A diverse crowd featuring a panorama of characters — young professionals, musicians of all shapes and sizes, grizzled veterans of the East Austin bar scene — had gathered at an outdoor space suggestive of a summertime get-together where everyone lets loose after a long week at work. Drinks were flowing and the aroma of freshly prepared food-trailer fare floated above the jovial throng. But this wasn’t your typical backyard barbecue.
Story and Photos by Sam Limerick
This gathering place is Wonderland, Austin’s newest bar and music venue, which opened its doors Saturday, March 1 at 1104 E. 6th St. — the former location of the previous tenant Cheer Up Charlie’s. The new management has a vision for a different type of bar and music venue experience, one that is more focused on a relaxed atmosphere than anything else. Scott Walker, owner, proprietor and entertainment director at Wonderland, has described the venue as a “kind of a homage to early 70s California culture.” He has expressed strong desires to create a space that encourages a lower key experience than some of the shot bars and clubs across the highway. “It’s just like a hangout more than anything,” Walker says.
On March 1, Wonderland introduced itself to the East 6th Street scene with a stylistically diverse concert, featuring both big and small local performers. Opening the venue’s first-ever show was The Gospel Choir, a gospel band that shared stories of personal redemption and growth, with a strong religious fervor, through their songs (which was fitting considering the recently reopened and redeemed space).
Next up, Hikes, a local favorite, performed their set — a unique math rock/folk fusion with a decidedly harder edge. The audience replied enthusiastically to their performance, as per the usual for the group, which is in the process of recording a new EP and plan to play a great deal of shows at South By Southwest (SXSW).
Like spinning a dial on an old-time radio, the music vibe shifted again when the next band hit the stage, Baton Rouge-based Moon Honey, a funky, psychedelic rock group with soaring vocals and aggressive, grooving beats. The group, which recently released an EP, Hand-Painted Dream Photographs, and also plans to make an appearance at SXSW, demonstrated their unique style to an approving crowd.
Following Moon Honey was the up-and-coming Austin-based band Boyfrndz, an experimental and psychedelic group with a post-hardcore bent. Their energetic live set, which nearly led to the first mosh pit of the night, was highlighted by guitarist and front man Scott Martin’s (who doubles as Wonderland’s talent director) ascent to the “shred stage,” a wooden platform built onto the thick stump of an old tree in the venue.
The headlining band for the opening night was a fitting choice, with San Marcos-based This Will Destroy You, which plays alternatively bombastic and droning instrumental rock. They kicked it till the last possible minute that sound ordinances would allow.
The broad choice of bands which played the grand opening of Wonderland gives insight into the proposed atmosphere for the venue. Walker and crew are aiming for a genuine rock and roll neighborhood bar that has a more relaxed vibe. The goal sounds simple: create a true neighborhood bar where friends can stop by for a beer or just kick back and relax. But that’s often easier said than done, Wonderland’s head barman Jason Stevens says. “There’s a lot of thought and planning that goes into making it seem like there’s not a lot of thought and planning,” he adds. Complicating matters was the available turnaround time: The previous tenant, Cheer Up Charlie’s, had only closed its doors on Jan. 15, leaving the new owners a little more than a month to bring a new concept to fruition.
To satiate its customers, Wonderland has a partnership with East Side King, an Asian fusion street food trailer with multiple locations across Austin. In the backyard space of Wonderland, adjacent to the stage East Side King’s latest project called Thai-Kun serves up a savory and spicy menu, with options such as Thai-Kun Fried Chicken and Grilled Pork Shoulder.
At its core, however, Wonderland is going to be a bar which also throws concerts. Walker says that concerts would be thrown “less days a year, but with more planning.” For now, Wonderland plans to throw some free unofficial parties and showcases Wednesday, March 12 through Saturday, March 15 of SXSW to increase its exposure and bring in new visitors. Check out the lineup on their website.
Wonderland Austin opens everyday at 4 p.m.