Thursday evenings at the Continental Club on South Congress get started well before sundown during these peak-of-summer weeks. Light streams in from the open front door, beckoning all who pass by on the busy sidewalk to duck in at 6:30 p.m. for some shade and AC, a couple of drinks, and two sets of music from some of the best musicians you’ll hear in the Live Music Capital of the World.
Oh, and there’s no cover charge. How good can this story get?
It comes courtesy of Casper Rawls, a top-shelf guitar player who’s been an anchor of the Austin music scene for decades. A sparkplug in 1980s roots-rock heroes the LeRoi Brothers and a longtime accompanist with Toni Price in the ’90s, Rawls has done his own shows at the Continental for 12 years, moving from Tuesdays to Thursdays to Sundays and, finally, back to Thursdays again.
These days Rawls lives in Helotes, on the northeast outskirts of San Antonio. But he makes the drive into town on Thursdays to play with a supporting cast that’s different almost every week. It’s part of what makes Rawls’ shows a lively residency: He’s the centerpiece, but the sound and feel of what you hear might vary significantly depending on who’s joining him.
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In preparation for featuring him as our Austin360 Residency of the Month for July, we caught his last show of the month in June. Keyboardist Bukka Allen, bassist Nate Rowe and drummer Dony Wynn were aboard, helping Rawls run through songs by Walter Hyatt, John Fogerty, Jamie Hartford and others. Rawls is renowned as a guitarist, but he’s written some fine songs, too — none better than “Angeline,” a dead-ringer for a Buddy Holly classic that sounded super in this combo’s hands.
Rawls always credits the writers when he plays covers, and sometimes he’ll tell brief tales about the tunes. “You’ll only hear the true stories at the Continental Club,” he adds slyly at one point. His comments are just enough for good between-song banter, but never so long as to distract from the music at hand.
The vibe: Some folks dance up front, some sit at tables and talk, some lean up against the long bar. A few congregate in the back room, where there’s a pool table and some cool artifacts on the walls. Though there’s no cover at the door, a tip jar gets passed around at least a couple of times during the night. (Band members hammed up some good-natured pointing and guffawing when they spotted your humble scribe and musician Monte Warden, due to play upstairs an hour later, dropping a few dollars in the tip jar. It takes all kinds, y’all.)
The venue: There’s no more important music room in town than the Continental, which opened in the 1950s and has gone through many phases and stages since then. Owner Steve Wertheimer took over in late 1987 and soon made residencies a hallmark of both the club and the smaller Continental Gallery space upstairs. If you’re taking tourist friends to see what Austin music is all about, the Continental is the no-brainer first stop.
Casper says: “There’s a lot of different people down here. Tourists, and people who want to come see the Continental Club, or want to come see Austin’s kind of music. I’ve heard that more than anything: They want to see the real thing, you know — real Austin music.”
I ask if he ever makes a set list. “Never,” he replies. "Never have. Sometimes it flows, and I’m lucky. One time, (someone) said, ‘Man, that set was perfectly put together.' And I was like, ‘How would I know?’ It was just stream-of-consciousness.
“If somebody comes up and asks for a Merle Haggard song, we’re happy to play it. Or Buck Owens or whatever; any kind of song we can play, we’ll be happy to do it. So that changes the direction. Sometimes we have the country dancers come, so we'll play a lot of country songs, to keep them dancing.”
If you go: The band generally begins just past 6:30 p.m. and plays till 8 p.m., taking a short break before continuing to 9 p.m. The Continental is at 1315 S. Congress Ave. Back-in angle parking dominates the street blocks around the Continental, which can be tricky but allows more room for cars. There’s a little space on adjacent neighborhood streets, but watch for residents-only signs. Dining options within a couple of blocks include Home Slice for pizza, Hopdoddy for burgers, Perla’s for seafood, Guero’s for Mexican, Botticelli’s for Italian, Lucky Robot for Japanese and Amy’s for ice cream.
The lineups in July: Rawls dutifully updates the calendar on his website, casperrawls.com, with details on who’ll be joining him each week. After a July 4 acoustic-focused gig with guitarists Rich Brotherton and Scrappy Jud Newcomb, he’ll feature pianist Emily Gimble, bassist Glenn Fukunaga and drummer Tommy Taylor on July 11; guitarist Derek O’Brien, bassist Sarah Brown and drummer Jon Hahn on July 18; and keyboardist Bukka Allen and drummer Chris Searles on July 25.
Pro tip: Head upstairs after Casper to catch Monte Warden & the Dangerous Few at the Continental Gallery (8:30 p.m., $5). It’s another of the city’s top residencies, as is the 10:30 p.m. Thursday gig with Bonnie Whitmore and a rotating cast of guests that often includes some impressive ringers (also $5). Full schedules for both the Continental Club and Continental Gallery are at continentalclub.com.
OTHER RECENTLY FEATURED RESIDENCIES:
Margaret Wright, happy hour Thursdays-Fridays at Skylark Lounge
Resentments, Sunday evenings at Saxon Pub
Butter N Jam, Wednesday nights at Dozen Street
Bluegrass Night, Mondays at Radio Coffee & Beer