By Bobby Moore. Photos courtesy of venues.
AS A COASTAL TOWN and tourist destination, it’s easy to assume that Galveston serves as more of a cover band haven than a melting pot of musical styles and creative passions. That’s not a harsh criticism of cover bands. Depending on your interests and group of friends, a night of barhopping might seem incomplete without one. Especially if the cover act performs live-band karaoke.
Instead, Galveston offers visitors and locals a mix of venues that host all sorts of musicians, from do-it-yourself indie rockers to the symphony orchestra. The presence of venues dates back to at least the 1894 construction of a still-standing and active opera house. Concert spaces endured in the years that followed, offering a home for the various sounds that inform Texas music.
The following nine examples of Galveston-area music venues offer a snapshot of local trends, representing everything from timeless historic buildings to repurposed urban spaces. Each space provides the means for all sorts of performers, including cover bands, to share their art.
THE BALINESE ROOM
The Balinese Room offers two appealing types of stories: great concerts featuring legendary acts and seedy practices with alleged mob ties.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the Balinese Room offered high-class entertainment and less-thanlegal gambling at a time when blind eyes were turned to such vices on the island. Owners Sam and Rosario Maceo loomed large in numerous shady operations back when organized crime ran rampant in “the free state of Galveston.”
Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and other celebrities performed at the club for the rich oil barons from Houston. This dual reputation, songs and sin, inspired the ZZ Top song “Balinese.” Pressure on the Texas Rangers to clean up the island’s unsavory elements halted operations in 1957.
A 2001 comeback for the club, with much of its interior changed to reflect its classic 1940s look, ended when the structure was completely destroyed seven years later by Hurricane Ike. The club extended a long way onto a pier, making it vulnerable to inclement weather. Hurricane Carla caused excessive damage to the structure as well, in 1961.
THE GRAND 1894 OPERA HOUSE
Declared “the Official Opera House of Texas” in 1993, The Grand 1894 Opera House ranks among the most important cultural landmarks in Galveston’s Historic Downtown Cultural Arts District.
The 1,000-plus-capacity nonprofit performance space hosts plays, the Galveston Symphony Orchestra and other forms of live music and entertainment. It’s not all highbrow music, either. Such Lone Star State treasures as Lyle Lovett still grace The Grand’s massive stage. Historically, the venue has hosted everyone from the Marx Brothers to the Gatlin Brothers. It’s the best place to take in both live music and a piece of architectural history — the Romanesque Revival-style opera house is on the National Register of Historic Places. If its walls could talk, they’d surely offer a uniquely Texas take on nearly all facets of modern arts and entertainment.
THE OLD QUARTER ACOUSTIC CAFE
The Old Quarter’s role in providing the progressive country artists of the 1970s with a place to play was immortalized twice by Townes Van Zandt. The “Pancho and Lefty” songwriter recorded a 1973 live album at the club’s original downtown Houston location. Van Zandt also wrote the song “Rex’s Blues” about longtime bar owner and former Lightnin’ Hopkins and Van Zandt bassist Rex “Wrecks” Bell.
The bar also provided a home base for Guy Clark and others who pushed the creative boundaries of country and folk music. Perhaps history will repeat itself, with the next big thing among Americana songwriters and revivalists cutting their teeth on the current Old Quarter stage.
Now located in Galveston, the bar still offers its intimate stage to singer-songwriters and blues pickers operating outside the mainstream. It’s the sort of comfortably familiar dive where no visitor is a stranger, and even open mic novices have a fair shot at heartfelt applause.
1859 ST. JOSEPH’S CHURCH
The oldest German Catholic Church in Texas and the oldest wooden church building in Galveston, St. Joseph’s was built by German immigrants in 1859–60. Bishop John Odin, the first Catholic bishop of Texas, recommended that a church be built for the German-speaking Catholics of the growing city. The church was dedicated in April 1860, to St. Joseph, the patron saint of laborers. The Galveston Historical Foundation now operates the church. Artists who have played there include The Trishas, Matthew Ryan, Ian Moore, Joe Pug and more.
BUBBA’S ON THE STRAND
A sister bar and restaurant to the Bubba’s on Tiki Island, Bubba’s on the Strand likely fits a lot of peoples’ Texas bar expectations. Cold beer and bar food are served up in a setting that’s more college town sports bar than island retreat. Beyond the pool tables sits a stage, backed by a Lone Star State flag. Bands and solo artists perform there, upping the roadhouse-like ambience of a local bar that breaks from the status quo.
HOTEL GALVEZ & SPA
This gorgeous, palatial building, built in 1911, bears the name of Galveston’s namesake, Bernardo de Galvez. Now a Wyndham Grand Hotel property, the worldclass hotel and spa offers a luxurious stay for the island’s many visitors.
This high-end hotel regularly hosts jazz duo Reg and Cary on weekends and offers a music hall for rent, making it among the historic sites in the area that double as a hot spot for live music.
THE PROLETARIAT GALLERY AND PUBLIC HOUSE
In cities with vibrant music and arts scenes, just about any revitalized spot can become a destination for gallery shows and indie rock gatherings.
One such example is the Proletariat Gallery and Public House, a former opera house and office building that dates back to 1869. Since 2015, the building has hosted artist spaces, a massive craft beer selection and special events that include live music.
Such venues encourage do-it-yourself scenes, be they punk, indie rock, underground rap and even standup comedy. Bands that might not be understood at the local honky tonk or booked at all at a tourist-friendly restaurant thrive creatively around like-minded peers whenever this type of space opens its stage to outsidethe-box performers.
Traditional German beers and bar grub, paired with some higher end eats, make the Stuttgarden Tavern a Historic Strand District destination for foodies. Tack on a beer garden and full liquor bar, and Stuttgarden doubles as a big part of the city’s bustling night life.
Drinkers and diners also get to check out live music on weekends, with the Stuttgarden offering its stage to the region’s talent.
Dinner, drinks and dancing abound at this fun destination in the Historic Strand District. Menu options and the general ambience of the place bring the tropics to a uniquely Texas beach vacation.
Come early for burgers and pizza, then stick around for an evening of DJs or live music that captures Galveston’s musical variety.