As I've mentioned before, there's a new nightspot called The Oaks just down the road from my house out here in eastern Travis County. Our neighborhood hasn't traditionally been the center of the phenomenal Austin music scene - everything seems to start downtown and move west rather than east - and that makes The Oaks a kind of musical pioneer encampment braving the wilds of the eastside.
I've been waiting for the right opportunity to go to The Oaks and it came my way on Friday when my wife spotted the name Beausoleil on their marquee. For those shamefully unfamiliar with the musical heritage of Louisiana, Beausoleil is the premier cajun band in the world with 10 grammy nominations, and a win in 1997 for Best Traditional Folk Album. The sextet is led by the Doucet brothers, Michael and David on fiddle and guitar respectively, joined by Jimmy Breaux on accordion, Al Tharp on bass and Billy Ware and Tommy Alessi on drums. They've been together for 30 years with 20 albums and a new live compilation CD available from Vanguard Records. Their music is distinctively cajun in style, with traditional beats and lots of dance-style tunes heavy on accordian and fiddle, but it also includes a lot of folk and blues influences.
I've seen Beausoleil quite a few times since they make Austin a regular stop on any tour. I've got great memories of dancing with my wife and eldest daughter to their waltzes and zydeco two-steps. The wife was game to see them again, and while number one offspring is now too cool at 14 to go to clubs with her parents, we've got a new youngster who loves to dance, so it was like old times, but in a new location.
The Oaks seems a little unprepossessing from the street (F.M. 973). It looks like a primitive roadhouse, hammered together from old boards and tin siding. It's been enhanced with excellent signs and decorations painted by legendary local artists Jim Franklin and Hank Rodriquez, but it still looks pretty much like a big shack. Inside the atmosphere is 100% genuine rural barroom - it's the atmosphere which a lot of chain restaurants pathetically try to copy, but at The Oaks it's authentic, left over from a past history as a rural saloon and barbeque joint going back for decades.
The Oaks starts to look more impressive when you go through the bar and out onto the back deck with its view of the covered, expandible stage, large dance floor and state-of-the-art stadium-style bleachers, plus some nicely placed tables around the dance floor and on the deck. In fact, the corner of the deck probably has the best view of the stage. It's one of the nicest outdoor venues I've seen, with room for lots of people and plenty of seating for those of us who are aging and don't want to have to stand in a sweaty crowd but still want a good view. It's in the tradition of local favorites like The Backyard and Stubbs, but it's bigger than Stubbs and better laid out than The Backyard.
As for the music, it was everything we expected and more. We missed the opening band, but got there a few minutes before Beausoleil went on. They played a good, long set, with a lot of their favorites and some classics including their great version of the Big Joe Wilson standard Baby Please Don't Go which is even better when transformed from delta blues to cajun swing, and still holds up after 70 years.
Once some problems with the sound levels on David Doucet's guitar were worked out, the sound quality was great. The acoustics were perfect - you could hear clearly but it wasn't too loud even right up by the stage. There was much dancing and other fun on the dance floor, and since The Oaks is kid friendly I was out there with our 3 year old, dancing and giggling and throwing her in the air. She didn't quite get the concept of waltzing, but as long as there was dipping and she got carried most of the time she had a blast. She was one of several kids in her age range and they all seemed to be having a great time while their parents enjoyed the music on a more cerebral level.
The dancing wore the little one out pretty fast. We took a break and she fell asleep in her mom's lap a bit over an hour into the show. We stayed for a while longer, but ultimately the old parents got worn out too, so we headed home before midnight came and we turned into pumpkins. When we left Beausoleil was still going strong, giving the audience their all as they've been doing for 30 years, delivering timeless music performed with panache and virtuosity.
Beausoleil was great, but I also have to give high marks to The Oaks itself. It's a near-perfect, Austin style musical experience. From the rustic barroom to the sophisticated performance facilities, it's a brilliant combination of the rough and the refined, the rustic tradition of the honkytonk with the needs of contemporary performance quality. The only catch is that the stage is outdoors, but performances are at night when it's usually passably cool, and that doesn't seem to have hurt the success of major venues like Stubbs - it's often the only practical way to accomodate a large crowd.
One thing troubled me about the experience. Beausoleil should be a huge draw, but by my count there were just over 100 people there for the show. Beausoleil was followed the night after by W. C. Clark who has a strong local following and a quick survey of the parking lot suggested that turnout wasn't much better. Admittedly, The Oaks has only been open for a bit over three months, but if it's going to keep attracting major talent they've got to have decent audiences, because audiences pay the cover and buy the booze and that gets the bands paid and keeps them coming back.
I had a chat with Steve Dean, the mastermind behind The Oaks while we waited for Beausoleil to come on. He's got lots experience managing Austin-area venues, including the Austex Lounge and others, but it's still a pretty bold move to strike out east of the city when most of the money and the trendy set go downtown or west. I think it's a fantastic idea and it deserves to be a huge success, but he's pioneering in what's basically a musical and cultural wilderness. The population of Manor and the surrounding area is growing fast, and there's a good mix of middle class and more affluent developments, but it's still not the same sophisticated market as downtown or West Austin. Steve clearly hopes that booking popular local acts and perennial favorites will bring crowds out from the city and establish repeat business so he doesn't have to rely on the local market alone, but I fear we're benefiting more from his efforts than he is right now.
He does have a pretty solid lineup of acts for the next couple of months as he works to get The Oaks established and attract some attention. Local favorite Vallejo may go over big with the Manor area population, and the grammy winning country of Bobby Flores is going to be featured the fourth Friday of every month. He's also got regular shows set up for some popular Austin acts like Rotel and the Hot Tomatoes, plus there's a Singer/Songwriter showcase with Dave Insley and…