Opened by architect Jay Hughey and filmmaker Mark Shuman, and managed by poet Mike Henry, the Electric Lounge was the closest Austin had to a New York City nightclub in the ‘90s. The place aimed for boldness, as the two most popular residencies early on were Hamell On Trial, a one-man punk band with an acoustic guitar, and Asylum Street Spankers, the old-timey show band. The industrial-looking building had a fantastic interior design, with a partition of see-through (sorta) plexiglass allowing you to hang at the quieter bar side, while keeping tabs of the live room action. The Damnations were bartenders and that band, plus Spoon, Fastball, the Gourds and Sixteen Deluxe really made the Electric Lounge their home. “It’ll never be considered as important an incubator as Armadillo or Antones,” said Kevin Russell of the Gourds. “But, for its time it was a crucial venue that gave this town a place to grow.” The Gourds’ notorious cover of “Gin and Juice” was first played as an impromptu encore at the EL.
The club’s trademark “Electric” neon sign lit up the stage, which annoyed L.A. band the Muffs, whose bassist speared the sign and broke it. Such other touring acts as Neutral Milk Hotel, String Cheese Incident, Spiritualized, Supergrass, Sleater-Kinney and Lucinda Williams, who played five nights in a row while she was woodshedding “Car Wheels,” seemed to have no problem with the neon.
A couple cool things about the club: it was right next to the railroad track- and some dim bulb got their car smashed one crowded night when they parked on the track. The other thing was that you could walk down the hill to the Cedar Door if there was an opening act you hated or if you just saw someone you didn’t want to see. You made sure you wore all-terrain shoes when you went to the Lounge.
When you saw a great show at the Lounge, you couldn’t imagine it happening so well anywhere else. The best I saw there was ? and the Mysterians, the day before SXSW in ’97 or ’98. The place was big enough, I’m guessing 450-capacity, everyone standing, to really scream. But seeing someone like John Cale or Jeff Buckley in such a small space also made you tingle at the intimacy.
The last year of the century was a tough one for Austin music. We lost Doug Sahm to heart disease in ’99. And a trio of great clubs- Liberty Lunch, Steamboat and Electric Lounge- closed their doors.