AUSTIN, Texas – 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.
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. 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.”
Vintage neon sign
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 trip 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 others liken to a zoo. (It does, after all, include the Blind Pig Pub, Coyote Ugly, Dirty Dog Bar, the Jackalope and Mooseknuckle Pub.)
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. (To see the bats billow en masse into the night sky, visit at dusk.)
Two blocks past the Texas School for the Deaf, wedged between the old-school Southside Tattoos and a newfangled Warby Parker eyewear shop, you’ll spot a vintage neon sign, its orange and white letters flickering like a memory from the 20th century, 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 and Alejandro Escovedo.
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.
Cosmic cowboy bar
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).
As the scene opened up, local promoters started booking shows in the Continental. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble played the space, as did Joe Ely and Kinky Friedman.