When we began this series in 2016 with “One Night in April,” the goal was to visit at least six Austin music venues in a single night once a month for a full year. Mission accomplished. For the grand finale, we went into overtime, checking out shows at eight different spots around town, from north to south to downtown and beyond.
5:15 p.m.: Lili Blessing at Waterloo Records. Celebrating her debut album “Lifeline,” Blessing continued a whirlwind of release-week activity that included morning shows on KEYE-TV and KUTX radio by performing four songs at the city’s landmark record store.
READ MORE: Review of Lili Blessing’s debut and other recent local releases
Accompanied by guitarist Lev Baker, Blessing chose three songs from her album plus a newly written tune called “You Can’t Divide Us” that addresses the current political climate. At 20, Blessing is still finding her way onstage, performing only as a singer without playing an instrument. Her four-song mini-set felt perhaps a bit too short; “Lifeline” is a spectacular first record, with highlights such as “Submarine,” “Salvador” and “Gravity” begging to be heard.
6:15 p.m.: Barbara Nesbitt at Saxon Pub. Formerly of rootsy rock band the Whiskey Sisters, Nesbitt struck out on her own a couple of years ago and has worked up a solid set of original material that leans more toward country and pop. She and her four-piece backing crew also threw in a thoroughly enjoyable bluegrass tune at the end, with fiddler Eddie Dickerson stepping up for a duet vocal.
“It’s really good,” someone in the crowd remarked about the music early in the happy-hour set, prompting a great comeback from Nesbitt: “Why are you so (expletive) surprised?” One of Nesbitt’s strengths as a performer is her repartee with the audience. She gently cajoled them to make use of the tip jar when a fan dropped in a couple of bills: “She’s showing y’all how it works.” And at the end of the first set, she deadpanned, “We’re going to take a 5-minute break that’ll probably last 11 minutes.”
7:15 p.m.: Noel McKay at Threadgill’s North. Working this one into the itinerary seemed a stretch, given the long distance from the Saxon’s South Lamar environs to the far-North Lamar location of the original Threadgill’s. But good fortune weighed in: Rush-hour traffic had abated, and the drive took less than 20 minutes.
The reward was probably the best overall musical experience of the night, at a venue that really needed to be included in this series. One of Austin’s oldest restaurants, Threadgill’s boasts a musical legacy that includes some of the first public performances of Janis Joplin in the 1960s, as well as the heyday of Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Champ Hood’s “Sittin’ & Singin’ & Supper” Wednesdays series in the ’80s and ’90s.
Performances still happen on Wednesdays, and this one was a gem. McKay, accompanied by pianist Dan Walton, churned out one great song after another, from co-writes with Shawn Camp and Richard Dobson to a sterling cover of the late Guy Clark’s “My Favorite Picture of You.” Mentioning that he’s taking part in next weekend’s Guy Clark tribute at the Paramount, McKay humbly suggested that compared to others on the star-studded bill, “I’m the least famous of them by a long shot.” Perhaps, but hearing McKay play on this night, it was easy to see why Clark counted McKay among his friends and peers.
RELATED: Rodney Crowell, Joe Ely and more to play Guy Clark tribute at Paramount
8:30 p.m.: Tony Kamel at Cactus Cafe. A late add to a songwriters bill featuring former Austinite Anthony Da Costa and native Texan Emily Elbert, Kamel was an ace in the hole. As leader of local outfit Wood & Wire, Kamel has played a key role in strengthening the presence of bluegrass in Austin’s music scene.
He played just four songs in this cameo opening set, but he set a wonderful tone for the night. Going back and forth between guitar and banjo, Kamel showed his instrumental versatility while hitting the high lonesome vocal notes that are a hallmark of class-act bluegrass singers. And if he was a ringer on the bill, he also seemed just happy to be at the Cactus: “It always means a great deal to me to play this stage,” Kamel said sincerely before his final number.
9:20 p.m.: Jeff Lofton at Four Seasons. The riverfront luxury hotel doesn’t have the reputation for live music in its lobby bar that the historic Driskill has built up over decades. But the recent addition of a Wednesday residency with jazz trumpeter Jeff Lofton is a welcome addition.
We caught the second set of Lofton’s 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. performance with piano accompanist Damian Garcia. If some in the comfortably outfitted space were there mostly for conversation with background music tucked into the shadows, Lofton and Garcia also rewarded those there for a closer listen, touching upon classics such as “Comes Love” or “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and creatively taking them to faraway levels of the jazz universe.
RELATED: Jeff Lofton’s 2016 holiday video in the American-Statesman studio
9:50 p.m.: Christy Hays at the Blackheart. It’s a short walk of a few blocks from the Four Seasons to Rainey Street, where the Blackheart has for years been the primary champion of quality music in a district that’s largely overrun with hipster watering holes. The bar has a larger stage outside in back, but on many nights (including this one), the music happens up-front in a dark but warm room.
Hays recently left Austin but returns regularly, and she’s kept up ties with songwriters such as Bruce Robison, who recorded her tune “Lake of Fire” on his upcoming record. It was one of several first-rate new songs Hays performed, mentioning that she hopes to record them in May on a new full-length album. Judging from this set, that’ll be a record well worth hearing.
10:15 p.m.: Suzanna Choffel at Geraldine’s. Normally we end the “One Night” series after six stops, but this addition was too easy, and too good. Just around the corner from the Blackheart, on the fourth floor of the Hotel Van Zandt, is Geraldine’s. One of the most valuable additions to the Austin music scene in the past couple of years, the bar and restaurant features local performers six nights a week plus a Sunday jazz brunch.
RELATED: Geraldine’s elevates live music on Rainey Street
Choffel, a longtime Austin singer-songwriter and veteran of NBC’s “The Voice,” has a new album coming out in May. Performing solo on electric guitar, she mixed newer tunes with smart covers such as Willie Nelson’s “I Never Cared for You,” as well as older originals (including a memorable one she said she’d never recorded). For a bonus addition to the night’s itinerary, this one was well worth it. And it might have been a great closer, but…
11 p.m.: Jon Dee Graham at Continental Club. The drive home took us right by the beating heart of Austin music, where one of the club’s finest residencies, Graham’s Wednesday show with his ace three-piece rock ‘n’ roll band, was in full swing. Who were we to pass that up?
A recent discussion with a well-traveled national musician in the Continental’s back room touched on this question: If Austin is in fact the Live Music Capital of the World, might it also stand to reason that we’re home to the Best Club in the World? Both of us concurred that the Continental is probably deserving of such a designation. And its heart is the residencies, from Wednesdays with Graham and James McMurtry (who was away on this night) to Toni Price’s quarter-century-running “Hippie Hour” on Tuesdays, to Dale Watson’s honky-tonk haven on Mondays, among several others both downstairs and in the smaller upstairs Continental Gallery space.
En route to the Continental on this night, we witnessed a building at 1011 South Congress literally being towed off its lot and down the street, part of a SoCo reshaping that also recently saw the demolition of Doc’s sports bar. Change is inevitable. But if the Continental ever goes, it’s over. It’s the best we’ve got. And it was the perfect place to end this yearlong series, with Graham and his band boisterously singing the Mexican standard “Volver.” Yes, we will return.
One Night, By the Numbers: 14.9 miles driven (from Point 1 to Point 8, not including to and from home; stops 5-6-7 all were in walking distance of each other). $1 spent on street parking (a meter near Waterloo, before 6 p.m.). Admission charges: Free at Waterloo, Saxon Pub, Threadgill’s North, Four Seasons, Blackheart and Geraldine’s (with tips accepted at most places). $12-$15 at Cactus Cafe; $8 at Continental Club.
MORE: Check out all previous installments of our “One Night In” series