Any of y’all (note the regional second-person pronoun) from Austin, and “of a certain age,” are no doubt familiar with the old Antone’s nightclub. It was truly a legendary blues dive which opened back in ‘75, moved a few times, and essentially (if not legally) perished when changing musical tastes and the ever-dwindling number of surviving blues legends required the club to start booking more general fare in the ‘90s.
The club’s namesake was a colorful character named Clifford Antone, who said the business was started because “Me and my friendswanted to hear blues before these [old blues musicians] died." A noble sentiment, to be sure, and Antone’s provided a haven for many wonderful blues legends in their final performing years, at a time when blues music couldnot have been any more unfashionable. He poured a lot of his profits into helping them with travel expenses, medical care, etc., and always made it a point to treat them like the musical royalty they were, which you could tell really touched them at that late point in their careers (when they had to struggle to get shows in the rest of the country).
Antone did a bit of federal time twice for dealing weed, which by all accounts was used as an alternative funding source to keep the club open and champion the music he loved. He was a larger than life personality--carousing, holding court and talking smack, but always evincing a true love for the blues and the musicians who played it. He passed away in ’06, and one has to wonder if his zest for life waned as the last of those old players passed away.
I moved to Austin in 1980 to attend the University of Texas, and immediately fell in with a bunch of fine no-goodniks with whom I had countless sordid adventures around town. Not a small number of these involved going to Antone’s at their best location, which was on Guadalupe Street (otherwise known as The Drag) just north of the giant campus. During that decade I was lucky enough to see Albert King, Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker, Hubert Sumlin, Otis Rush, Jimmy Reed, Mel Brown, Buddy Guy, Pinetop Perkins, Grey Ghost, Johnny Johnson, and James Cotton there along with a whole bunch of others who I can’t remember at the moment (and my concert ticket book doesn’t help because you never got ticket stubs at Antone’s).
Antone’s was a place of respite from the relentless MTV new wave that was pervasive at the time. You knew there would be kindred souls at the club, soaking up the blues like there was no tomorrow. It wasn’t museum piece music, or those cold blues gigs you sometimes experienced at other venues that had no soul and featured a black performer who seemed disgusted to perform for an all-white audience that had a hard time letting go and boogying. Antone’s shows were different. It was a special time and place, as they say.
As 18-year old kids new to town and ready to fling our considerable youthful energy into the new experience of unsupervised living, we were also still in our early years of discovering Great Music. Most of us had stuck our toes in the water of classic blues by the time we got to Austin (and had surely been rocking out to Johnny Winter, Robin Trower, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Rory Gallagher), but we surely had a lot to learn and were ecstatic to find old Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins albums in the cut-out section of Sound Warehouse (you younger readers are not going to understand multiple parts of that sentence). If we swallowed our pride and used coupons from the student newspaper to “eat” (if that’s the correct word) at Arby’s and Pancho’s Mexican Buffet, we could spend the resulting savings on blues LPs. It wasn’t the only kind of music we were listening to, but with blues we felt like we were onto a rich vein that we greatly looked forward to mining further. Not to mention actually getting to see these guys play live!
Looking back now, we were truly spoiled during the ‘80s and didn’t take full advantage of all the opportunities we had to see the legends of the blues while they were still alive and putting on great shows down at Antone’s. Sure, we saw Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker many times, but we could have seen them more and others besides, but we just had this unspoken notion that they…..the club….the scene…..would always be there.
But we saw some great shows, all the same. On one early ‘80s night that comes to mind, we went to see James Cotton, the superlative harmonica player who had spent years with Muddy Waters and then even more years fronting his own band. For some reason we got there pretty early and (as was our wont) bellied up to the long, battered wooden bar and ordered Shiner Bock longnecks and some tequila shots. As we sat down to commence, I looked just to my right and was bowled over to see James Cotton himself sitting on the barstool next to me! We were all pretty blown away by this, and didn’t quite know what to say (the idea that we should say nothing and just leave the man in peace before he had to start playing a show was evidently beyond us).
The house lights were still up in the dingy club, and so we all had a good view of each other. We were just skinny young white guys with long hair, feeling our oats. But let me describe Mr. Cotton: he was wearing a faded old green t-shirt that looked like it wouldn’t even fit me, stretched to the absolute limits of the fabric tensile strength. He was about 5’6”, give or take, had a medium ‘fro and was (if it’s ok to say this) the most sway-backed man I have ever seen. But the main thing I remember is that he had a huge, open, welcoming smile crowned with a gold tooth display right in front.
Upon noticing that such an imminent musician was sitting next to me, I was stymied for what to say, and so I sputtered out: “Mr. Cotton, will you drink a tequila shot with us?”
He graciously agreed, and soon we had one in front of him, clinked shot glasses, and together we knocked ‘em back. All my friends stayed over around the poor man, surrounding his bar stool and stammering out whatever blues-related questions we could think of. He was down-to-earth and just couldn’t have been nicer to us, although you could also tell that he was a bit shy and soft-spoken. Several more shots of gold tequila later, and I was starting to feel it. Cotton seemed unfazed, however, and after slamming down the last one said “Well, boys, I guess I gotta go play.”
At that moment, we looked to the stage and realized that the house stereo was off and the band had set up and begun to play. Cotton shook our hands, walked over to the stage, strapped on his Pancho Villa leather double harmonica bandolier and started to blow the meanest harp that I’d seen before or since. While we weaved unsteadily to the stage, cheering wildly, he was charging ahead at 110 mph and never wavered for a fantastic two hour show. To get a small taste of what it was like, listen to this (and jump up on your coffee table):
He showed us how a bluesman rocks a crowd, and how a bluesman drinks tequila. And I can remember his huge smile and gold tooth display like it was yesterday.