Austin’s Chess Club takes inspiration from San Antonio’s Taco Land

“I’m really f**k with this game,” the long-haired metal singer says, taking a stroll around the small stage at Austin’s new DIY venue, “called the Chess.”

He jokes between songs as his touring band, Alabama’s No Cure, reaches the end of their punishing set inside the Chess Club. Never mind that the venue, opened during SXSW 2022 by the folks behind the now-closed Barracuda, Brian Tweedy and Jason McNeely (also of Hotel Vegas), and Max Vandever, conceptualized the name as an homage to anything but board gaming. .

Outside, crowds of downtown revelers are amazed by the raucous growls and rapid-firing bass drums. Many casually claim to be “in” what they glimpse. Ironically, a man wearing a pink cowboy hat raises the devil’s horns, prompting laughter among his group. A few seconds later, another group of women passes by and all three laugh at the headbang before laughing into the night.

For the thirties inside forming a circular pit, it is a way of life. It’s just another Wednesday at the Chess Club, Austin’s newest venue, a 100-seat spot on the corner of Red River and Seventh Street with no sign (coming soon), website (ditto, maybe) or an overall musical theme.

What it does have is the magic inside: a straight edge black metal-tinged hardcore band from Alabama smashing up a brutally hot Tuesday night in Austin. That’s not to say punks (straight edge or otherwise) have trouble finding places to play in the fast-paced city. It’s just that times like this are seemingly harder whenever Elon Musk moves one of his businesses here or a fancy hotel announces his arrival as “Texas-hard, tech-savvy “.

Everyone has heard the stories about Raul’s, the Ritz, Liberty Lunch and old Emo’s. These tiny slums have taken bold acts like the Big Boys and Daniel Johnston and the Butthole Surfers and exported a local cultural cache to the world. People flocked to Austin because it was cool, and it was cool because there were some dumb places that allowed discerning people to see Scratch Acid alongside 25 or 30 other monsters.

Having lost many beloved sites to the COVID-19 pandemic or Austin’s rapid development, Chess Club is an anomaly, one of the few microscopic beacons of underground fury in a city that was once defined by them.

A view of the 100-seat venue from the Chess Club stage before opening.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

RIP Taco Land and RIP Beerland, Welcome, Chess Club

Less than three months after the start of the pandemic, the owners of Barracuda announced the permanent closure of the place. Located in the old Red 7 building – a major venue for punks and metalheads for nearly a decade beginning in 2006 – it was another blow to Austin’s underground music scene on Red River, which had just of losing Beerland in May 2020.

“We ended up sinking, with no idea what was going to happen,” Vandever said on a recent weekday afternoon at an empty chess club. “We thought maybe we could reopen, and then we got to the point where we just couldn’t afford it.”

As fate would have it, their owner of Barracuda’s storage space also owned the small place that once housed the pandemic-stricken Plush dance club. About a year after Barracuda closed, he gifted it to its former owners. Even though it was much smaller than the Vegas Hotel or the Barracuda, they couldn’t pass up this chance.

“I think for having shows, it’s the perfect size,” Vandever says. “It’s so hard to pack a room of 350 capsules – it’s always been demoralizing. And now it feels like a party with 30 people here.

Chess Club opened during SXSW 2022, a return to form for the music conference, which hadn’t had in-person events in nearly three years. The name comes not from the game, but from Chess Records, the Chicago label that introduced the world to Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and, some say, the concept of rock and roll via the single “Rocket 88”. There’s a single blank chessboard that sits above the bar, and the front door is now adorned with chess pictures, but the group is wary of introducing too many two-tone objects into the space, lest it become known as a ska hangout. .

The last vestiges of previous tenants, Plush, can be seen on the terrace of the Chess Club.

The last vestiges of previous tenants, Plush, can be seen on the terrace of the Chess Club.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

Vandever says inspiration for the venue comes from three places: 29th Street Ballroom – where Tweedy and McNeely booked shows more than a decade ago – the old Beerland and Taco Land, the long-closed underground space of his hometown of San Antonio. As a teenager, Vandever played punk shows in Taco Land, impressed by the space that hosted metal and punk legends like Gwar, the Cramps and the Dead Milkmen, who graced the venue – “There’s a place in San Antone where I can go and not feel alone” — in song.

“I always thought it was the coolest place ever,” he says. “The owner was this guy named Ram and he was kind of infamous for calling people pussies, random people he just met, and unplugging bands if he didn’t like them.”

Ram Ayala, who owned Taco Land until he was shot and killed in a 2005 robbery at the site, was tough but kind, known for helping groups with gas money or fundraising. equipment repairs, and to book unknown groups. The mild-mannered Vandever doesn’t hurl obscenities at bar patrons or unplug guitar amps during sets – that I know of – but the microscopic DIY club spirit, where new bands are discovered and bonds are forged, is very much alive in Chess Club.

Vandever books a few shows, but many of the newer gigs are hosted by Pat Troxell, who handles most of the heavier shows, often for all ages, and Trish Connelly, who also books at sister venues Hotel Vegas and Volstead. The ethos is simple: book shows they’d like to see in a weird little room.

“The intimacy of this one is appealing,” Connelly says. Bands and attendees told the promoter and label owner that Chess Club feels like a house show in the best possible way. “You get a big, old room and there might be 70 people there, but it seems scattered. You get 70 people in the Chess Club and people are dancing, the band is interacting, enjoying the dynamic between the crowd and the stage. It is a single space. »

Although the owners avoided the board game aspects of its name, Chess Club slowly adopted its iconography.

Although the owners avoided the board game aspects of its name, Chess Club slowly adopted its iconography.

chess club

Word of mouth

The chess club opened without a sign out front. If one didn’t know to look for the painted 617 to the right of the door, one would probably keep walking – past the old Beerland in one direction, and the closed Emo in the other. A sign telling people where to see the punk show or DJ party came just after the 4th of July. But Chess Club is slowing its social media release, letting the hype grow organically instead of spamming Facebook ads. At the beginning, the place did not have any online presence.

“It was intentional, of course,” Vandever says. “When we started, Jason didn’t want social media because he wanted it to be a real DIY venue. But when we started booking shows, we realized it just wasn’t practical.

Now, at the start of each week, the Chess Club Instagram account posts individual fliers for each night at the club. Punk and hardcore, for locals like Laffer and Mugger, are rough cut-and-paste or black-and-white artwork, while indie shows and DJ nights are steeped in muted color blocks.

No Cure, a straight edge metal band from Alabama, headlined a recent weekday punk show at the Chess Club.

No Cure, a straight edge metal band from Alabama, headlined a recent weekday punk show at the Chess Club.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

The night I show up, to see a few hardcore and straight-edge metal bands, the mostly indecipherable flyer tells me there’s a $5 cover. As I peek inside the room, I see only a few dozen people going crazy. “It’s actually $10,” the woman working the door tells me. Such are the struggles of growing a teenage venue – especially one of this size – between the need to stay afloat, the good practice of ensuring fair pay for artists, and the desire to remain accessible to a community that has much needed places like Chess Club.

Connelly recently booked TC Superstar, a local synthpop band that regularly plays touring venues with capacities reaching or exceeding 300, like Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn and Axelrad in Houston. At about a third of those venues’ capacity, booking Chess Club becomes a game of strategy—no pun intended—to satisfy bands and the Austin music community.

“We try to find the middle ground, we don’t want to overcrowd, but it would be cool to have bigger groups and it would be something intimate,” she says. “But it’s a balance between – does that make sense? And if so, what would people pay at the door? »

Vandever says the club don’t make money at the gate; it all comes down to the bands playing. So when the show is $5 and only 30 people show up, that’s a measly payout, especially with one of the touring bands. And with the majority of the bands being straight edge – alongside, one would assume, much of the crowd – it’s not exactly a big cash flow night for Chess Club. But it’s a labor of love.

“We know it’s going to take time, and I think if we get it right it would be a happy accident,” Vandever says. “If there’s a chance that we could leave some sort of imprint on Texas music history, that would be good enough for me.”

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