The Continental Club on South Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas, 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 there, and you might catch one of those moments when Barfield, a.k.a. the Tyrant of Texas Funk, stops singing and starts scowling like Harry Dean Stanton and dancing like Napoleon Dynamite in a cowboy hat.
Or maybe you’ll arrive so late on a Friday night that it’s really Saturday morning. If so, expect to see Paige DeChausse of the Reverent Few pacing the stage in heels and cutting loose on a gospel chorus.
“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. It belongs on your list of great American music venues.
On a recent stay in Austin, I spent three nights haunting the club and its fast-changing South Congress neighborhood, which is less than two miles from the red granite dome of the Texas Capitol.
In fact, that short journey says a lot about Austin. First, leaving the Capitol, you aim south on Congress Avenue and pass Sixth Street, the boozy downtown entertainment district that some locals compare to Bourbon Street and that others liken to a zoo.
You continue across the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, which spans Lady Bird Lake and in warmer months houses perhaps 1.5 million bats — three bats for every two humans in Austin.
Two blocks past the Texas School for the Deaf, wedged between the old-school Southside Tattoos and a new Warby Parker eyewear shop, you’ll spot a vintage neon sign, its orange and white letters flickering like a memory, and under it, the Continental Club.
Among the performers to play this stage: Buck Owens, Robert Plant, Wanda Jackson, Dale Watson, Link Wray, Rosie Flores, Bill Frisell, Flaco Jimenez, Billy Gibbons, Doug Sahm, Charlie Sexton, James McMurtry, Alejandro Escovedo, and, yes, Jonathan Richman.
But a better measure of the club, and of Austin, might be the folks who make up Heybale! — its Sunday-night band for the last 18 years. 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 on SiriusXM Radio, plays rhythm guitar.
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.
That’s 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 local radio station KOKE started playing them. Willie Nelson moved to town from Nashville and drew a mix of country folk and hippies.
A public television music series called Austin City Limits aired for the first time (and is still going).
As the scene opened up, local promoters started booking shows into the Continental. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble played the space, as did Joe Ely and Kinky Friedman.
“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 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.
These days, the 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”; a metal washboard hangs behind the stage 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 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. 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. Liz Lambert, who turned around the neighborhood’s once-blighted Hotel San Jose in the late 1990s and redid the Austin Motel in 2016, is scheduled to open another boutique hotel nearby, the Magdalena, in the fall.
In 2017, cooler maker Yeti opened a flagship location (with beer and live music). Austin jewelry designer Kendra Scott’s flagship shop arrived in 2018.
But one door north of the Continental, at the tattoo parlor, employee Eric Anderson said 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, closed 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 in 2017. So did the Hill Country Weavers shop.
The Continental looks pretty secure in the middle of this tumult. Wertheimer owns the building (and another Continental Club in Houston) and has sought historical landmark status for it. He also opened a jazz-and-acoustic space upstairs known as the Continental Gallery.
In 2014, he opened another club half a mile south on Congress. It’s called C-Boy’s Heart & Soul and is similarly nostalgic, 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.