The Continental Club on South Congress Avenue is a dim, snug, loud room that barely holds 200 people, a pool table and a stage.
If you drop by late on a Thursday, Mike Barfield will probably be here, and you might catch one of those moments when Barfield, aka the Tyrant of Texas Funk, stops singing and starts scowling like Harry Dean Stanton and dancing like Napoleon Dynamite in a cowboy hat.
“Up above my head, I hear music in the air,” she sang the night I heard her, her voice soaring above a swampy guitar groove. “I really do believe there’s a joy somewhere.”
There’s live music every night at the Continental and plenty of joy, much of it fueled by local heroes, many of whom have held down weekly residencies for years. On weekends, touring acts come through.
The Continental was born in the ’50s as a swanky dinner club and has grown into a Texas landmark, where blues, folk, soul, rock and country music mingle like spices in a prize-winning bowl of chili. If it’s not on your list of great American music venues, that list might need some work.
“I don’t ever need to look at the marquee,” John Barton, the manager of nearby South Congress Books, told me. “I walk in the door and I know I’m going to like it.”
On a recent stay in Austin, I spent three nights haunting the club and its fast-changing South Congress neighborhood, which is less than 2 miles from the red granite dome of the Texas Capitol.
In fact, that short trip says a lot about Austin. First, leaving the Capitol, you aim south on Congress Avenue and pass 6th Street, the boozy downtown entertainment district that some locals compare to Bourbon Street and others liken to a zoo. (It does, after all, include the Blind Pig Pub, Coyote Ugly, Dirty Dog Bar, the Jackalope and Moose Knuckle Pub.)
But a better measure of the club, and of Austin, might be the makeup of Heybale! — its Sunday-night band the last 18 years. In that band, Redd Volkaert, formerly of Merle Haggard’s band, plays lead guitar. Earl Poole Ball, formerly of Johnny Cash’s band, plays piano. Kevin Smith, of Willie Nelson’s band, plays bass. Dallas Wayne, host of “Outlaw Country” and “Willie’s Roadhouse” shows on SiriusXM Radio, plays rhythm guitar.
In other words, Austin has stellar, underappreciated musicians the way Taylor Swift has Instagram followers.
Of topless dancers and cosmic cowboys
The club served its first drinks and dinners in 1955. The building had been a laundromat in the late ’40s, but the new owners’ idea was a private supper club whose worldly members would sit surrounded by murals of Paris, Venice and other European cityscapes — a continental sort of place. Small combos would play cocktail music.
That lasted a few years. As money and momentum moved to the suburbs in the ’60s, the Continental devolved into a basic bar — a topless bar, for a while — as drug dealers and prostitutes made the neighborhood their own. For a while, the story goes, the Continental had a happy hour for its day drinkers, beginning at 6 a.m.
This is where the tale turns again. In the early 1970s, Austin’s music scene went into overdrive.
A club called Armadillo World Headquarters started booking alternative country acts, and the local radio station KOKE starting playing them. Willie Nelson moved to town from Nashville and started drawing a mix of rednecks and hippies to his gigs. A public television music series called “Austin City Limits” aired for the first time (and is still going).
“It was kind of a cosmic cowboy bar, mixed in with some rock and blues,” said Dianne Scott, a 26-year employee who serves as social media maven and historian.
By 1987 — the same year a fledgling pop culture conference called South by Southwest was making its debut elsewhere in Austin — punk and new wave had arrived, but the neighborhood was still sketchy and the club was on the brink of death.
That’s when a music-obsessed accountant in his 20s named Steve Wertheimer swooped in with partners to buy it.
Wertheimer, also a big fan of vintage cars, wanted to bring back the room’s ’50s feel. When somebody uncovered the four old murals from the original Continental Club, Wertheimer had them restored as part of the renovation. People took to it, mostly.
“I liked the Continental Club when it was disgusting,” columnist John Kelso said in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper in early 1988. “The Continental is supposed to be a joint where you can fall on the floor and scream, ‘Here’s one for Mother’ without feeling guilty about it.”
These days the club’s walls between the murals are red, as is the felt on the pool table. A motorcycle dangles from the ceiling in back. (Ask a bartender to explain that.) A neon sign along the north wall says “Speed Shop,” and a metal washboard hangs behind the stage, easily accessible in case of an emergency requiring zydeco rhythm.
Between sets, you might hear the horn player talking about where he got his doctorate or eavesdrop on some younger listeners raving about the club’s Monday night act, the Peterson Brothers, ages 19 and 21.
“I’ve played here for 20 years,” singer-guitarist Whit Smith told me. “Many of the staff have been here that long too. That’s a good indication of a place.”
As the neighborhood turns
I did get away from the neighborhood long enough to eat a great brisket sandwich at Stubb’s, an Austin barbecue palace where musicians play on indoor and outdoor stages, and I grabbed a mediocre burger at the Broken Spoke, a dance hall where the country music and two-stepping date to the early 1960s.
But mostly I stuck to South Congress Avenue, which is awash in new money, restaurants, bars, shops, hotels, tourists on scooters — and locals competing for parking spots — and growing fears that rising rents will chase away the creativity that revived the neighborhood.
There’s plenty to see. I browsed the Latin American art and crafts at Tesoros Trading Co. and Mi Casa gallery, the witty contemporary works at Yard Dog gallery, the hundreds of boots and hats at Allens Boots, the scores of masks at Lucy in Disguise With Diamonds, the thousands of used and rare volumes at South Congress Books.
The South Congress Hotel, a sleek boutique property where I stayed, arrived in 2015 with two restaurants and a few trendy retail spaces.
But one door north of the Continental at the tattoo parlor, employee Eric Anderson told me he was getting ready to leave town, driven away by rising rents. And he’s far from the first.
Threadgill’s World Headquarters, a longstanding music venue on nearby Riverside Drive, had closed its doors just a month before (though another Threadgill’s remains elsewhere in town). Antiques retailer Uncommon Objects, a leader in the avenue revival 25 years ago, moved elsewhere in 2017. So did the Hill Country Weavers shop.
The Continental looks pretty secure in the middle of this tumult. Not only does Wertheimer own the building (and another Continental Club in Houston), but he also has sought historical landmark status for it. And he also opened an adjunct jazz-and-acoustic space upstairs known as the Continental Gallery.
In 2014 he unveiled another music club just half a mile south on Congress. It’s called C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, and it’s similarly nostalgic and slightly swankier (there are booths), with a greater emphasis on soul and R&B. I caught a frisky set by the Rosie Flores Revue there.
But mostly, I stuck with the Continental — five acts, all local — and came home with a head full of happy echoes.
Right now, in fact, I can just about hear Casper Rawls, a soft-spoken fellow who plays early Thursday nights, singing about the road and tunefully strangling his electric guitar.
And I can picture Phil Hurley of the South Austin Moonlighters as he launches into a monster guitar solo on a country rocker called “She’s So Far Away,” then tucks in a phrase from “Rhapsody in Blue,” a little hint of Manhattan in the middle of a Texas Hill Country Friday night.
To be sure, there’s significant risk involved whenever you sign on for three straight nights of live music from performers you’ve never heard of. But at the Continental, my results were pure pleasure. With luck, that won’t change for a while.
IF YOU GO
THE BEST WAY TO AUSTIN, TEXAS
From LAX, Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest and United offer nonstop service to Austin. Restricted round-trip fares from $207, including all taxes and fees.
WHERE TO LISTEN
Austin claims more than 250 live music venues. I went to three.
Continental Club, 1315 S. Congress Ave.; (512) 441-2444, continentalclub.com. Cover charge typically $7-$25 after 9 p.m., with advance tickets for weekend shows. Upstairs is the Continental Gallery, 1313 S. Congress Ave.; continentalclub.com/gallery/, where the cover charge, if there is one, is $5-$10.
WHERE TO EAT
Home Slice Pizza, 1421 S. Congress Ave.; (512) 444-7437. Fast, easy, thin-crusted New York-style pizza, calzones, salads and sandwiches on paper plates. Slices $3.75-$4.25, large pizzas $18.
WHERE TO STAY
Bear mind: The South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and festivals will run March 8-17, 2019, filling hotels and pushing rates sky high.
TO LEARN MORE