Monday, July 22, 2024

Greatest Austin Clubs Ever: #16 Austin Opera House, #17 Mohawk

#16 Austin Opera House

When I moved to Austin in ’84, the Armadillo and Raul’s were closed, but there were great, intimate roadshows at the Austin Opera House, and serious punk rock action at Voltaire’s. I saw Elvis Costello at the Opera House soon after I got here- and they announced an impromptu second night, with opener Nick Lowe headlining. This sort of stuff didn’t happen in other cities.
But when Willie Nelson is the owner, you sorta pick up the tempo. Willie bought the 1700-capacity (or 1500-seated) Opera House in 1977, and his business partner Tim O’Connor ran it. It was originally the ballroom of the Terrace Motel complex, which included little apartment houses, which were dubbed the Willie Hilton. The 200 Academy Drive building was 9,000-square feet, so Willie also put in a recording studio, Arlyn, where Stevie Ray Vaughan did much of his recording.

Patti Smith 1978 photo by Scott Newton.

Actually, before Willie bought the property it was owned by three guys who opened the Texas Opry House in April 1974. That first night’s lineup was Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers and Freda and the Firedogs. It was open only about eight months, but Watyon Jennings recorded his biggest live album there, with its famous version of “(No Matter What Goes Down In Austin) Bob Wills Is Still the King” a shot at pal Willie Nelson.

Neil Young, Patti Smith, George Jones, James Brown, Lou Reed, Sam & Dave, (and the best I saw there, Terrence Trent D’Arby), all played Willie’s joint, which stayed in his hands for about 10 years. The old ballroom has not been a club since the ‘90s, then it was The Terrace.

O’Connor modeled the Opera House after the Armadillo, which was going strong until 1980, right down to recruiting his own art squad. He gave house photographer Scott Newton free reign, even let him build his darkroom in a backstage corner, which is why we have such great shots today.

#17 The Mohawk

Just a teenager, the Mohawk keeps this countdown from being a nostalgia fest through the heft of talent that has graced its stages. Don’t give me that stuff about seeing Freddie King and Leon Russell at the ‘Dillo: the Mohawk hosted Iggy and the Stooges, the Specials and Ghostface Killah, on the same night! Owner James Moody and his crew have done it the right way, building out the existing bar at 10th and Red River, until it became the best 1,000-capacity club in town. Inside is a cozy rock box, then outside is the big stage in the center of a viewing area and massive deck that were added in increments. The Mohawk, similarly, is smack in the middle of a changing downtown music scene, but it’s got it’s heart in live, original music.

Originally booked by Transmission Entertainment, the ‘hawk was the nightclub version of Fun Fun Fun Fest, with an “anything goes” attitude backed up by professionalism. When a car plowed into the crowd on Red River at SXSW 2014, the Mohawk’s staff and customers were among the first responders and comforted the wounded until EMS arrived. But this is also the club where craziness leads to unforgettable good times, as when the singer for Israeli band Monotonix led the audience outside to watch him climb onto the balcony of one of the condos across the street (a woman opened her curtains and screamed).

The Red River that’s still the place to be challenged by live music, is anchored by the Mohawk. Long may it dance.


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