Spreading Its Roots

Austin's renowned Continental Club expands its reach. But will the Houston market exceed its grasp?

The now-bustling Sixth Street entertainment district downtown was just beginning to hit its stride, and South Austin was one of the funkier sides of town, a mix of low-rent Anglos and low-riding Chicanos as well as graceful old neighborhoods like Travis Heights, just behind the Continental Club. The stretch of Congress south of the river was populated by thrift-store patrons by day and cheap hookers by night. As for the club, Wertheimer says, it had no identity at all. "Part of the problem was that it was a punk club when we took it over. It took a couple of years to convince people, hey, it's okay to come down here."

A Continental Club personality was right under Wertheimer's nose. "The place had been there forever. It was kind of a retro place," he says. "We kind of got back to featuring that kind of music." Over time, a post-'50s culture developed in and eventually around the club. The venue became a place where the down-home folks could dress up, albeit in thrift-store duds.

The music, however, was what kept things running. For a number of years in the mid-1990s, guitar genius Junior Brown was a Sunday-night regular until he hit the national scene. Wertheimer also landed two venerable Austin East Side blues acts, pianist Grey Ghost and T.D. Bell & Erbie Bowser, as happy-hour attractions. Toni Price signed on for the Tuesday early-evening residency, which quickly became known as "Hippie Hour," and which has regularly drawn a waiting line out front to the free show. The burgeoning Austin rebel country scene found a welcoming home here. Even the recent swing revival, which swept Austin in the late '90s, first began to blossom at the Continental, thanks to acts like the Naughty Ones and 8 1/2 Souvenirs (both of which released debut CDs on the club's label, Continental Records). Touring acts playing roots rock, real country, blues, rockabilly, swing and related material were booked. The Continental became part of the roots circuit. And in a city known for its original music clubs, even though most of them were scraping by financially, the Continental Club thrived, its complementary mixture of ambience and audience lending the venue a distinctive flavor.

Steve Wertheimer hopes his Continental Club's steady menu of roots rock appeals to well-fed Houstonians.
Deron Neblett
Steve Wertheimer hopes his Continental Club's steady menu of roots rock appeals to well-fed Houstonians.

"That whole identity thing is what we are taking to Houston," says Wertheimer. "I think there's a pretty large batch of those same type of people in Houston who are dying for a place like this to finally open up, where they can hang and call it their home."

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