"I know this is kind of a bittersweet night," Clutch singer Neil Fallon said Sunday, roughly an hour into his band’s packed-to-the-gills farewell show for seminal Austin club Emo’s. "No long goodbyes, though. It’s not the building, it’s the people in it that makes it rock. There’s my deep thought for the evening."
Fallon and his bandmates mostly let their roaring, bottom-heavy metal do the talking during a pair of Austin shows over the weekend that served as both a look ahead and into the past as one of the city's signature venues gets ready to close its doors. The first show, on Saturday night, saw Clutch take to the stage of the new Emo’s East, a $2-million, 1,700-capacity building that opened in September on the city’s fast-developing east side. In front of about 1,000 fans who grooved and headbanged along to familiar favorites like "Spacegrass," the band took quickly to the cavernous space. It doesn’t feel lived in yet but will get there as acts such as Wu-Tang Clan, In Flames, Dynamite Boy and more play the venue in the coming weeks.
Sunday was the real draw, however, with Clutch packing into Emo’s 300-capacity room and doing their best to shake the brick building to its foundation ahead of its planned December 30th closure. The club's adjoining 800-capacity outdoor stage shuttered abruptly in September with a farewell from Canadian noise punks Death From Above 1979. The Red River Street spot has been a key live music venue in Austin for nearly two decades and a must-see place for the tens of thousands of music fans who flock to the city each March for South By Southwest.
As a kind of southern cousin to famed, defunct New York punk club CBGB – with bathrooms that were almost as notoriously disgusting – Emo’s made its name early on as a haven for punk and heavy metal bands. It eventually became a destination for all manner of acts touring through Texas. The club's three-week farewell run reflects that heritage, with visits from the surf rock band Man Or Astro-Man?, Austin punks The Riverboat Gamblers and Wisconsin noise rockers Killdozer, who were one of the first big touring bands to play Emo’s after its 1992 opening and are re-forming to headline the club’s final night.
The chance to play one of the last shows at Emo’s was enough to draw Clutch away from a planned month of rest following a European tour in November, and fans from as far away as Brooklyn traveled to Austin to see the veteran metal band play both nights. Whether in the new, state-of-the-art hall or in the cramped, no-frills downtown spot, the audience got stellar, rock-solid shows. Fallon frequently pumped his fist, grasping the microphone and leaning back to add more power to his gospel-tinged vocals, and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster kept songs like "Easy Breeze" and "Slow Hole To China" anchored to the band’s trademark groove.
It was the kind of show that was emblematic of Emo's and its performers over the thousands of events it hosted while in operation. There was no smoke or mirrors, and lots of sweat from a band paying respect to its host and fans. Sunday’s visit from Clutch was special occasion enough to warrant installing a barricade for the first time in any of the employees’ memory.
"If you’re a big-production band, and you get by on all that stuff instead of what you do on stage, this is not where you want to play," Fallon said hours before the performance, while facing an outdoor wall covered with tattered posters from long-ago shows by Rocket From The Crypt, Unsane, The Jesus Lizard, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and more.
"It has much more soul than a place with a million-dollar light system," Fallon said. "I’m sad that it’s not going to be here anymore."