Looking Back at 25 Years of Live Music at AUS

Graphic designed to look like a bulletin board featuring "polaroid" style photos of AUS musical guests.

As the official airport of the Live Music Capital of the World, AUS takes music seriously. For the past 25 years, AUS has hosted thousands of musicians right here at the Barbara Jordan Terminal. AUS boasts eight music venues where travelers can enjoy local, homegrown Austin talent – and the occasional guest set from national up-and-coming performers.

This month, we’re celebrating AUS’s 25th anniversary, and that history wouldn’t be complete without the live performances our travelers know and love. AUS Music Coordinator Michael Pennock has been bringing music to venues all over AUS for over 10 years. We sat down with him for a look behind the curtain at AUS’s live music program.

Can you tell us a little about your history with AUS?

I've been AUS’s Music Coordinator for about ten and a half years now. Prior to that, I briefly ran audio out here as a sound engineer, and I worked directly with Nancy Coplin. Nancy was a member of the Airport Advisory Commission and she was hired on as AUS’s first Music Program Coordinator. She was instrumental in pushing the music program forward from the beginning.

When did AUS start hosting live music? How did the program begin?

The New Terminal Task Force recommended a live music stage for the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in the early 90s, long before planning and construction began. These recommendations went to Austin City Council and the design team who built the stage, and the rest is history. 

Delaware North Companies (DNC) became the airport’s music co-sponsor and eventually the main sponsor. They’ve been here supporting the music since ’99. They are a huge proponent for music here at the airport and they do a lot of community outreach for the Austin music scene as well. Terry Mahlum, Regional Vice President from Delaware North has been here from the beginning.  This program probably wouldn't be what it is without their support. 

And our other concessionaires – HMS Host and Paradies Lagardère– have provided crucial support to the program over the years as well.

Right before the airport opened, the public was invited to see the new terminal and there was live music all day long. The music started on June 27th, 1999, and there was one show per week. Now we're 30+. For the spring festival travel season this March we had 50 shows, just for one week.

Mayor Kirk Watson and singer Tish Hinojosa on stage at AUS, surrounded by a band and a balloon arch.

Mayor Kirk Watson and Tish Hinojosa at AUS’s first birthday celebration in 2000

Last year, we hosted 1,470 total shows. When we hit our 25th anniversary on May 23rd, it will be close to about 17,500 shows total since 1999. I have booked over 10,000 shows here. Pretty good matrices for the Live Music Capital of the World, right?

What goes into bringing live music to AUS?

Our Art and Music Program provides culture and art representing Austin, which includes live music here at AUS. The original Airport Advisory Commission wanted to have music to welcome travelers, because it was and is such a big part of the culture here in Austin. They really wanted it represent Austin, and to also support local musicians. 

It’s all about customer experience. We want our customers to experience what Austin is, including art and music. Every day at the main stage, we see someone walk up wide-eyed, like, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing here, an awesome Austin band playing at the airport.” People’s jaws drop when they see that awesome band playing, and it happens every day. 

The Music Program is also good for our concessions, too, because it brings them business. So, the Music Program is great for the travelers, right? It's great for the musicians, and it's great for concessions. So it's a win-win-win for everybody.

Day-to-day, we currently have anywhere from 27-30 shows a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. We occasionally have shows on the weekends for special events, like F1 or ACL.

We have eight venues, all on the secure side of the airport within concessions spaces. Six are for solo performances, like an acoustic guitar player or keyboard player. And we have two stages where we run bands: Austin City Market, and then there’s the main Asleep at the Wheel main stage in the Saxon Pub.

W. C. Clark smiling, singing and playing guitar.

W. C. Clark plays at the original Saxon Pub grand opening celebration in January 2011.

Musicians, AUS, and Delaware North Company staff smile and prepare to cut a ribbon at the Asleep at the Wheel stage.

Ribbon-cutting celebration for the new Saxon Pub/Asleep at the Wheel Stage in April 2019, featuring AUS and Delaware North Company staff, Joe Ables of the Saxon Pub, the band Heybale and Ray Benson (of Asleep at the Wheel)

We currently have two sound engineers that work with me. We also provide backline equipment for the musicians (drums, keyboards, guitar, amps), because they all have to go through security to play at the venue. The less the musicians have to bring in to play the gig, the better, you know? Literally, the drummers can show up with their sticks. Those sound engineers will set up the audio and the backline at all those venues daily. Typically, the shows are anywhere from 11 a.m. and done by 6 p.m.

Looking back at your time here, do any memorable performances stick out? And if so, which ones?

Last year we had boygenius and they’re a Grammy award-winning artist. They were kicking off their tour and coming out with a new record. We did a pop-up performance in Baggage Claim, and they also played at the main stage. It was super successful! The band was super happy, and the performance got a lot of great media coverage. It was featured in Rolling Stone. It just really took people by surprise. People were blown away that we had them play. We did the two shows and it was a lot of work, but we pulled it off. We have a great team, and they also helped with that show. That show is the highlight for me.

The members of boygenius on the Asleep at the Wheel stage

boygenius performs at the Asleep at the Wheel main stage, 2023

Over the years, there's been such good, amazing music. Some of those performers have achieved success nationally after playing here when they were younger. We’ve had some memorable musicians like Miss Lavelle White; she’s the Queen of Austin Blues. Gary Clark Jr. played here one year. 

And Jackie Venson. Jackie is going to be playing our 25th anniversary show. We're super excited to have her. She has done really well and is continuing to expand her audience. But, you know, I believe her first gig was here at AUS.

Jackie Venson on stage

Jackie Venson performing at AUS, 2018

But yeah, throughout the years, a lot of awesome, iconic musicians have played here: Ruthie Foster, Band of Heathens, The Ramos Family Reunion, Carolyn Wonderland, Bill Carter, Bill Kirchen, Dallas Wayne, Redd Volkaert, Dana Cooper, Gina Chavez, Sunny Sweeney, Hunt Sales, Jimmy Lafave, Joe King Carrasco, Kat Edmonson, Paula Nelson, W. C. Clark, Ray Benson, and Asleep at the Wheel, and many, many more.

Carolyn Wonderland singing and playing guitar, her eyes closed

Carolyn Wonderland performing at AUS, 2012

Looking ahead at the next 25 years, can tell me anything about what's next for music at AUS?

With the expansion plans and the additional gate space, we're looking to step up our game even more, to expand music and art within the terminal and have some additional special performances and exhibitions. The sky's the limit. We really want to continue to improve.

Right now we’re in the expanding and planning phase. How do we expand those stages and really improve our community engagement and equity with all the musicians and artists? That's really the luxury that we have with these new spaces, which we are going to be able to design incredible art installations and exhibitions and new music stages, and really do it right.

Does the music program have anything special planned for AUS’s 25th anniversary?

We've got live music lined up at the Asleep at the Wheel main stage and other spots around the terminal, with some surprise pop-up performances thrown in for good measure. Mark your calendars—the music extravaganza kicked off on May 1st and will keep the tunes coming all month long. 

We're going to have our regular performances within all our venues. From May 20-24th, we’re also featuring awesome piano players on our tie dye piano, which is kind of an iconic piano that we've had for a long time.

A musician plays AUS's famous tie dye piano on stage.

AUS’s tie dye piano at a performance in 2008.

We’ll have some more surprises planned for AUS’s anniversary on May 23rd, including a special performance from Jackie Venson at 3 p.m. at the main stage. Don't miss out and join us in celebrating AUS's 25th anniversary!

Visit our Live Music in the Air webpage to see upcoming performances, get in touch, and learn more. And take a look at our Ultimate Guide to AUS: Music blog for a look at each of AUS’s music venues. Big thanks to Michael Pennock for letting us shine this spotlight on the live music program’s instrumental work!