Photo credit: Bill Groll
The Continental Club is an old hangout on the south side of Austin, the part of town where people believe that their zip code is an existential statement. Oddly enough, they’re probably right. It’s a great place to go see music since it’s not in the spillways of any major hotel chains and it’s an expensive cab ride for the frat boys.
It’s also where you’re most likely to find the widest possible range of Austinites. I’m pushing 30 so it’s nice to know that there are still places I’ll be able to go when I’m pushing fifty and not feel like I should be wearing a trench coat and offering to barter my beer-buying capacity for small talk. I was expecting a nice, reclined Happy Hour show to go with my Dos Equis buzz. Happy hour, after all, is normally just a decompression chamber, where margaritas and cheap Mexican food erase the aftertaste of 9 to 5 drudgery.
Nathan Hamilton and No Deal were not content to provide a meekly pleasant backdrop. In fact, the entire set, for the listeners as well as the musicians, sounded incredibly demanding, full of committed intensity. Guitarist Billy Brent Malkus, much to the enjoyment of everyone, frequently seems to occupy his own hot rodding world of axe work, tearing the shit out of his instrument during every single song. One of Austin’s most interesting musical veins is these southern boys who return in their adult lives to the country albums of their parents after an adolescent day trip into punk rawk. The result is a group like Hamilton and No Deal, where the twang is laced with smackdown and the politics are nervy and just this shy of giving the middle finger. You can hear it in their cover of Billie Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose”, where Malkus ably took over lead vocals. The entire song sounded like it was picking everyone ten feet off the floor and slamming them back down into it. Hamilton does nothing half-assed, even the get up and dance numbers were more commandment than suggestion. The rest of the band more than earned their keep. Their drummer, Mark Casey, looks like Skeet Ulrich (meOw) and he’s a madly talented stickman. Every once in a bit, he’d impishly grin at Hamilton, partly so that they could exchange affirmations of what a kick ass set they were dishing out and partly, I assume, because they were having such a good time. Even the bassist, Chepo Pena, had to stop at one point during his frenzied playing to shake out his hands, the musician’s equivalent of blowing the smoke off the end of a revolver.
You know you’re listening to country music when you hear the Bible thrown in between honky tonk licks. Of course, Hamilton would have to take a punked out shit kicker’s slant on the Good Book. One of the most powerful moments in the set came when he played “Shape I’m In”, a hard luck, hard-ass tale of an ex-con which contains the furiously righteous line “Because if you’re throwing your stone/ I’m throwing mine/ and we’ll see which one falls first.” Hamilton’s rural lefty politics, sooty and uncompromised, can be downright electrifying. His anthemic screed against the corporatization of small town life, “Mercantile Store”, had me balling my fists in barely tamped rage. At one point I had to remind myself to stop grinding my teeth. Hamilton is a rarity among songwriters who sing paeans to old school working class values; he actually means every steely word. On a lighter note, of my favorite moments came when Hamilton breezed through an unrecognizable rendition of the Replacements’ “Here Comes the Regular”, turning it into an earnest, “tears-in-your-whiskey” two-step. The set ended and everyone took a collective breath, almost the first one we’d had since Hamilton took the stage. After an evening of music, food and then a blissful trip to the ice-cold natural springs located a few minutes from downtown, I have to wonder what could ever get me to leave this city. As cheesy as this sounds, there are innumerable nights in Austin where I find myself in the midst of doing my own Carrie Bradshaw Sex and the City voiceovers, pithy combinations of unbridled love for Austin, thoughtful accounting for all the goods in my blessing hutch and the feeling that, all in all, everything’s going to work out just fine. Or it won’t, but I’ll be too sated to give a shit.