Austin’s Vulcan Gas Company was only open for a few years in the 1960s.
But in that brief time the music venue showcased legendary acts like the Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin and Moby Grape.
It’s been revered as one of the early homes of psychedelic rock and helped pave the way for legendary Austin music establishment- the Armadillo World Headquarters.
Tonight, as the South By Southwest Music festival gets underway, the Vulcan Gas Company name has been revived – in a new location.
Here’s a look back at its past and what the owners of its new incarnation hope to offer.
In the fall of 1967, Houston White, Gary Maxwell, Don Hyde, and Sandy Lockett opened The Vulcan Gas Company at 316 Congress Avenue. The street wasn’t as nice as it is now, so the rent was cheap. The Vulcan didn’t serve alcohol. Tickets for shows were about $1.50. Seats were church pews and benches. And it featured a medley of genre spanning acts - Captain Beefheart, Freddie King, Steve Miller Band- as well as Austin Psych rock legends like the 13th Floor Elevators.
“Even the people outside of Texas would go like, if you’re going to Texas there’s one place to stop- Austin. And one place to go - The Vulcan,” Bill Bentley says. Bentley is the senior director of A&R at Vanguard Records in Los Angeles. He happily remembers how the Vulcan Gas Company brought people together.
“It was just sort of a, Texas, I don’t want to say version of the Avalon in San Francisco.” He says. “It was based on the beliefs. You open up a big room, have room for dancing incredible music- all kinds of music, not just rock and roll – and a phenomenal light show and just let people go.
Bentley spent some formative college years in Austin, hanging out at the Vulcan. And he has more than a few good memories. But his favorite? The first time he went to the Vulcan. A Saturday Night in the summer. August Third. 1968.
“Me and my brother and a couple of friend drove to Austin, found the Vulcan. Just stood in front waiting for them to open the doors to see Muddy Waters who was just a hero to us- you know we’d never ever seen him- he didn’t come to Texas often. We’re standing there in front of the doors to the Vulcan and this big huge Chevy Station wagon pulls up and all the Muddy Waters band piled out while we were waiting in line to get in. And he was just so gracious. You know I got his autograph.”
After waiting another couple hours, Bentley got to see a show that featured Johnny Winter as an opener.
“As blues fans we’d heard so much in Houston growing up,” Bentley adds. “But we never heard any Chicago electric blues. It was one of the most unbelievable nights of my life.”
But despite its popularity, by the summer of 1970, the Vulcan was suffering financial problems. It was forced to shut down.
It provided a space on congress for what then was the emerging music – the psychedelic music,” Austinite Susan Espinoza says. “They provided a space for some of the musicians in that genre to feel like this is where you go to make your music shine.”
Espinoza is part of a group of co-owners who has purchased and remodeled a venue at 418 East Sixth Street. They’re turning it into an electronic music club. And naming it, The Vulcan Gas Company.
“It was 50 years ago,” Espinoza says. “ And we felt like, ‘this could be really cool,’ because they were doing what we’re doing today for electronic music in Austin. Which is providing a venue where we’re allowing the DJ’s and electronic musicians of the time 18 to come in and feel like this is their home and they can come and work their magic in our venue.”
Take a walk downtown on a Saturday night and you’ll hear all types music coming out of bars and clubs. Does Austin need a venue devoted to purely electronic music?
“We absolutely feel like there is a[n electronic] movement happening [in Austin].We just felt like there wasn’t a venue that could bring the best setup to those different DJs,” Espinoza says “That would attract the best local and emerging talent in Austin as well as provide a platform to bring bigger acts from out of town and have them want to come play in Austin.”
To accomplish this, Espinoza and her team have installed a top tier sound system (a Funktion One), new light rigs and revamped the 9,000 square foot space two story space with steampunk-inspired interiors. There are also nods to the old Vulcan Gas Company with old posters and photos.
But not everyone is excited about the rebranding.
“I think some of the old guard of the original group of Vulcan Gas Company is kind of wondering whether this can be the same or [question] what are we doing,” Espinoza says. “We would love to invite that group of people to the Vulcan Gas Company and even have a private party to do something, because we are going to pay homage.”
And what does Bill Bentley think about it?
“Everything changes,” Bentley muses. “And it’s impossible to hang on to what you think something should be based on the past. It is odd they would use the same name. But more power to them if they can create a spot that is open and free and a haven for young people.”
SXSW Music badge holders can get a first look at the new Vulcan Gas Company starting this evening. The venue is debuting a series of official SXSW music showcases this week. And headlining tonight? *music cue* Spandau Ballet.