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Houston music lovers rejoiced ten years ago when the story broke that Austin's Continental Club was opening a local affiliate at 3700 Main, near Alabama in Midtown. Having our own Continental Club seemed to signal a tectonic shift in local nightlife.
We already had a premonition the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, long the city's primary venue for touring roots-rock and alternative-country music, was about to bite the dust. And by January 2003, the Satellite was gone. It wouldn't be long before virtually the entire Washington Avenue music scene would vanish.
As former Houstonian and Austin Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer, Houston club manager Pete Gordon and real estate investor Robert Schultz explained to local media prior to opening the Houston location, they hoped to duplicate the vibe and success of the Austin club, which had proved to be a key cog in the rejuvenation of the South Congress Avenue strip.
Today, real estate prices on South Congress are astronomical. But ten years on, it is obvious that the Houston club has not become quite the institution its Austin counterpart has.
Gourds front man Kevin Russell, who has played both venues for years, sees two key differences.
"The Houston club has cool people running it; you get the same vibe from them that you get when you deal with the Austin club, but the Austin club feels like something nestled into its neighborhood. So it feels like a neighborhood bar," he says. "You don't get the same feel in Houston. And the Houston club is just physically bigger, so you don't get the intimacy you feel at the Austin club."
According to Gordon, who has managed the Houston club since day one, his biggest disappointment has been weekday crowds — or lack thereof.
"In the beginning, I was more ambitious about weekday stuff happening like Austin," says Gordon from the new site he and his Continental partners are developing across the street in the 3600 block of Main. "But we learned the hard way people just don't go out on weeknights here."
"If we misjudged anything, it was the different culture of the two towns," Gordon adds. "Houston is a hardworking town, and the majority of people only go out on weekends. It's really that simple."
The Austin Continental is famous for its revolving-door, all-day music scene that includes happy-hour and weeknight residencies by some of Texas's finest musicians, such as James McMurtry, Redd Volkaert, Toni Price and Jon Dee Graham. Although the long-running Beetle and Molly & the Ringwalds cover-band happy hours have been successful at the Houston club, others have been less so — or not at all.
"Austin just has a bigger pool of top-quality musicians willing to put various sorts of supergroups together and play for little or no money, just to have a venue and a live audience while they work on things," Gordon laughs. "If all the great Houston musicians who have moved to Austin moved back here, we might have that option, too."
Wertheimer, who grew up outside Houston and has many family ties to the city, concurs with Gordon.
"If we made a miscalculation, it was in thinking Houston is three times the size of Austin and there are so many University of Texas graduates who grew up clubbing at the Austin Continental, so there are bound to be a couple of hundred people who will come out on any given night and support original music," he says. "And that just isn't the case.
"I've come to realize that, from a club operator's perspective, we're spoiled rotten here in Austin. I travel a lot, come down to the club in Houston fairly regularly, and Austin is just a very special place when it comes to people who get out and support live music night after night," he continues.
"I guess the other unexpected development has been how the Houston club has become a center for cover bands," says Wertheimer. "The cover-band thing is a much stronger draw in Houston than in Austin, and that was a big surprise.
"It took me awhile to understand that we couldn't send the Weary Boys or Jon Dee Graham down to Houston for residencies similar to the ones that were so successful in Austin," admits Wertheimer. "But it just didn't translate to the Houston club, and we've had to find alternate solutions to our weeknight problem there."
Despite some unfulfilled expectations, Gordon notes, "We've grown every year and we're pretty much on target with the numbers we projected."
Gordon, who also oversees Shoeshine Charley's Big Top Lounge a few doors down from the Continental, sees more growth ahead.
"This whole area has changed so much since we opened," he notes. "We lived through the construction mess of the rail line going in, but now we're seeing significant population growth in our immediate vicinity with all the new townhouses and condominiums.