For the fourth installment of our new monthly series in which we visit a half-dozen local music hot spots in one outing, we traded traded the night for day. Sundays are the best day in Austin for catching music while it’s still light outside, and we found plenty of fine opportunities.
11:15 a.m.: Bells of Joy at Threadgill’s South. Gospel brunches are plentiful across Austin on Sunday mornings, with venues ranging from Stubb’s to Maria’s to Strange Brew serving up sounds in the spirit of the Sabbath. There’s probably no better local representative of the genre than the Bells of Joy, whose original lineup had one of Austin’s biggest-selling records ever with their 1951 gospel tune “Let’s Talk About Jesus.”
The modern-day Bells of Joy played that song, along with other gospel favorites such as “I’ll Fly Away,” to a crowd that included dozens of folks sporting bright yellow “Durst Family Reunion” T-shirts. Their turnout was no coincidence: The late Lavada Durst, known to decades of Austinites as “Dr. Hepcat” on KVET, has been acknowledged as the writer of “Let’s Talk About Jesus” along with Bells of Joy co-founder A.C. Littlefield.
Only A.D. Watson, who was seated at stage left, remains from the original lineup, but the eight-piece crew also included A.C.’s nephew Willis Littlefield. A plaque bearing A.C.’s name is part of the Austin Music Memorial across the street from Threadgill’s at the Long Center. The Bells of Joy play the last Sunday of every month at Threadgill’s, as well as every first Sunday at Stubb’s.
12:15 p.m.: Eastside Players at Geraldine’s. Jazz is the style of choice for brunch at the restaurant and lounge on the fourth floor of the new Hotel Van Zandt in the Rainey Street district. Music runs from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; we arrived between sets, but there might be no better place to wait out a set break than Geraldine’s, which features stunning views of the downtown skyline from its adjoining pool deck.
Guitarist Alex Ballentine leads the Eastside Players, most of whom teach at the Eastside Music School. Guest vocalist Sarah Ulloa joined in for a couple of tunes, but mostly the stage was swinging with sweet sounds from saxophones (Zack Varner, Dan Torosian), guitar (Ballentine, Jamey Cummins), upright bass (Mason Hankamer) and drums (Masumi Jones). We were only there for the music, but the Geraldine’s brunch menu looked quite good, with sweet potato pancakes, short rib quesadillas, ricotta fritters and more.
2:30 p.m.: Mike Vincent Fisher at Thirsty Nickel. After the Sunday brunch gigs, most of Austin goes quiet for an apparent siesta time before several great mid-late afternoon options start up. But after grabbing a slice at our favorite downtown pizza joint Hoboken Pie, we found live music on Sixth Street at the Thirsty Nickel, once part of the sprawling Maggie Mae’s compound.
Sunlight poured in from the front windows as a few folks popped in from the street to hear solo acoustic tunes from Fisher, whose set included covers from the likes of Ben Harper, Bob Marley Cyndi Lauper and Gerry Rafferty plus a few originals from an upcoming EP. “I’ve actually been writing a lot, as much as I can in a little one-bedroom apartment,” said Fisher, who recently returned to Austin from a year in Florida and previously was in local indie band O Conqueror.
4 p.m.: Jake Penrod at Little Longhorn Saloon. A jam-packed crowd inside, and outside, this long-running north-end honky-tonk for its weekly “Chickens—” Bingo festivities made it obvious why former Little Longhorn owner Dale Watson recently started up a second such event on the south side at C-Boy’s. But if many folks came for the game, they likely stayed to witness this major rising talent from the east Texas town of Athens.
We’d caught Penrod at the Continental Club’s recent Ray Price tribute night, and the promise evident in that short performance was on full display at the Little Longhorn. As folks crowded around the chicken cage in the back, Penrod took the room’s small front stage and reeled off great licks on both guitar and pedal steel, explaining that the usual steel player in his Million Dollar Cowboys band couldn’t make this gig.
Penrod sang quite a few terrific originals, some from a soon-to-be-released record. When he turned to covers, he chose remarkably well. Johnny Bush’s “Undo the Right” allowed him to stretch the upper reaches of this classic country voice. And when he played Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas,” he kindly dedicated it to former Tubb guitarist Pete Mitchell, a Buda resident who passed away over the weekend.
4:45 p.m.: Planet Casper at Continental Club. For nine years now, guitarist Casper Rawls has hosted what’s probably the best afternoon show in Austin. A great roots picker with impeccable taste and a reputation that regularly draws out great guests — this, after all, is the guy who got Buck Owens himself to attend the Continental’s Buck Owens birthday gig many years back — Rawls bridges old Austin to new Austin, for the benefit of both.
On this day, guests joining Rawls’ rhythm section of Jim Starboard (drums) and Ivan Brown (bass) included singer Beryl Armstrong and fiddler-guitarist Warren Hood — the latter of whom played the very first Planet Casper gig back in 2007, Rawls recalled. When Hood stepped up front for Walter Hyatt’s “Goin’ to New Orleans,” everything felt right in the Live Music Capital on a Sunday afternoon.
5:15 p.m.: Cornell Hurd Band at ABGB. “I moved to Austin in 1989 to start a band at age 40. You know what they call that in the rest of the world? A bad career move!” Those were Cornell Hurd’s jovial words of wisdom between sets of ABGB’s weekly “Sunday Best” late-afternoon show. On the other hand, he’s now put out more than 20 records, and the healthy crowd at ABGB showed he has plenty of fans who are glad he did it.
Many of them filled the dance floor to twist and twirl as Hurd and his bandmates cranked out twangin’ tunes such as “I’ve Got a Woman in San Angelo” (as seen on “Friday Night Lights,” Hurd reminded the crowd repeatedly) and “Party Time.” We departed at the set break, but for all those who hung around or were just arriving for an ABGB pizza, there was still more music and more daylight to brighten up a beautiful midsummer Sunday.
A sunset bonus: The twilight hour found us at a private party that featured fine jazz trumpeting from Jeff Lofton followed by a short performance from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, in advance of their Tuesday show at the Paramount Theater. Here’s a sneak peek:
Join us again next month as we head back to the evening hours for “One Night in August” — date to be determined.
One Day, By the Numbers: 18.9 miles driven (from Point 1 to Point 6, not including to and from home). $0 spent on parking. (Hurrah for no meters on Sundays!) Admission charges: No cover charge for any of these six events, though partaking in the brunches — or those bingo tickets — can set you back a few bucks.