"This's probably the coldest it's been here in years," the girl at the bar tells me. "That's why no one's out."
This is in and of itself not much of a revelation; in any normal city in America, people tend to become less adamant about spending their Saturday night parading from bar to bar once the weather becomes less cooperative. Then again, normal cities don't have more than 200 places to catch a band at a any given time, don't have a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan along their riverfronts, don't have Mean Joe Greene on their walks of fame, and don't have a bus called the Starlight 'Dillo there to haul all the drunks home for free at 3 in the morning.
Normal cities also don't say the city is dead when only half the bars, clubs and lounges are packed to the rafters, and they certainly don't freak out once the temperature plummets to a mere 45 degrees. Of course, to hear the locals tell it, that departure from normalcy is the whole idea. Keep it weird, they say.
Welcome to Austin.
In Austin there is a higher ratio of live music venues to residents than any other city in the world, and like any kind of absurd claim to fame this carries its good and bad. For every Continental Club show featuring Redd Volkaert aka Merle Haggard's excellent former guitarist, there's the live karaoke guy reminding you that so many songs were not meant to be covered. For every scorching blues band on East Sixth, there's two kids from UT playing their brand of Dave Matthews-lite just across the street.
The upside of this is that it works both ways. Had enough of the "Mustang Sally" covers? Go two doors down and someone else might have moved on to "Can't You See" by now. Sad girl with an acoustic guitar bringing you down? Chances are there's a group around the corner that takes the good parts of jazz and blues and whatever else and just plain smokes.
What's odd about all these bands is just how many of them don't sound at all what you'd think a band from the heart Texas would be about. Everyone - and I mean everyone - is in some kind of blues band. When you come from Chicago, it's hard to take any other city's blues scene seriously, but you know the old saying: when in Austin, buying shots will get your favorite song played. The guys on stage at one club whose name escapes me said they were from Montreal and were happy to be playing "the music for everyone who is away from home but we are at home here now in Austin in Texas." So, naturally, what was my request in exchange for that round of JD?
"Sweet Home Chicago."
And you know something? It wasn't half-bad. But hey, this is Austin, where almost any time day or night you can find the best and worst (mostly somewhere in between) bands of all-time playing their best and worst (and again, mostly somewhere in between) shows to date.
Sometime towards whenever the cops decide it's late enough, the main stretch of Sixth Street is closed off to vehicle traffic and the masses are allowed to roam freely. This always seemed like such a cool thing that only smaller cities do (and, really, only they can do). Water Street in Milwaukee and Laclede's Landing in St. Louis come to mind as similar hubs of nightlife that become the exclusive domain of the late-night crowd. Whether this is for safety or just to keep people moving I can't say, but there's no sight like thousands upon thousands of people overtaking a downtown area after dark, each of them looking for trouble or excitement or the party that isn't stopping anytime soon.
At some point in the very late hours of Saturday (or the very early hours of Sunday, depending on your viewpoint) there's that moment where everyone's fate for the evening is sealed. They are going out all night; they are going home before it's too late; they are going home with that stranger they just met; or they, for whatever reason that probably makes sense at the time, are in bad shape and are going to bring someone else down with them.
Somewhere behind me I heard two guys yelling at each other. The black guy told the Latino guy to shut up and do something about it. The black guy leaned - not swung at, not tackled, but leaned - into him and just like that the cops were breaking them up.
"Down on the ground!" one shouted.
"Do not resist me!" another shouted. The two guys who a moment ago were yelling at each other were now buried under the force of four cops who had appeared on horseback with lightning speed.
I took a note how different this was than Chicago. In Chi-town, the cops would have waited until the two had beat the hell out of each other, then hauled them off to jail and in the process making whatever money comes through in fines and the expense related to packing the jails with offenders. Here the cops were ready to deliver street-level justice at any hour, one blow at a time.
Why? Because for all the SRV statues and all the painted guitar sculptures scattered about town, for all the talk of progressive spirit and being weird for weirdness' sake, this was still the deep south.
Where the guy on the corner has as much a shot at the big time as the guy playing tonight at Emo's.
Where everyone's in a band and everyone also works at a bar or an office or a pizza place or a record store.
Where you can find a store that sells nothing but hot sauce before you can find one that sells bottles of V8.
Where the best barbecue in town is at Cedar Rock or Stubb's or pretty much anywhere you can find it.
Where even here, miles and miles from the poison ivy of Wrigley Field, people still pledge allegiance to the hated Cubs.
Where the Cowboys roam and the 'Dillo gets you home.
Where the stars at night are big and bright...
...deep in the heart of Texas.