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These Austin live music venues are reopening after long COVID-19 pandemic closures

Peter Blackstock
Austin American-Statesman

Are we there yet?

A constant drumbeat for shuttered music venues over more than a year of the pandemic: They would be among the first businesses to close and among the last to reopen. The reality turned out to be more layered. Some venues opened last fall with limited capacity, while others with courtyard spaces took advantage of looser restrictions for outdoor events and jumpstarted their operations.

Even so, more than half of Austin’s music venues remained closed at the start of this year. Then, vaccinations finally began to change the pandemic picture. After a noticeable uptick in outdoor shows this spring, Memorial Day weekend appears to mark a turning point for indoor venues, as well.

Key signifiers are the Continental Club and Saxon Pub, two historic South Austin venues that had not reopened at all since mid-March 2020. Both recently announced plans to reopen on May 28 (along with the Continental’s sister club on South Congress Avenue, C-Boy’s Heart & Soul).

Historic South Congress venue the Continental Club will reopen on May 28 after being closed for more than 14 months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Red River Cultural District is rising again, too. Empire began using its outdoor garage space for shows last fall. The Mohawk returns to limited outdoor action this weekend, with shows Thursday-Friday featuring prominent local rock band Heartless Bastards. And Wednesday night, Stubb’s begins a five-night, sold-out run with red-hot Austin band Black Pumas in the venue's outdoor amphitheater.

So: Yes, we are there. Mostly.

Touring concerts will take a little longer, as bands get their travel plans in order. Watch out for an onslaught of roadshows this fall, if vaccination efficiency continues and COVID-19 spikes can be avoided. Last week’s announcement of the October lineup for the Austin City Limits Music Festival is a harbinger of what’s to come.

MORE:ACL Fest gets George Strait, Stevie Nicks, Billie Eilish, Miley Cyrus, more

In the meantime, the summer belongs mostly to the locals — which makes this a really good time to live in the Live Music Capital of the World. Here’s a rundown of opening dates and upcoming highlights at a few key venues. Check with individual venues for safety protocols or capacity limitations that may be in place.

Continental Club & Gallery

An Austin institution since the 1950s, the anchor of South Congress has been called the greatest nightclub in the world (by, well, yours truly). Reopening honors go to the Blues Specialists, who are booked for Friday's 6:30 p.m. happy hour gig. Soulful band the Greyhounds play at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, followed by Barfield the Tyrant. Country band Heybale reclaims its Sunday residency with a new 6 p.m. time slot.

Another longstanding Continental residency returning in June is Wednesday's father-son pairing of Jon Dee Graham and William Harries Graham. Renowned songwriter James McMurtry has decided to wait a little longer before resuming his midnight slot after them; in the meantime, Scrappy Jud Newcomb is filling that spot.

Thursday brings the popular Casper Rawls happy hour gig, followed by Barfield. Most Mondays in June will feature country group the Derailers. Weekend highlights include the LeRoi Brothers and the Bluebonnets on June 19, and Kalu James & the Electric Joint and Harry Edohoukwa on June 26.

HARRY EDOHOUKWA:Austin360 Artist of the Month feature for January 2020

Tuesdays in the club next month will see an intriguing change-up connected to the June calendar at its upstairs room, the Continental Gallery. McMurtry's usual acoustic gigs on that night are on hold until his return, so the Gallery is closing on Tuesdays. But ace trumpeter Ephraim Owens, who tours with the powerhouse Tedeschi Trucks Band, will move his usual 10:30 p.m. Tuesday gig in the Gallery to the main room downstairs. He'll follow country crooner Whitney Rose, who retakes her 7 p.m. Tuesday slot.

One special Continental show of note: On Memorial Day, the Church on Monday jazz band moves its Gallery residency downstairs to the Club for a memorial show honoring the group's drummer, Scott Laningham, who died May 8 at age 61. The group will return to its Monday gig upstairs in June.

The Gallery's first show back will be Memorial Day with the Michael Hale Organ Trio. Residencies in June include Red Young and Rosie Flores on Wednesday, Bonnie Whitmore (moving from 10:30 to 8:30 p.m.) and the Watters on Thursday, and the Matt Hubbard Trio on Friday and Saturday (with early shows by Emily Gimble on Friday and Beaver Nelson on Saturday).

Saxon Pub

"Our new patio is ready, shows are being booked, our stage is primed, our staff is fully vaccinated and eager to greet you!": That's from a May 13 announcement on the Saxon Pub's Facebook page, announcing the venue's May 28 return after more than 14 months of closure.

The first act to take the stage at the storied South Lamar Boulevard venue since March 2020 will be the Drakes, in the 6 to 8 p.m. Friday happy hour slot that was occupied for nearly a decade by Denny Freeman. The legendary local guitarist died of cancer on April 25

At 8 p.m., the Saxon's official "Grand Reopening Show" will feature Lee Roy Parnell with guests Marcia Ball, David Grissom, Johnny Nicholas, Bonnie Bishop, Brannen Temple and more. Tickets are sold out, but for those who want to celebrate at home, Austin PBS will air the 2019 documentary film "Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub" at 9 p.m. Friday.

The Saxon's bread and butter has always been its weekly residencies, and many of them will resume. Sunday features trad-Irish band Ulla (5:30 p.m.) and songwriting collective the Resentments (7:30 p.m.). Guitar great David Grissom returns to his 6 p.m. Tuesday happy hour show. And singer-songwriter Walt Wilkins is back on most Wednesdays in June with an 8 p.m. show.

Two notable changes, at least for now: Bob Schneider's Monday night Lonelyland shows are not on the books for June, nor are Patrice Pike's Thursday evening shows. Moving into the 7 p.m. Monday slot is Johnny Nicholas, who previously played many years of Wednesday shows at the Saxon.

A couple of notable new residencies in June: Django Walker, son of the late, great Jerry Jeff Walker, will follow Wilkins at 10 p.m. on Wednesday; and PAACK, an all-star female local supergroup, will play 6 p.m on Thursday.

Saturday primetime slots for the first three weekends feature Dawn & Hawkes on May 29, Beat Root Revival and Vincent Neil Emerson on June 5, and the Guy Forsyth Blues Band on June 12.

C-Boy's Heart & Soul

Also run by Continental owner Steve Wertheimer, C-Boy's returns this weekend with Friday-Saturday shows by the Mike Flanigin Trio, featuring legendary blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan plus special guests Sue Foley and Soul Man Sam.

Flanigin and Vaughan also will hold forth on most weekends in June. Gearing up for June residencies at the club are Scott H. Biram for happy hour on Monday; 8-1/2 Souvenirs early and the Henri Herbert Blues Combo late on Tuesday; and an intriguing new pairing of Los Sundowns and Nuevo in the late slot on Thursday after singer-songwriter Suzanna Choffel's early set.

The Mohawk

After Heartless Bastards reopens the downtown hot spot on Thursday (with Tender Things) and Friday (with Abram Shook), action will continue on the outdoor stage in June, but only on weekends for now. Upcoming shows include Viben & the Submersibles on June 5, Darkbird on June 12, the Nude Party on June 18 and Megafauna on June 25. 

MORE:Mohawk plans to reopen with limited-capacity shows

Stubb's

To follow this week's blockbuster Black Pumas run, the spacious outdoor venue has booked local hero Shakey Graves for June 17-18. Eclectic College Station duo Surfaces has sold out a June 25 date. Other shows this summer include touring acts Louis the Child on July 28-29 and Jason Mraz on July 30. Rising local phenom Dayglow, who tapes the "Austin City Limits" TV show this week, is booked for Sept. 11.

Empire Control Room & Garage

The progressive club built in the shell of a former auto shop reopened its outdoor space in October and has been booking limited capacity shows ever since. The venue has been rearranged to enforce social distancing, with tickets sold by the table or pod. Shows this weekend include local pop-punk/emo cover band Y'All Out Boy on Friday and Las Vegas electronica act the Crystal Method on Saturday. Dripping Springs indie psych-folk songwriter Israel Nash plays the venue June 11. 

Ursula and Dr. Beard perform a DJ set at Cheer Up Charlies on May 22.

Cheer Up Charlies 

An LGBTQ-friendly space for performance and nightlife, Cheer Ups reopened with a "friends & family welcome home party" on May 14 and has been open Friday and Saturday for DJ shows since then. The club also unveiled new neon artwork of a "Friendly Spirit," the face of which spells out the venue's initials.

MORE:Popular Red River club Cheer Up Charlies has reopened

Elysium

The dance club's owner posted to social media last week that "we plan to re-open Memorial Day Weekend (fingers crossed) and welcome everyone back with open arms/fist bumps/Vulcan greetings, etc." The post included details about COVID-19 safety restrictions, including: "Out of courtesy to others, please wear a mask for entry and wear inside when not drinking (unmasked on the outside patio is allowed)."

ACL Live and 3Ten

The marquee downtown concert hall and its club-sized, street-level sister venue returned with limited capacity earlier this year. Saturday brings a special "Lone Star State of Mind" afternoon and evening bash with the Suffers and Sweet Spirit upstairs, plus Zach Person and Pat Byrne downstairs.

June bookings at ACL Live include Texas Gentlemen and Grupo Fantasma with Nané on June 12; Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis with Sue Foley on June 26; and American Aquarium on June 30. Adjacent restaurant Trace also is doing shows on its patio, with Tony Kamel of Grammy-nominated local bluegrassers Wood & Wire playing a Wednesday residency in June.

Antone's

Austin's longtime "home of the blues" has presented limited-capacity shows for a few months. The big news on the horizon is its annual weeks-long anniversary bash. It kicks off June 18-19 with rising local star Jackie Venson and concludes with a July 24 salute to recently departed Austin guitar great Denny Freeman. In between will be shows by C.J. Chenier, Walter "Wolfman" Washington," Lavelle White, Jimmie Vaughan's Tilt-A-Whirl Band and others.

MORE:Antone's gears up to celebrate 46th anniversary in June and July

Flamingo Cantina

Flamingo Cantina reopened to the public on May 19 when reggae band Mau Mau Chaplains resumed its long-running Wednesday residency.

Since opening on Sixth Street in 1991, Flamingo has been Austin's home for reggae music. It's one of the few remaining venues committed to programming original live music on Austin's central tourist strip. The club reopened on May 19 with its long-running Dreadneck Wednesday residency featuring the Mau Mau Chaplains. This weekend features indie rap with R.A. the Rugged Man and A-F-R-O on Friday and soul band Uncommon People on Saturday.

MORE:Flamingo Cantina, Austin's 30-year home for reggae on Sixth Street, returns

Long Play East

After taking over the old Stay Gold space on East Cesar Chavez Street earlier this year, the new outpost of North Austin bar Long Play began presenting live music in April. Upcoming highlights include Melissa Carper with Willi Carlisle and Beth Chrisman on Friday and Star Parks with PR Newman on June 5. June residencies include Daniel Dufour's jazz jam on Tuesday and Candler Wilkinson on Thursday.

Long Center

The marquee performance space held its first major indoor concert of 2021 last weekend with Black Violin, but the bigger event going forward is the Drop-In, a series of free shows by local acts on its outdoor terrace. The series kicks off Thursday evening with Wild Child Duo and continues every Thursday through Sept. 9 with performers including Riders Against the Storm, Nobody's Girl, the Peterson Brothers, Gina Chavez and Bob Schneider.

American-Statesman writers Deborah Sengupta Stith and Eric Webb contributed to this report.