The Live Scribe: VNC x ACL x Austin = Live Music Glory

Me at ACL

Does the capital of the Lone Star State really live up to its moniker “The Live Music Capital of the World?” If four-and-a-half days in Austin—which coincided with the fifth annual VenuesNow Conference, the 21st annual Austin City Limits festival and the usual run of wondrous local repertoire—is any indication, then heck yeah! (with respectful nods to New Orleans, Nashville, NYC and Vegas).

Landed Tuesday night in the middle of a packed-out Stubb’s BBQ for the incendiary Marcus King Band (Pollstar cover, 1/31/22). The fiery five-piece played a boot-stomping, booty-shaking southern-rock-blues-country-boogie amalgam. King’s soulful growl and the blazing guitars are sublime and directly descend from Southern Rock trailblazers like the Allmans, Skynyrd, ZZ Top and others.

Welcome to friggin’ Austin. 

With Pollstar and VenuesNow managing editor Ryan Borba, ran into the inimitable Stephen Sternschein, owner of Empire Control Room & Garage St, Heard Ent. and former NIVA treasurer. He was with his team from Ad.Ventures, a new business formed around a national portfolio of independent venues, now up to a 100.  With him were two new baller execs: Ian Fine (formerly of Liquid Death, Oak View Group and Roc Nation) and Josh Rowe (former Biz-Dev Director of Peter Shapiro’s DayGlo Presents). Their presence portends great things ahead. 

We jumped into Sternschein’s jalopy and hit one of the all-time greatest dive bars: C-Boys Heart & Soul on South Congress. We walked into a nine-piece funk band Grooveline Horns jamming on Con Funk Shun’s “Fun Fun Fun.” The vibe, back patio and “Weird” food truck merited a return the next night, too, for the genius cosmic jazz and funk stylings of Trube, Farrell & Snizz.

Seeing Charles Attal after the excellent C3 Presents VNC keynote (with Amy Corbin and Charlie Walker, moderated by OVG Media & Conferences President, Ray Waddell), I asked him if he knew of the wondrous C-Boys. Not only did he know it, but it turns out its owner, Steve Wertheimer, who also owns the nearby Continental Club, is the reason Attal got into the live business.

VNC, the flagship conference of sister publication VenuesNow picked the right city at the right time with a record-setting conference that included two new facility tours: Q2 Stadium, a gorgeous $260 million, 20,738-capacity building opened in June 2021 and home to MLS’ Austin FC, currently at No. 2 in the Western Division.  

The sleek, state of the art building designed by Gensler (no relation I’m aware of), had its first concert this year with local icon Willie Nelson and his 4th of July Picnic featuring Asleep at the Wheel, Midland, Allison Russell and Tyler Childers. The second VNC tour was of the equally stunning Moody Center, the new $375 million, 15,000-capacity arena also designed by Gensler, opened in April 2022. It’s owned by University of Texas and built in partnership with Oak View Group (Pollstar’s parent company) and C3 Presents (owned by Live Nation), who together operate it. 

The world-class arena is one of the country’s five busiest and last week came off six nights by Harry Styles. The tour led into a Roger Waters concert, who is amidst his “This Is Not A Drill” tour. While the production is incredible and Pink Floyd’s catalog is classic, your mileage may vary on Waters’ political dogma. 

Billy Strings (Pollstar cover 4/5/21) played Stubb’s the same night and is one of today’s hottest acts who somehow managed to launch an explosive career out of the pandemic. His legend continues to grow with each hyper-dexterous bluegrass guitar run along with his band of virtuosic pickers (and a pedal steeler). A “CBS Sunday Morning” interview revealed Strings played in a metal band, another genre where picking matters. 

Goose headlined Stubb’s the next night They are the Grateful Dead’s latest and greatest heir apparent, especially with Rick Mitarotonda’s honeyed vocals. OutKast’s Big Boi made a cameo on the band’s cover of “So Fresh, So Clean.”

The megafest that is ACL, now in its 21st year, is a well-oiled machine that runs like clockwork. Walking in on the Gabriels playing their sublime “Love & Hate In A Different Time” is the perfect festival entrance soundtrack. GAYLE is far more than a meme and Genesis Owusu is the real deal Ghanaian-Australian funketeer. Jazmine Sullivan, Arlo Parks, James Blake, Nathaniel Rateliff, Omar Apollo, the Chicks and SZA are testaments to ACL’s commitment to wide-ranging musicians and highest quality artistry.

Wise Austin music writer and radio host Andy Langer wisely recommended the White Horse, a straight-up country bar on Austin’s East side. Jack Penrod and His Million Dollar Cowboys played to a room of two-steppers swingin,’ twirlin’ and drinkin’.  He also knew to direct us to Canje, an excellent Caribbean restaurant with the roti, jerk chicken and avocado ceviche dish well-worth the late reservation.

Day two of ACL brought out the bigger guns – The War On Drugs, Flume, Pink and especially Lil Nas X, whose stellar 6 p.m. set brought the entire festival to the massive American Express Stage. Incredibly, he’s on his first tour playing mostly theaters. How long before he’s headlining arenas? 

Backstage at ACL were top Live Nation execs, including sighting of the power trio of Russell Wallach, Bob Roux and John Reid

Also backstage were C3’s Bobby Clay, also a VNC panelist, Culture Collective’s Jonathan Azu, Killian & Co.’s Joe Killian and Moody Center GM Jeff Nickler, who finally got a few minutes’ rest.