It was “the coldest, ugliest building in town,” according to Eddie Wilson, the manager of Shiva’s Head Band, who went out the back door of Cactus Club at Riverside and Barton Springs to take a leak and found the Texas Fillmore. The Armadillo was a bare bones place with a big soul, a 1,500-capacity room that was both the world’s largest nightclub and smallest arena. Born during Vietnam, the ‘Dillo was the greatest place ever to come of age in.
San Francisco ruled the counterculture nationally, but in Austin the Armadillo crew did it their own way. The club’s mascot, drawn by its Michaelangelo, Jim Franklin, was a misunderstood nocturnal creature with his nose in the grass. The armadillo wore armor and 525 ½ Barton Springs Road was once a National Guard armory. But now the walls held paintings of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (created by former Vulcan art director Gilbert Shelton) and Rikke, the Guacamole Queen.
The first show was Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth on July 7, 1970, but that was more like a dressed rehearsal. The venue officially opened on Aug. 7, 1970 with Shiva’s Head Band, Hub City Movers and Ramon Ramon and the 4 Daddios.
The national acts that played the ‘Dillo’s first year, when the capacity was only 750 (and the stage was on the south end, not the north), include Fats Domino, Ravi Shankar, ZZ Top, Lightnin’ Hopkins, New Riders of the Purple Stage, Flying Burrito Brothers and especially Freddie King. Sometimes Leon Russell, who was then the biggest thing in the rock world, would sit in on piano as King scorched all those flower children who didn’t know how much they loved the blues.
Rather than name some of the acts who played the Armadillo, let’s hear your favorites from the place that they almost named Uncle Zeke’s Rock Emporium (thank you, Lord.)
There was a big gap in the country, between those who supported the war and those who protested it, as you can imagine. But they all came together to listen to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings at the Armadillo. That’s what the club, which was ground zero for the “progressive country” movement, is best known for today. Chet Flippo was living in Austin when the ‘Dillo started and he let the world know about this groovy longhaired cowboy scene in Texas via dispatches in Rolling Stone.
There were no boundaries in the bookings and when punk broke, the Armadillo hosted the Clash with Joe Ely, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, B-52s, Elvis Costello, the Ramones and so on. This was also where AC/DC played their first first show on American soil, in July ’76.
Rent for the 30,000 square foot building was $1,500 a month, but even at that rate, Wilson and his partners, including lawyer Mike Tolleson, were often months behind on the rent. The ‘Dillo booked about 200 shows a year at its peak, and it would only take a couple of bombs to set everything back.
The club declared bankruptcy in 1977, but was bailed out by Hank Alrich, who put up $25,000.
Ask Bruce Springsteen or Van Morrison or Bette Midler or hundreds of other acts which was the most magical place they ever played in Texas and they’d say the ‘Dillo, whose building next to the Skate Palace used to house the Sportscenter in the 1950s, so Elvis Presley played there as well. This was a counterculture dream of outlaw country singers and Commander Cody and everybody ripped to the tits except the old man with the big glasses and the camera. Everybody just loving music so much.
But music isn’t money and by 1980 that property was worth a lot more torn down and resold.
The final night of the most legendary of all Austin clubs was Dec. 31, 1980 and it all ended with everybody onstage singing “Goodnight, Irene.” The last line of the “Dillo swan song was “I’ll see you in my dreams.”
Musical revolution, like pot smoke, was always in the air at the club that opened in August 1970 and closed on the last night of 1980. That’s almost too perfect, 1970- 1980, but it fits a venue with the most-charmed existence of any in Texas. Frank Zappa summated the scene as a state of mind when he famously announced on a live album recorded at the Armadillo, “Good night, Austin, Texas, wherever you are.”