The Continental Club at 15: "We Could See the Potential Around Here"
The Continental Club in December 2013
Photos by Jay Lee
It might be hard to believe today, with all the construction happening in the blocks around Main and Alabama, but once the Continental Club practically had the neighborhood all to itself. This was long before the area had light-rail service, a cluster of like-minded businesses – restaurants (Tacos a Go-Go; Natachee's Supper & Punch), a record store (Sig's Lagoon), barbershop/hair salon (Big Kat's/Kat's Meow), boutique (My Flaming Heart), coffee shop (Double Trouble) and a few more – or a catchy nickname (Mid-Main). When the Continental opened in June 2000, owner Pete Gordon describes his surroundings as “me and a thousand bums.”
“It was a complete destination to come to the Continental Club,” Gordon explained while sitting around the club's back-room bar one afternoon last week. “Going around town, I'd tell people where we were: 'We're at Main and Alabama.' [They'd say] 'Main crosses Alabama? I didn't know that.' People hadn't been in this neighborhood for a generation, so it was a totally different world. But we could see the potential in the beautiful old buildings and whatnot around here, that something could be great.”
At the turn of the last century, Austin Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer decided he wanted to open a branch in Houston, his birthplace. Alhough his family moved to Rosenberg when he was very young, Wertheimer made regular visits to the Midtown area while growing up, on family outings to collect rent from their properties in the area. The new Continental's run-down surroundings reminded him of Austin in the mid-'80s.
“It's not gonna be that dissimilar to as it was in Austin 14 years ago on South Congress when we went into the Continental and redid that,” Wertheimer told the Austin Chronicle in May 2000, the month before the Houston club opened.
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Gordon, meanwhile, was coming off a three-year hitch managing the Austin club and moved to Houston in late 1999. A piano player by trade, he had spent years in noted loudmouth Mojo Nixon's band the Toadliquors before settling in Austin, and planned to call upon his network of friends and contacts within the U.S. roots-rock underground. The thinking was to open a spot for some of the Austin Continental's regular bands to play on the road; plus, at the time Houston was lacking a venue that could accommodate 200-300 people per night. A friend of Wertheimer's, Houston real-estate developer Bob Schulz, joined the partnership after that.
“Bob knew Steve fairly well and had always been a fairly big fan of the club, and had always bugged Steve about bringing the club to Houston,” Gordon says. “Then we hatched this idea, and he was the first guy we called down here in Houston to see if he wanted to be in. Of course he was in a thousand percent, and we've since become great, great friends.”
Another partner was David Beebe, a former member of Banana Blender Surprise, the RC Cola-obsessed party band that became a big draw among Texas college students in the early and mid-'90s. Besides knowing Gordon from Mojo Nixon — Banana Blender and the Toadliquors sometimes ran in the same circles — Beebe had worked at Rockefeller's when home from UT-Austin and from 1996 to '98 was general manager of the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, the Continental's closest Houston analogue. His other group, the El Orbits, had recently started playing happy hours at the Austin Continental and in late 1999, Gordon and Wertheimer asked Beebe to help them build out the Houston space. Most recently the building had been a newsstand called Guy's News, but before that it had been a drugstore complete with a soda fountain; the building itself dates back to the late 1920s.
“Even though it was the worst neighborhood in town, I was so happy that they chose the one on Main Street,” says Beebe, who is now a judge and former county commissioner in Marfa after running the bar Padre's out there for several years. “I thought the Guy's News building was so cool; I had always wanted to put a club there anyway. But the neighborhood was so shady and sketchy.”
Beebe moved into an apartment upstairs in the building, which says was in total disrepair, and spent several weeks getting his apartment habitable. Except for a handful, the nearby buildings were boarded up; the only other business of note was a Labor Ready work-for-hire storefront next door. At some point it dawned on him that his grandmother had attended classes at the Houston Business School, the building's upstairs tenant in its very early days. While he and Gordon worked feverishly getting the club ready to open, which he says was an “untold” amount of labor, Beebe recalls he even slept on some scaffolding in the club with a pistol to help secure the building.
“Pete still laughs about that,” he says. “He remembers that better than I do. They were actually worried something was going to happen, because the neighborhood was that bad. You'd leave your car out there at night and it would get busted into. But man, it was the right place. I knew it was. And Bob was the guy who knows how to put things together and make it work. Between Pete's hard work and determination, and Bob's way of making things work that won't necessarily work, and then of course the whole Continental mojo with Steve and all that stuff, and me and some other guys basically taking orders from those guys and putting our own stamp on it, that's how we came up with the whole thing.”
The club didn’t reach cruising speed for a few more years, Gordon reckons. The first hiccup came when construction crews ripped up Main Street outside to install Metro’s light-rail line, a process that stretched for months on end and made the club all but inaccessible. There was Tropical Storm Allison and the economic downturn following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, Gordon and his staff never deviated much from their original plan; they didn’t need to.
“Always when we put a good band onstage, people showed up from the get-go, so that was always encouraging – to know that if we put on a good act, people would come,” he says. “They would find a way through all that to make it here.”
The Allen Oldies Band
The Continental’s roll call of artists who have played there these 15 years is staggering. Plenty of Austin acts, from Dale Watson and Pong to Honky and Amplified Heat, have delivered on Gordon and Wertheimer’s original vision. From those early Bingo nights with the El Orbits have sprung weekly local stalwarts like Glover Tango, Beetle, Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man and Gordon’s own crack soft-rock duo Peter & James. There are the retro bands like Skyrocket!, Disco Expressions or the Light Rock Express, who can often be found playing the club’s annual "Prom Night." A Fistful of Soul, the group of DJs playing vintage soul and R&B 45s significantly younger than they are, have outgrown the Big Top next door and now fill the bigger club’s patio one Friday of every month (including tonight with special guest Jello Biafra). Gulf Coast legends from yesteryear like Archie Bell, Barbara Lynn and Roy Head have lost none of their star power here. Little Joe Washington also lived upstairs in the club’s early days, and later became a familiar sight at the club for many years, whether riding by on his bicycle or at his Friday happy-hour gig. Los Skarnales, Sideshow Tramps, Jesse Dayton, John Evans Band, the Octanes, Sean Reefer & the Resin Valley Boys, Ryan Scroggins & the Trenchtown Texans, Spain Colored Orange, Chase Hamblin, Picture Book, Thrill, the Allison Fisher Band, Buxton, the Suspects, Mikey & the Drags…the list of local groups who have thrived on the Continental stage goes on and on and on.
“I think it's the pinnacle club room in Houston at that capacity,” says Allen Hill, who may have logged more time on the Continental’s stage than everyone except Gordon, as a member of the El Orbits, Allen Oldies Band, or backing up one of the headliners. “Its bands get excited about playing there; it's a feather in your cap when you're on a bill there.”
Besides Mojo Nixon, of course, among legions of others the club has also played host to the Alabama Shakes, Rodney Crowell, Nick Lowe, Dash Rip Rock, Supersuckers, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Son Volt, the Knitters, Dick Dale, J.D. McPherson, Alejandro Escovedo, and Southern Culture on the Skids on maybe its craziest weekend of the year. (Every year.) It seems to specialize in soul and R&B greats who have been forgotten by most people except Gordon, Sig’s Lagoon owner Tomas Escalante and a few others who delight in bringing in acts like the Relatives, Andre Williams, Lee Fields & the Expressions and Renaldo Domino (who returns for Saturday’s anniversary party). Just last weekend the club was packed again for psychedelic soul man Shuggie Otis.
Personally, I was lucky enough to rent an apartment upstairs for many years and saw more than my fair share of shows there, and only wish I could remember them all now. I do recall quite clearly Roky Erickson one Halloween, Mike Stinson one New Year’s Eve, Slobberbone and the Fleshtones positively destroying the place on different nights, the Old 97’s when it was so packed no one could move, the Bottle Rockets when I had the place practically to myself, and the Blasters removing a little more paint from the walls my first night on the town after my son was born and I had finally moved out. I could hardly forget when the club, Allen Hill and Cactus Music helped organize the Chris Gray Day benefit a few months after my heart attack in October 2011. It was packed. The Continental has played a significant role in my life, too.
Other great nights Gordon recalls include when the Rolling Stones were in town and Ronnie Wood got onstage to sit in with his old friend Ian McLagan. He has a photo of himself, Bono and the Edge at U2’s wrap party for their 360 tour in late 2009 (“they were super-nice, gracious guys”). One of his favorites was Bobby “Blue” Bland and his full band, who played shortly before he died; Gordon says he would have liked to have had him back a few more times. Same for zydeco great Boozoo Chavis, who only played once before he passed. Gordon says he wasn’t that impressed by an unknown John Mayer, who played the club in late 2001, but he brought out enough young women that he would have gladly booked him again. (Someone he really regrets never got to play the club, and whom Gordon even discussed it with while still living in Austin but who died before the club opened, is the late Sir Doug Sahm.)
A scene from Rock Baby Rock It
Edgar “Big E” Salazar, who came over to work the door after the Satellite Lounge closed and now runs Big Kat’s across the street, mentions Ronnie Dawson, Hasil Adkins, Ray Campi and Bill Lytle, the original bassist for Bill Haley & the Comets he brought down to one of his Rock Baby Rock It festivals a few years back. (The next one is next weekend.) Longtime sound engineer Chris Henrich speaks up for the North Mississippi Allstars and aged Mississippi bluesmen R.L. Burnside and Cedell Davis, the latter known for playing his guitar with a butter knife.
“I have the butter knife,” Henrich says. “He dropped it in the parking lot and I brought it back to him; I found it. He was like, 'Thanks, man!' The next morning I found it again. He [had] dropped it again, but they were already gone.”
Right now the Continental is weathering yet another Mid-Main growth spurt, brought on by the mixed-use apartment/retail complex now being built adjacent to the building that houses Natachee’s, Double Trouble, Sig’s Lagoon and Big Kat’s. (Bob Schulz’s firm, RHS Interests, is the primary developer.) Gordon says he’s taking this latest hiccup in stride, because people in the brand-new apartment block across Alabama street have already begun coming into the club and telling him it’s one of the main reasons they moved into the area.
“People I think know they can come down here and see something good and enjoy quality entertainment on a nightly basis,” says Gordon. “I think the great thing is that all these people are moving in. The one thing we never had around here was neighbors. We've never been able to be a neighborhood bar, because there wasn't a neighborhood.”
There is now.
The Continental Club's 15th anniversary party, featuring Archie Bell, Roy Head, Renaldo Domino, Trudy Lynn and the Allen Oldies Band, is this Saturday, July 18. Doors open at 8 p.m.; no cover.
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