(Update, Nov. 7: Livestreaming platform Mandolin posted the following message on Twitter Saturday night: "The city of Austin experienced an internet fiber outage that kept us from being able to stream Patty's show. We recorded the set and you're still going to be able to see it in its entirety. We'll email it to all ticket buyers asap.")
Patty Griffin still vividly remembers the first time she visited the Continental Club. The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter’s career was just getting started, and she’d not yet moved to Austin from her native state of Maine. On tour through the southern U.S., Griffin had a night off. A good friend, Austin bassist George Reiff, suggested they meet up at the Continental.
"I had a rental car, and on a Saturday night, I remember just pulling up in front of the club and parking," she recalls with a laugh, marveling at the days when South Congress Avenue was sleepier than it became over the ensuing two decades.
Dallas rockabilly great Ronnie Dawson was playing the club that night. "George and I walked in the door, and there were all these rockabilly kids dressed to the nines," she remembers. She loved the place instantly.
Griffin moved to Austin a couple of years later. Now, she says, "when someone comes to town and they want to know where to go, I always send them to the Continental, because there’s bound to be something good onstage."
That much was true every night for decades, until the coronavirus pandemic largely shut down live music across the nation. Since a two-night stand in mid-March by Bay Area rocker Chuck Prophet, the Continental has been dark, save for one no-audience livestream show with Ben Kweller in August.
A few weeks ago, Continental owner Steve Wertheimer got a call from Griffin’s booking agent, asking about a possible livestream series. "I said, ‘This is the best news I’ve heard all day, let’s try to figure this out,’" Wertheimer said.
"When all this first started, everybody was calling wanting to do stuff, but I didn’t know how to do it. I had been watching a lot of stuff on the internet, and I said, ‘Man if we’re going to do something, it’s got to be great quality, in terms of audio and video."
The Kweller event was a sort of trial run, and though it went well — Wertheimer says about 500 tickets to the stream were sold — it was a significant investment of time and effort. "It was super cool, but after it was done, we didn’t do any more," he said. "We didn’t realize how much work it was, and how many days we’d spend trying to get ready for that show."
Enter livestreaming platform Mandolin, which launched in June specifically to help artists and venues deal with the details of livestreaming. In its first few months, Mandolin has presented more than 150 virtual concerts, most of those within the past month.
Its first major venture in Austin was with Griffin’s friend and fellow Grammy winner Shawn Colvin, who did a three-show livestream series from Arlyn Studios in late summer and early fall. (Colvin has since signed on for another Mandolin event, a "Holiday Songs and Lullabies" show set for Dec. 17.)
READ MORE: Our 2019 interview with Shawn Colvin
"They sent me one of those (Colvin shows) to look at, and I wound up sitting at the computer for the entire hour," Wertheimer says. "I didn’t turn it off and didn’t get tired of it." He soon signed on to do the series with Griffin.
Mandolin founder Mary Kay Huse says that Austin has become a focal point for the company’s livestream ventures. "We’re not singling out any one genre or market, but Americana has very much been a driving factor for us," she said. "So Nashville and Austin have been natural centers of gravity."
In Nashville, Mandolin has developed partnerships with the historic Ryman Auditorium and with City Winery. Wertheimer seems interested in a possible continued relationship with the company, depending on how the Griffin events go.
He’s already signed on for a Nov. 17 event at another South Congress club he owns, C-Boy’s Heart & Soul. Singer-songwriter and X frontman John Doe, who recently moved to Austin from Los Angeles, will launch what he’s calling a "Travis County World Tour" there on Nov. 19, with subsequent streams set for Dec. 16 from Arlyn Studios and Jan. 20 from Cactus Cafe.
"It’s just given me some optimism," Wertheimer said. "These are great rooms, and they have great reputations; people know about them all over the world. So it seems like a great fit for some of these artists who normally wouldn’t be able to play rooms that small. Given the circumstances, it’s a win for them and a win for us also."
Based in Indianapolis, Mandolin has "just over 40 employees," Huse says, nearly half of them based in other cities. Austinite Larry Murray previously worked with Luck Productions, which has presented many livestream events tied to Willie Nelson (including virtual versions of Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion and Fourth of July Picnic events). "He joined us in early August and helped with our connection to Arlyn Studios," Huse said.
While the pandemic was the spark that led to Mandolin’s creation, Huse says the company is already looking ahead to how the company might serve musicians and venues in a post-pandemic world. It’s possible, for example, that future touring shows with an in-house audience could routinely be streamed as well.
"Livestreaming is something people were experimenting with in the past but never really had totally focused on," she says. "COVID-19 presented a forcing function for people to adopt it and try it. We’re already seeing it affect strategies in the future for hybrid shows."
Such plans may hinge on just how many music venues are able to survive the pandemic shutdowns. That’s one reason Griffin is donating part of the proceeds from her Continental residency series to 18 independent music venues across the country that are near and dear to her. They range from Austin’s own ACL Live to renowned D.C.-area rooms the 9:30 Club and the Birchmere to Boothbay Opera House in her home state of Maine.
"It doesn’t take much money to give them something that actually helps," Griffin said. "Most of these places are now down to skeletal crews, so damage has already been done. But it’s really just a matter of keeping a pulse in these places that are so important for us as a country.
"Without having been a musician, I’m not sure I would understand how important these small places are. You meet a crew of people who love music, so you automatically feel like you can get up onstage and step out a little bit more with something you wanted to try. You grow, and they nurture you.
"So when a record blows up and an artist is taking off and you see a great live show, a lot of these artists have spent time on these smaller stages growing up. The contribution of these places is pretty substantial to the culture of music that we have in this country. It’s really worth fighting for."
READ MORE: Our 2015 interview with Patty Griffin