Why I Love Austin
Saturday, November 22, 2008
You want to know why I love Austin?
Well, partly it is because it's one of those quintessential college towns. Where the margaritas are made the way you just know God would make them if he were bartending. And where the crab enchiladas can turn even the most hard-bitten skeptic into a believer. And where the hot sauce is just a few degrees shy of life changing.
But those reasons are only why I like Austin.
Here's why I LOVE Austin. Where else in America can you walk into a tiny bar on a weeknight and stumble onto one of the great music legends of our lifetime? That's what happened to me Wednesday night. I had arrived in Austin a day early for a book signing at the very cool indie store Bookpeople. It was my final stop of a week in Texas, with stops in Dallas (where I participated in a literacy fundraiser with the elder George and Barbara Bush, who both were gracious and lovely) and Waco (where I spoke before 1,200 people at Baylor University).
As my schedule happened to work out, I had one free night to kill in Austin so I went out strolling and music-trolling on the city's famous Sixth Street. On a Wednesday night I had low expectations of happening upon the next Lucinda Williams or Roseanne Cash. Sure enough, the first few acts I eavesdropped on were perfectly competent but not very inspired Stevie Ray Vaughn cover bands. I had one beer and was about to call it a night when I heard a thumping rythmn beat coming from Nuno's, a tiny tavern with a stage squeezed in the front window. Walked in. The house band was whipping through accomplished versions of blues classics. Then the guitarist said, "OK, let's give a warm hand for our friend Pinetop Perkins."
Up hobbles a very old black man, leaning on a cane. And it's him. Pinetop Perkins... THE Pinetop Perkins. Blues legend. American icon. He takes a seat at an electric piano and begins to play. Then sing. And magic fills the tiny space.
It's Pinetop Perkins, live and in person. The real deal. On a Wednesday night. In front of 30 people. At a joint with no cover, no minimum, and where beers are $4 a bottle. With a backup band so tight it threatened to peel back the wallpaper. And before the night was over, the band from the bar down the block piled in and soon its members were on stage too, joining in, two drummers sharing one drum kit, two guitarists passing back and forth one Fender Stratocaster. And pretty soon it was 2 a.m. and last call and, Pinetop long retired for the night by now, the combined band was serving up a sizzling version of Voodoo Chile that would have made Jimi smile from the grave. And the young tourists from Denmark were grinning and snapping their photos in front of the band, and from their smiles you understood they appreciated what we natives so often do not -- that America, for all its quirks and problems, is a pretty damn amazing place.
And that is why I love Austin, Texas.
Over and out from the Austin airport where it is 5:10 a.m. and I'm about to board a plane home for Philadelphia.
posted by John Grogan at 9:39 AM