Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Hot August Night: 25th anniversary of the Mark/J-Net Continental Club Finale

There were three times more people outside the club than were able to fit inside, where it was brutally hot and gloriously sweaty. Sitting in little clumps on the sidewalk and standing in the street behind the stage, the throng drank 7-11 beer, smoked joints and reminisced about nights spent in the glorious black wooden box where Bad Brains would play one night and Lou Ann Barton the next. And you’d go to both because the connection to band and audience was so unobstructed and pure.

The Continental Club closed its doors for good on August 29, 1987. It was replaced on New Year’s Eve, four months later, by the Continental Club, no relation until years later when Alejandro Escovedo and Mojo Nixon would provide indelible links.

After a bumpy start as a mildly upscale red-and-black-tiled hamburger/music joint, the Continental of  Steve Wertheimer and his veteran staff has grown into an internationally-known roots-rock haven. Austin’s two greatest meat-eating guitarists, Redd Volkaert and Junior Brown, are known to play there on weekends when the sun is out: how cool is that?

Co-owners J-Net Ward and Mark Pratz behind the clubhouse bar.

But the CC that closed 25 years ago this Wednesday is the one many fiftysomethings recall as their favorite nightclub ever. Leaning against the back wall was a 29-year-old’s natural body position.

The only fight I ever saw there was during one of my “Corky Star Search” competitions on Monday night. I had to handle bouncer/ doorman duties- with instructions not to call the police, no matter what- when a full-on brawl broke out between supporters of a San Antonio hard rock band and friends of a competing band who’d been heckling the S.A. guys. Sportcaster Vic Jacobs and Dino Lee were there, kinda acting as my backup as I broke it up. Then 10 minutes later the fight would rage up again.

The mark of the club, however, was mellowness in the face of oft-agressive music. One night, both Sonic Youth and Brave Combo showed up in a double-booking snafu. Soundman Terry Pearson fixed the problem by having the “nuclear polka” band from Denton play at 8 p.m., then clearing the house and having Sonic Youth play late. They went on at 2 a.m., I believe, and were so impressed with Pearson’s level-headed handling of the situation, as well as his sound mix,  that they hired him full-time- a job he held for more than 20 years.

For a room that had zero ambiance, the Continental was a magical place because of what happened onstage. My first night in Austin, April 1, 1984, I wandered in off South Congress and saw the Butthole Surfers in a psychedelic haze. For the next three years I’d see so many great shows: accordionista Steve Jordan, the Replacements, Johnny Thunders, Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, the Skeletons, Del Fuegos, Big Guitars From Texas and on and on. But the cozy confines ruled by Mark Pratz and J’Net Ward had become especially known as the clubhouse for the “New Sincerity” bands- True Believers, Zeitgeist, Glass Eye, Doctors Mob, Wild Seeds, Texas Instruments, Dharma Bums, Daniel Johnston, Black Sand. These bands also forged a scene at the Beach (now Crown & Anchor), but that was more of a cool hangout. The no-frills Continental Club was where you went to get a face fulla music.

Jamming on the last night: l-r Rich Brotherton, Kathy McCarty, Mike Hall, Kim Longacre, Garrett Williams

That repute started in 1979, when the owners of the shuttered One Knite (at current Stubb’s location) teamed with rock lifers Summerdog and Wayne Nagel to take over the lease at 1315. During the previous decade, the club was a dank dive, with happy hour from 6-8 a.m. Yes, that’s a.m. The new owners liked Chuck Berry-based rock & roll and so they’d book the LeRoi Brothers, Little Charlie (Sexton), Joe Ely Band, the Cobras with Stevie Ray Vaughan- those kind of acts.

Mark and J’Net took over in 1983 and kicked up the national bookings, while keeping the focus on local acts that could draw. Michael Hall, now a writer for Texas Monthly, hosted “Hoot Night” every Sunday. A now-commonplace concept, this throwback to the folk boom of the early ’60s, was freshly retro-fitted at the Continental. One Sunday night, a street band from Hawaii called Poi Dog Pondering rolled up to the CC and ended up charming everyone. They decided to stay for a few years.

Like so many of us, Frank, Abra, Ted and the rest of Poi Dog couldn’t get inside on the night a Scorsese doc would be called “The Last Indie Rock Head Bob.” But there was a cool vibe happening outside. At one point, it looked like a group of nouveau hippies were bent over the hood of a car snorting drugs, but they were actually crushing up healthy herbs to create an organic mind-expansion  (Shit didn’t work.). Everyone in the periphery was into their own trip- until the True Believers arrived like gunslingers.

That final night (Mark and J-Net had decided to close and concentrate on their other now-legendary live music club Liberty Lunch), the advertised lineup was Doctors Mob, Glass Eye, Wild Seeds and Zeitgeist. True Believers had another gig booked in town that night, but, thanks to the generosity of Zeitgeist, they would play at the very end. The buzz went through the crowd when they hopped out of a van behind the stage. With Brent Grulke (dressed in drag, as were the members of Wild Seeds) at the sound board, the swaggering Troobs were so loud that folks in the street needed earplugs. Zeitgeist and the True Believers were the best bands in town and rivals, so the Escovedo gang set out to conquer Croslin and company, once and forever. Instead they blew out Zeitgeist’s amps after about four songs. Lasting memory from loadout: John Croslin talking to TB bassist J.D. Foster about paying for the amps and Foster shrugging, “Hey, man, that’s rock and roll.”

Peter Blackstock, the former Statesman music writer who would go on to co-found No Depression magazine, drove 4,600 miles in 7 days to see this show. “Well, I had to make the drive anyway, after spending the summer interning for the Anchorage Daily News,” Blackstock recalls, “but when I heard about the Continental closing, I talked the paper into releasing me from the internship a week early.” The last night of the Continental was mostly a blur, but one memory stands out.  “I very specifically remember going over to 406 W 30th (the infamous party house across from Trudy’s) after the show and finding the huge Continental Club sign taking up the entire north wall of the front room of the house.”

The sign eventually made it back to Wertheimer, a noted restoration advocate, who drives old cars and collects vintage neon signs.

The original Continental Club sign was repainted and had the neon restored by Ben Livingston in Dec. 1987.

My two favorite clubs of all time are the Continental circa ’84- ’87 and Lounge Ax in Chicago, which followed the same formula: the staff as family, the bands as musicians, the customers as book-reading beer drinkers ready to rock. (“No high-fives!” read a sign over the L.A. bar.) Lounge Ax booked a lot of Austin bands, who,  in a reverse rider, were required to bring cases of Shiner Bock. That place felt like home. The Continental was home.

The name has been around since 1955, when jazz musician Bill Turner ran the Continental Club as a “private” saloon so they could serve mixed drinks. Turner’s jazz trio was the house band, with various guest singers. The Sunday night jam session brought out some of the area’s best  jazz musicians, but after the club was sold, the jazz moved to Club Unique on Guadalupe St., just north of the Drag.

We can all marvel at what the Continental has become, especially with the Continental Gallery listening room upstairs. Like Mark and J’Net before him, Steve Wertheimer is a special kind of club owner, which is why he keeps waitresses and bartenders for decades- and musical residencies even longer. Toni Price, Jon Dee Graham, James McMurtry and the members of Heybale! have been assured at least one payday a week for years thanks to Wertheimer’s loyalty.

And then there’s the go-go dancing back bartender Clara Que Si, an inadvertent music critic who gives an instant thumbs-up whenever she’s overtaken by the musical spell and jumps onstage to frug. There’s an amazing vibe on a hot night and if the Continental Club closed at the end of the month, you can be sure there would be a thousand people outside, just to be there.

But instead of a closing, there will be a happier 25th anniversary. On New Year’s Eve, the Wertheimer Continental Club will have been open for 25 years. With no sign of letting up.

The building at 1315 S. Congress Avenue is a special, special place, the home of not one, but two, legendary nightclub runs.

At the very top, all alone, Brent Grulke mixes sound on the last night of the Continental. RIP Brent.

2 thoughts on “Hot August Night: 25th anniversary of the Mark/J-Net Continental Club Finale

  1. That sooo brought me back.
    I’d just moved to Athens, GA, so I missed the closing night pictured.
    But that was probably the only great night night I missed there, so many did I spend there!
    And I’m proud to have known all owners and performed in all incarnations (Summerdog and Wayne’s, Mark and J-net’s, and Steve’s).
    I have to say, though, that I never once spent the evening leaning against any wall, not when there was a great band playing, in front of which I needed to stand and holler. And everyone else in the crowd around me was also in a band or did sound, roadied, etc.
    But I agree, Michael – one of my favorite clubs ever, that time period. (And I booked the Beach! Ha!)

  2. I seem to remember a spirited version of “Amazing Grace” on that last night of the Continental Club.

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