Music is everywhere in ATX—in amphitheaters, on street corners, in the best bars in Austin. But there are certain venues that do live music just that little bit better than the rest; venues where the true spirit of the world’s live music capital comes fully alive. They’re the places that spill over during South by Southwest, ACL and other major dates on the Austin events calendar, but are pumping no matter the time of year. They’ve got great stages, fantastic lighting and a crowd you want to get lost in. Here, we celebrate the best venues for live music in Austin, which, let’s face it, might just be the best in the world.
Best venues for live music in Austin
Whether you’re living in Austin or just visiting, at some point you’ve gotta hit up the Continental Club, which opened its doors in 1955 on South Congress Avenue. Legends like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Wanda Jackson and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons have all played the 200-capacity room recently—up to standard for a place that regularly billed the likes of Double Trouble, Paul Ray and the Cobras and Joe Ely back in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a tiny stage in a small room, but the performances that occur in front of that iconic red curtain make some of the best cases for why this city still deserves the title of “Live Music Capital of the World.”
Just over a decade in, the Mohawk, located at the northern end of the Red River District, has become one of the most reputable places for musicians of various genres to perform and likewise one of the most loved locales among live music fans. The latter is in part due to the main outdoor area’s multi-tiered design: While braver, rowdier fans flood the ground level in front of the stage, others seeking a more laid-back feel can occupy three balcony levels including a rooftop patio and a bird’s-eye, side-stage viewing space. Things can get a little rough on cold, windy nights up on those elevated platforms, but thankfully we don’t get too many of those around these parts. And there’s always the home-y, fireside bar and indoor stage if one ever needs a break from the elements. Even when there’s no live music, the Mohawk is mainstay happy hour haven.
State-of-the-art lighting and sound (specs here for all the nerds), formidable yet still intimate capacity (2,750), home to the longest=running music series in television history (KLRU-TV/PBS’s Austin City Limits) and a larger-than-life statue of Willie Nelson to greet you at the door…Yep, with every show sounding crisp, looking spectacular and feeling epic, it’s pretty much the Holy Grail of ATX indoor concert venues. The only major pain is parking, as it’s smack in the middle of the highly populated 2nd Street District, right next to the swanky W Austin Hotel and Residences. But a few bucks for a meter or rideshare is a small price to pay for a consistently premium live music experience.
There are myriad reasons why Stubb’s is the go-to best venue in town. The 1,800-capacity spot is nestled in the heart of the Red River District, which makes pre- and after-partying a cinch; the outdoor amphitheater features impeccable sound and light displays, plus clear sightlines from almost anywhere on the natural, gradual incline leading up from the stage; and—huge bonus—you can always enjoy barbecue treats like a chopped beef sandwich or jalapeño brisket taco while soaking up world-class concerts. Barbecue + live music FTW.
Located in an inconspicuous upstairs room just above Bat Bar and the brand new Voodoo Doughnut storefront, the Parish is widely regarded as the city’s best venue for sound. While technically found amid the hustle and bustle of “Dirty” 6th Street, the 450-capacity top-floor feels like an intimate safe-haven (especially during the insanity of SXSW) with its cozy, wood-floor interior and tiny, just-below-waist-high stage that features all types of musicians. The only downside comes during sold-out shows—since it’s all general admission, you’ve gotta arrive early to snag the best sightlines.
Old-Austin purists will complain that this “isn’t the same” as the old 6th Street location, the “World-Famous Home of the Blues,” which was opened by Clifford Antone in 1975 and quickly became the Texas base for travelling and local blues acts like Albert King, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Double Trouble. But anyone who has stopped by the new joint, recently reopened on bustling East 5th Street, knows it closely retains the spirit of the original (just ask everyone who voted to help it win Best New Club in the 34th annual Austin Music Awards). To that end, almost every evening hosts two shows—a happy-hour gig at 6:30pm and another at 10pm—featuring locally and nationally renowned blues and roots musicians. The new place has only been poppin’ a few months, but new-school legend and operating partner Gary Clark Jr. has already made a handful of surprise appearances in the 450-capacity room—something to keep in mind on a slow weeknight (wink, wink).
Into kitschy spaces and trippy lightshows? You’ll wanna make sure to check in regularly on the varied events at Empire Control Room and Garage. With everything from first Fridays of the month with Body Rock ATX—one of the livest hip-hop parties in town—to concerts of all sorts on one of three stages (one of them is inside, another is a repurposed auto garage) on almost any given night of the week, its no wonder Empire has become one of the most popular live music spaces over the past few years. Come for the live music, and stay for the bonus DJ-fueled dance parties on the patio. Or just to bug out on the wild projections covering the indoor control room stage—it’s no wonder the venue just snagged the honor for Best Club Lighting at the annual Austin Music Awards.
Hold up—a coffee shop is among Austin’s best live music venues? Yep, or at least so says the public consensus, which just voted the Lounge Side (concert space) as winners of Best Live Music Venue, Club Sound and Venue to Play in the 34th annual Austin Music Awards. That may have a lot to do with their inherently calming M.O.: the venue occasionally hosts louder rock shows, but the bulk are what they call “listening shows,” during which they ask that you “Please observe SILENCE” (read the sign above the stage, yo) or risk getting booted. And you won’t get stuck choosing between coffee or tea—they serve beer and wine, too. Given its location near a relatively residential area in South Austin, Strange Brew provides a splendid escape from the more party-oriented atmosphere of downtown.
Located next-door to the Mohawk in the Red River district and self-described as a “Vegan+Queer” establishment, Cheer Ups (as the locals lovingly call it) is perhaps the ideal space to experience Austin’s contemporary bohemian music culture—they’ve got kombucha on tap and fresh-squeezed juice cocktails, ya’ll! Save for a few exceptions, particularly during SXSW, they book mostly local acts for intimate performances on the indoor stage (complete with psychedelic mural) or on the larger outdoor stage, which connects to a spacious patio (great for chill day-drinking, too). The latter area features one of the most interesting backdrops for live music in ATX: a natural limestone cliff face which, paired with some expertly projected visuals and supreme sound engineering, gives attendees an immersive, picturesque experience unmatched by any other venue in the downtown area.
No, it’s not really a hotel, but it was once a flophouse and brothel! Over its past five years operating as a prominent east side music venue, the place has proudly retained a grunginess that meshes masterfully with the slew of punk, rock, psych and fringe-type musicians that all seem to frequent the place even when they’re not playing. Hotel Vegas’s showroom itself is dim, but warm and inviting, not to mention wonderfully raucous when the music’s going. Meanwhile, the neighboring Volstead Lounge—connected by a sprawling, picnic table-laden patio that occasionally hosts a satellite stage—looks more like a vintage ’60s cocktail lounge, though it’s typically packed with sweaty bodies grinding to the beats of some local DJ. Pro tip: if one space is charging a cover and the other isn’t, entry to one will (usually) get you in through the other’s back door.