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Ken Featherston Posters for the Armadillo

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This past weekend I attended an auction here in our little town just outside Austin. I was there to help work concessions, but as sometimes happens I also found something interesting to bid on. This time I hit the motherload. In among a variety of the usual household goods from someone’s estate was an envelope stuffed with classic show posters from the golden age of Austin’s legendary club scene.

All told the envelope contained about 15 posters from a variety of artists and venues, including many from famous venues which are no longer with us like the Armadillo World Headquarters and Soap Creek Saloon. Artists represented in the collection included some of the best of the era like Ken Featherston, Guy Juke and Michael Priest. Much to my surprise after a brief bid-off with an aging local hippy I won the lot of posters for just $50, a great investment if I planned to sell them, with some of the posters typically priced in the $75 to $100 range.

When I got the posters home and had a chance to go through with them I got a better feel for what I had won.  The unifying characteristic seems to be that all of the posters originated in 1974 which was pretty close to the height of the career of the Armadillo World Headquarters, which only lasted for 10 years, from 1970 to 1980.  During that era it showcased an amazing selection of musical acts, including the greats of the psychedelic 60s, amazing blues musicians and emerging rock and punk bands which would go on to greater fame.  Everyone played there from AC/DC to ZZTop.  The success — musically if not financially — of the Armadillo was the genesis of the vibrant Austin club scene of today and the large number of live music venues which make Austin the “live music capitol of the world.”

The artist represented most among the posters is Ken Featherston, whose career was closely linked to that of the Armadillo and who has more or less vanished in obscurity in recent yeas.  At the height of the era he was a revered figure, designing amazing and dynamic posters and considered on a par with the great artists of the Fillmore poster scene in San Francisco.  There were five Featherston posters in the package, representing some of his best work, including his Marshall Tucker poster which I consider one of his very best and also his original menu design which was used at the Armadillo for most of the decade.

Featherston’s work was always remarkably detailed and imaginative, and he particularly appeals to me because of his excellent lettering, which often drew on the styles of Art Nouveau master Alphons Mucha, although Featherston’s art was stylistically much grittier and realistic than Mucha’s preferred approach. Featherston was also a master of his medium, using clever techniques to provide texture and depth to his monochrome images.

I wish I could direct you to a web page for Featherston, but his site which was previously hosted by Threadgill’s restaurant seems to have gone offline. However,  if you want to see some nice samples of his work he’s heavily featured on fillmoreposter.com where many of his designs are available for sale or at least for viewing. Tragically, he died in 1975 while working as a bouncer at the Armadillo, so although his output in the early 70s was prolific, it’s all we’ll ever have.

For someone working in the graphic arts and with a fondness for the music and visual vision of the 1960s discovering these posters was a real opportunity to look backwards and remember an artistic heritage which many designers are still trying to recreate today.  It was a discovery which I had to share, so enjoy these outstanding examples of Ken Featherston’s work and remember the music and the art which still live on.

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About Dave Nalle