"If you’re in Austin on Monday night, there’s only one place to be."
Ben Jones is testifying onstage — except there isn’t really a stage — at Donn’s Depot on a late fall evening, joining in at the request of the maestro. That would be Chris Gage, who’s playing the piano that his been his home base on Monday nights for nearly a quarter-century now.
From 9:30 p.m. till the other side of midnight, Gage serenades weekly devotees, occasional drop-ins and curious tourists at the 1970s-vintage bar that was converted from an old train station. A former keyboardist and bandleader for Austin’s own Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Hee Haw legend Roy Clark, Gage has an extensive repertoire that makes this residency, going since 1995, possibly the best piano-bar gig on the planet.
Jones’ declaration about Donn’s notwithstanding, there are actually lots of great places to be in Austin on a Monday night. From Blue Monday at Antone’s to Church on Monday at the Continental Gallery to Dale Watson at the Continental Club to Lonelyand at the Saxon Pub to Bluegrass Night at Radio to Steel Mondays at Sam’s Town Point, it’s probably the city’s highest-quality night for weekly residencies. There’s also Mystery Monday, the El Mercado Backstage show helmed by Gage’s wife, Christine Albert.
And yet, every time I go to Donn’s on a Monday night, inevitably I ask myself: Why am I not here all the time?
December is extra-special at Donn’s, thanks to its longstanding tradition of decorating the place with all manner of dazzling holiday accoutrements. From the piano-dominated front room and bar to tucked-away nooks and corners that surround a small but well-used dance floor, Donn’s feels warm and inviting year-round. During the holidays, though, the place is radiant. Lights and trees and tinsel and snowflakes and ornaments are everywhere.
Gage gets into the holiday spirit as well. When we visited last week, just after the decorations went up, he slyly cribbed passages from a few holiday songs into his piano solos. "The closer it gets to Christmas, I’ll throw in more carols and stuff," he says.
It’s the music Gage might pull out on any given night all year round that keeps the crowds coming back, though. From standards such as "What a Wonderful World" and "Summertime" to tunes by songwriting masters John Hiatt and Jesse Winchester to the instrumentals of piano legend Vince Guaraldi, Gage varies the pace and consistently delights with his choices. Offering her own testimonial when Gage celebrated 21 years at the club in 2016, bartender Michelle Beebe told Gage, ""I never know what to expect, but I always know it’s going to be a masterpiece."
The vibe: Gage starts at 9:30 p.m. and generally plays the first hour on his own. Then he starts calling up guests, whose contributions are a hallmark of the Monday shows. In recent weeks, we caught cameos from guitarist Dave Scher, horn player Oliver Steck, singer-songwriter Jon Emery, and Ben Jones and Andrea Magee of Beat Root Revival.
Gage figures around 20 locals stop by with some regularity to take part, waiting for their cue: "If I start a certain song, they know that’s their invitation," he says. Sometimes the guests are out-of-towners. "I'll meet people on the road and introduce myself," Gage says with a chuckle, "and they’ll say, ’Don’t you remember, I sang with you at Donn’s Depot!’"
Pro tip: Gage generally takes a break between 11:30 and midnight, at which point the crowd usually thins out a bit. Stick around if you can: Gage brings the tempo down a bit and plays some of his most beautiful ballads in the final hour before he wraps up at 1 a.m. "Those late sets are some of the best," he says, noting that die-hard regulars "will not leave because they know that magic happens."
If you go: Donn’s is at 1600 W. Fifth St. at the intersection with West Lynn Street. There’s no cover charge. Parking is free after 3 p.m. in the lot that surrounds the venue, though watch for paid-parking signs in the lot immediately north. Arrive early if you’d like to sit right up front by the piano. And keep an eye out for the guy in the Chick Magnet T-shirt: That’s Shelly Kantor, who still busts a move on the dance floor at age 90.