-driven band from Bakersfield. As Tony Villanueva and Brian Hofeldt tapped into the chemistry of Owens and his musical soul mate Don Rich, Buck had tears in his eyes.
#19. James Brown at Municipal Auditorium Aug. 1, 1966
If that date looks familiar that’s because it was the day UT engineering student Charles Whitman killed 11 people from the observation deck of the UT Tower, after killing three on the way up. JAMES BROWN PLAYED AUSTIN ON THE NIGHT OF THE SNIPER MASS MURDER! You would think that would be a substantial event, except that, until last year, hardly anybody had even known about it. This wasn’t like the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the James Brown show went on to quell rioting in Boston. There had been absolutely no trace of this concert in Austin lore until Tim Hamblin, a video archivist for the Austin History Center, was going through some old footage from 1982 at Club Foot and found an interview with James Brown. Asked if he’d ever played Austin before, the Godfather of Soul said, “Yeah, I played here the night that guy went crazy up there on the tower!” Hamblin had never heard that before. Intrigued, he went searching for a newspaper ad for the show and found one in the Statesman.
The next question was “Did the show go on?” That brought me to the Austin History Center last year to peruse copies of the Capital City Argus, Austin’s black newspaper of the time. There I found a review of the Monday Aug. 1 show written by “Roving Eyes,” which is one of the pseudonyms Bert Adams used. According to the review, James Brown sat in with the 18-piece band for about half an hour on organ before he took the spotlight. Nowhere in the review did it mention the day of terror, which began just 11 blocks from Municipal Auditorium (later renamed Palmer) at the Bouldin Creek house at 906 Jewel Street, where Whitman stabbed his wife to death while she slept.
Austin was pretty much segregated in 1966 and what happened over at the white college didn’t affect the goings on in the black community. So, although it’s a tad surprising the review didn’t mention 16 murders in town that day, it’s not a shock. “Those of you who had to pay $3.00 or $3.50 can say it was well worth it,” the review concluded. “James Brown, gold suit and all, is out of this world.”
#20 Frank Zappa with Captain Beefheart at the Armadillo World Headquarters May 20 & 21, 1975
The most legendary of all Austin music venues was adopted by many acts during its run from 1970-1980: Freddie King, Willie Nelson, Commander Cody, Bruce Springsteen and on and on. But there was no stronger allegiance to the ugly building at 525½ Barton Springs Road than from Frank Zappa, whose lyrics often satirized the counterculture and yet he had true affinity for the ‘Dillo tribe. He even wrote a verse about the Guacamole Queen and “her aura” for his song “Inca Roads,” from One Size Fits All in 1975. “He played so often that we had to rotate the artists who did the posters and they all seemed to get a crack at Zappa,” says former Armadillo owner Eddie Wilson. The first time rock’s weirdo composer (and great guitarist) played the ‘Dillo, in ’72, there was a bomb scare in the middle of a song and, after the evacuated fans were returned to the hall an hour later, Zappa struck up the band at the exact point in the song where the concert had stopped.
But none of Zappa’s shows at the ‘Dillo stand out this many years later like the two nights that were recorded for Bongo Fury, the last Zappa album with the Mothers of Invention as his band’s name. That 1975 album, released just five months after the Armadillo shows, was notable because it reunited Zappa and his former Antelope Valley High School (Lancaster, Cal.) classmate Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. The two avant-gardians of the hippie era had huge influences on each other growing up and Zappa produced the Beefheart masterpiece Trout Mask Replica (1969), but the Bongo Fury tour was the only time Beefheart went on the road with Zappa. The album also marks the first appearance of Terry Bozzio, Zappa’s late ‘70s drummer, who now lives in Austin, as original Mothers drummer Jimmy Carl Black once did.
“Zappa was a compulsive perfectionist,” recalls Eddie Wilson. “Our crew worked their asses off for him. I think that’s one of the main reasons he liked the Armadillo.” But Zappa was also able to adapt on the fly. For one show his contract stipulated that he’d have four hours to rehearse and a full hour soundcheck before the doors opened at 7 p.m. Except that Zappa’s equipment trucks didn’t arrive until 5:30 p.m. and he had only 15 minutes to soundcheck. “Zappa walked off the stage really pissed off and I said, ‘I know the last thing in the world you want to do right now is meet anybody, but you’ve got a blind, deaf and crippled guy opening for you and I’ll take you over to meet him if you’d like.” Zappa and Blind George McClain hit it off and Zappa took the Split Rail regular out on the road with him.
Of the nine tracks on Bongo Fury, six and a half were recorded at the Armadillo, including the Van Vliet compositions “Sam with the Showing Scalp Flat Top” (the title Bongo Fury comes from the lyrics) and “Man With the Woman Head.” The concert ends with Zappa saying what’s become a local catchphrase: “Goodnight Austin, Texas, wherever you are.” Beefheart passed away in 2010 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. Zappa died in 1993 from prostate cancer.
#21 Gang of Four at Club Foot Nov. 4, 1980
On the night of November 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan was declared the winner of the Presidential election and the politically-radical Gang of Four took the stage at the jam-packed club on 4th and Congress. The juxtaposition of these two events made for two hours that no one there would ever forget. After reminding the crowd of the world in trouble they were in with Reagan in charge, Gang of Four firehosed the room with danceable punk rock that left everyone dripping. “It was one of those great rock shows that crosses the line into pandemonium,” said photographer David C. Fox. “You know that saying about how ‘rock and roll saved my life’? That’s how that night felt.” This list is not a ranking of the greatest concerts the town’s ever seen. We’re not counting encores, this was one of those truly musical intense shows that came out of a big moment. Context. The lines were becoming clearer that night and the Gang of Four made their side the one to be on.
#22 The Standells at Big Mamou 1987
This was the night Austin caught an impostor and threw his ass in jail, while the guy he was playing stepped in and finished the show. Steve Chaney had booked a band billing themselves as the Standells of “Dirty Water” fame, with original member Dick Dodd in the group. But when “Dick Dodd” showed up for a radio interview, a local music journalist in the studio knew that wasn’t the real one and told Chaney, who asked for the real Dodd’s number. It turned out Dodd, who lived in California, hadn’t received any royalties in two years and suspected that someone had been cashing about $15,000 in checks. Dodd flew to Austin later that night and notified the Austin Police Department of the fraud. Five officers were sent to the S. Congress Ave, location currently home to C-Boy’s. The fake Standells played one song, a metal version of “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” then the lights came up and the cops took it from there, arresting 36-year-old Jimmie Lee Dean of Houston. About half the audience was in on what was happening and back then there was no social media to tip off the perps. As one officer led away Dean in handcuffs, the path crossed with the man whose identity he had taken. “Dick Dodd,” said the officer, “meet Dick Dodd.”
#23 The Dixie Chicks at Erwin Center May 2003
You know what happened. Chick spoke out. Country music audience boycotted. The Austin-based Dixie Chicks had just become the best-selling group in the history of country music, averaging 10 million copies sold. And then they were history. But before Natalie Maines told a British audience that the Dixie Chicks were ashamed that the president was from Texas, they had sold out many shows in the U.S. tour, including a return home May 21, 2003 at the Erwin Center. Protests greeted most shows and a few, put on sale after the incident, were canceled for slow ticket sales, but Maines was not ready to make nice. One song from the performance at the Drum was aired live on the Academy of Country Music Awards, which is why Natalie was wearing a shirt with the initials FUTK, for “Fuck You Toby Keith.” Keith had been screening a photoshopped image of Maines and Saddam Hussein as lovers during his shows. Classy.
Turns out Maines was right about Iraq, but most American country music fans have still not forgiven the Dixie Chicks, whose touring these days is limited to Canada.
#24 AC/DC at the Armadillo World Headquarters July 27, 1977
The Australian riff maestros were big back home, but had yet to conquer the States when Atlantic Records booked them to play a club tour to promote Let There Be Rock. They were so unknown in the U.S. at the time that AC/DC opened for Canadian band Moxy on four Texas shows promoted by Stone City Attractions of San Antonio. In a 1995 interview with guitarist Angus Young, he told me how the Austin show became their first-ever concert on American soil. “We were supposed to play in Phoenix the night before, but Bon followed a girl off the plane in L.A. and he missed the flight.” The setlist for their U.S. debut at the ‘Dillo was “Live Wire,” followed by “She’s Got Balls,” “Problem Child,” “Whole Lotta Rosie,” “Dog Eat Dog,” “The Jack” and “Baby Please Don’t Go.” That Chuck Berry metal, with Bon Scott’s vocals slicing through stole the show no doubt. The next time AC/DC came to Austin, in July ’78, they headlined a sold-out show at Willie’s Austin Opry House on Academy Drive.
#25 Freddy Fender at Soap Creek Saloon 1974
When Freddy Fender, working as an auto mechanic in Corpus at the time, pulled into the parking lot of the original Soap Creek Saloon, in the hills of Westlake, he wondered what that crazy guero Doug Sahm had gotten him into. The parking lot of the wooded hideaway was filled with longhairs in cowboy hats passing around joints. What the hell…
But Sahm had sparked interest in the man born Baldemar Huerta when he covered Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” on his 1971 Tex-Mex roots project The Return of Doug Saldana. The track opened with a Sahm salute: “And now a song by the great Freddy Fender. Freddy, this is for you, wherever you are.” A teenaged Sahm used to follow “El Be-Bop Kid,” as Fender was billed in the late ’50s, but after Fender went to prison for marijuana possession in the ‘60s, his career was untracked. To ensure a crowd, Sahm opened the Soap Creek show, then joined Fender on a couple songs, a vocal combo that would play out two decades later with the Texas Tornados. Fender’s mix of gritty bar band rockers and romantic bilingual ballads were greeted by stoned jubilation from the audience, convincing Fender to re-focus on his musical career. He reconnected with producer Huey Meaux, who convinced him to cover a country song “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” in his quivering vibrato. Released in January 1975, the song became a #1 smash, not only on country, but pop charts. The followup was a re-recording of “Wasted Days,” which also hit #1. Suddenly, the lisping mechanic was the hottest “new” singer in the country, being named Billboard magazine’s male vocalist of 1975. “Teardrop” also won that year’s CMA award for single of the year, but if not for what happened at Soap Creek, Fender might’ve still been fixing cars and playing dive bars in the Valley on weekends.
I’ve decided to exclude big outdoor festivals from this list because they take place in parks, not clubs or auditoriums, and the music’s just really an excuse to be outside and get wasted. I’ve also put SXSW into exclude mode because it’s got its own history and Austin isn’t Austin in the middle of March.”