Night in, Night Out

Booking the club scene

Steve Wertheimer
Steve Wertheimer (Photo by John Anderson)

For all the power and reputation of the big local promoters, Austin's music scene was built by and still depends on independent bookers. Take Beerland: James Moody of Transmission Entertainment describes the venue, defined by the talent-spotting skills of Max "Max Dropout" Meehan, as "terribly important" in creating the rock-friendly Red River vibe. A campus' worth of freshman classes graduated UT with a virtual minor in new country and Red Dirt music courtesy of Griff Luneburg at the Cactus Cafe. Others had their first performance on a real stage under Paul Minor at the Hole in the Wall. ACL and Stubb's regular Ghostland Observatory got its big break in 2006 when C3 boss Charles Attal saw the band perform at a Texas Rollergirls bout – one show among dozens booked for the Roller Derby league by skater Virginia "Cheap Trixie" Evans.

In 2008, the city of Austin deemed the Continental Club a historic landmark. It wasn't just because its iconic neon sign appears on nearly every "Greetings From Austin" postcard. Since taking it over in 1987, owner and booker Steve Wertheimer has taken the former burlesque joint and punk pit back to its roots as a roots and rockabilly haven. When it comes to booking his room, he said, "I'm not right all the time, but I'm right a lot of the time, and that's why this club has been in business as long as I've had it." While there's always going to be competition with other promoters for bands and audiences, he said, "The last thing I want to do is get in a cage match with those guys." Instead, after nearly three decades, he said, "There's not a guy here in town that runs a club or a promoter or a booking agent that I'm not buddies with." Whether running his venue as a welcome refuge for them or serving on the Live Music Task Force, "I'm there to stand behind them when they're getting hassled," he said. However, he's never been tempted to let them take over the strain of booking, because when it comes to his club, "I know those people who work there and I know those people who come in there."

Residencies have always been a key part of both the Continental's calendar and its business model. When Wertheimer first started booking the venue, legendary blues pianist Roosevelt Thomas "Grey Ghost" Williams was on stage every Wednesday, and the Blues Specialists were a Friday happy hour fixture. Now Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry have been playing back-to-backs since before South Congress was hip, and Heybale just celebrated a decade of Sunday night sets. "There's something about that consistency," Wertheimer said, adding that it's not just the local regulars that appreciate it, but tourists too. "They walk in the club and, 'Wow, there's the same guy that was playing a year ago when I was here and enjoyed, and that's the same people behind the bar that were here 10 years ago.'" Those residencies provide another big upside for Wertheimer. Even though he still competes for a fair share of roadshows, he said, "I like to be able to turn the calendar and already know that four of the seven nights are booked."

For him the Continental "is a base-hit kind of place. We're consistent, and we show up every game." While he's dabbled in larger events, like the Annual Lonestar Rod & Kustom Round Up, that's the limit of his ambitions. He explained: "Paying some $100,000 guarantee to a band and hoping I'm going to fill up a 3,000 seat place? No thanks." He'd much rather leave that kind of risk to big players like C3, who he said "have much bigger balls than me. They either hit the home run or they strike out swinging."

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music promotion, Steve Wertheimer, Continental Club, Griff Luneburg, Live Music Task Force

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