Growing up here in Austin, I have become one of those people I swore I would never be: someone who stays on my side of the “river”, otherwise known as Lady Bird Lake (which is really the Colorado River, but more commonly known as Town Lake among long-time Austinites). I happen to live north (well, really, north central) and I find that there are many restaurants and events which happen south which I just don’t make it to. Unplugged at the Grove is a perfect example.
KGSR has sponsored this free, weekly outdoor music series for 23 years now at Shady Grove on Barton Springs Road. Music starts at 8pm every Thursday and runs through the first week of September. I made it to hear James McMurtry with a few other moms whose children attend my kid’s school last week, and this is what I learned from the experience:
It’s much easier than I expected. I think I was envisioning Unplugged to involve the same level of planning as Blues on the Green, but I was mistaken. In fact, I made the decision to go to Unplugged in the mid-afternoon on Thursday.
One of the things which had kept me away from Unplugged since I went to see Carolyn Wonderland pre-kids was the parking situation. I knew there was virtually none on-site (even for lunch it can be hard to find a spot) and I didn’t want to park in the neighborhood (and the KGSR website implores you not to). I’m too far away for any kind of biking, which is how one family I ran into that night makes it happen.
What I hadn’t noticed on the website was that you can park at the parking lot of Bicycle Sports Shop at Barton Springs and Lamar. I left my house just before 6, made 3 stops to pick up my four friends (at least we carpooled, right?) and we were probably on the road by 6:30pm, by which time traffic had died down on Mopac. The parking lot at Bicycle Sports Shop was virtually empty when we arrived, and the walk to Shady Grove only took a few minutes. We had no problem finding a spot on the lawn about halfway back just before 7pm, which gave us plenty of time to eat and gab some more before the music began. I should also mention that since Subaru is sponsoring the series this year, there is reserved parking for the first 10 Subarus to arrive in the Shady Grove lot (no idea how long these spots lasts, however).
I’m sure that the crowd varies based on who’s playing, and I know some acts like Bob Schneider draw huge crowds, so that might be something to keep in mind if you don’t mind much who’s playing and have some flexibility in your schedule.
It’s kid-friendly. There were plenty of families at Shady Grove that night. I saw a few preschool-aged girls close to us wearing ear protection, but depending on where you sit within the venue, you might not need to worry about the noise. With real restrooms, some shade and food for sale, along with the easier parking, I would definitely choose this over some of the other summer music concerts.
One of the friends who came mentioned that this was her first time to attend without kids. She did point out that you should order food early, since you can have quite a wait time for food, since the servers are so busy with the crowd. I noticed a dad taking kids into the men’s restroom, which would probably make for a shorter potty line, if you have that option. Strollers might be challenging, but we even noticed parents carrying small children outside of the fenced-in area, so that could be a good place to hang out if you want to bring a stroller and don’t worry about your kid running into Barton Springs Road.
It can be an early night. One of the reasons I made a last-minute decision to attend was that I was up until past 1am working the night before, so I was afraid I would be too tired. The music started pretty much on schedule and ends around 9pm. Even after walking back to the car and dropping everyone off, I was still home before 10:30pm. Of course, if we had brought kids, we might have skipped out early, which is no biggie since there is no cover charge. During a time of year when I usually feel extra tired, it’s nice not to be out super late for a show.
My friend’s husband ended up staying home with five kids for a sleepover so we could go, so she decided to surprise him with a CD that James McMurtry signed. There were a few folks gathered around the merch table, but my friend mentioned that she was surprised at how accessible McMurtry was. The experience was akin to our whole experience that night: fun, laid back and very Austin.
Bring a blanket. Chairs are definitely more comfortable, but if you bring them (unless they are the flush to the ground kind) you are blocking someone’s view, so I think a blanket is the way to go, especially when it’s only for a few hours (plus, it’s much easier to carry). Plus, it’s nice to stake out a spot on the grass if you get up to go to the restroom or to go up to dance right in front of the stage (which we did once). Servers will come take your drink and food orders right from your blanket, and there is a limited food menu to order from, but still a good amount to choose from (yum, Hippie Burger!)
For Unplugged, Shady Grove removes the tables from under the huge oak tree and puts in folding chairs, so you also have that option, but most of that seating seemed to be taken by about 6:15pm. One of my friends saw someone she knew who had a small table with a few non-folding chairs on the porch who had arrived at 5:30pm.
Go before it gets too hot. I had originally thought I would go to Unplugged when I have a friend in from out of town in early August, but my in-town friend mentioned that Shady Grove feels like an oven in late summer, and I can believe it, so I’m glad we went when we did. We really lucked out since it was even a little overcast when we visited. B-cycle had a tent set up and were offering free fans, which we used when the breeze died down. Another option might be to head down before rush hour and take a dip in Barton Springs before heading over to Shady Grove.
Here’s the lineup for the rest of the 2016 season:
June 2 WALKER LUKENS
June 9 HARVEST THIEVES
June 16 ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO
June 23 RAY WYLIE HUBBARD
June 30 JAMES MCMURTRY
July 7 SHANE SMITH & THE SAINTS
July 14 THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT & DALE WATSON
July 21 GRIFFIN HOUSE
July 28 UNCLE LUCIUS
August 4 THE DAMN QUAILS
August 11 BOB SCHNEIDER
August 18 THE ROCKETBOYS
August 25 JACKIE VENSON
Note: This article originally published in June of 2014 and has since been updated with current information.