The first Monday during SXSW this year I was invited by an artist I know, to ride with him and his family to Donn’s Depot. I had never been there before, but what a place! That first night I ended up being there, talking with the musicians after the show until the place closed for the night. Last Monday I just had to go back again.
Donn’s Depot is an old Missouri-Pacific railroad depot building that was moved from McNeil, Texas to West 5th Street in Austin, the location where it is now in 1972. The building was expanded with real railroad cars for seating areas, and the women’s restroom is also a box car. Central in the main room is a grand piano with seating around it, plus two chairs and microphone stands for Chris Gage’s guests.
One of the things I really liked at Donn’s Depot is the mix of ages among the audience. Very often, specially in Norway, I belong to the oldest 5% when I go to concerts and festival. At Donn’s I would think I was probably in the middle of the age spread. Here you can see 80 year olds dance with students in their 20’s. The atmosphere is friendly and including, and I very soon felt at home.
Mondays are Chris Gage‘s days at the Depot. Here he presides behind the grand piano, while musical friends sit on the chairs with whatever instrument they play. The first night I was there, his friends included John Emery, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, his wife Christine Albert and Mark Epstein. Last Monday I came late after seeing Dale Watson at the Continental Club first, and then Matt Giles was his guest.
Chris Gage is multi-instrumentalist, playing everything with strings and keys – guitars, banjo, lap steel, violin, mandolin, piano, organ, accordion. His voice is full and, he plays whatever musical style that is put in front of him, and also – as he says – “All keys, major and minor.” He started as a professional musician at 15, and has kept on for 45 years plus. Originally from South Dakota, he moved to Austin in 1991 and soon joined Jimmy Dale Gilmore’s band as a guitarist. After this he became Jerry Jeff Walker’s guitarist. He also performs with his wife, Christine Albert as Albert and Gage.
Monday’s musical menu is always depending on who shows up. I was lucky to hear Christine Albert and Chris Gage together that first night. Among the songs they did was Edith Piaf’s classic La Vie En Rose. Christine Albert is bi-lingual, french and english, and her repertoir is a mix of both languages. She is also the Chair of the National Recording Academy’s Board of Trustees and held the opening speech at this year’s Grammy’s.
When I came to Donn’s Depot the first Monday, John Emery was singing his songs with Chris Gage. After him Chris Gage’s old bandleader Jimmy Dale Gilmore took the chair and sang some of his songs. Jimmy Dale has been one of my favorite Austin artists for a long time, and his band was also the first band I saw at The Black Cat on 6th Street the first time I was in Austin in the mid 90’s.
The last guest was bassist Mark Epstein. He played with Johnny Winter in the 90’s, and I met him the first time some years ago when he moved from Hawaii to Austin. What I remember best from Mark and Chris Gage’s collaboration, is the closing song, John Hiatt’s Have A Little Faith – one of the best songs I know. They did a beautiful version with Chris on vocals and piano and Mark on bass with a tasteful and virtuoso bass solo.
This last Monday Donn’s Depot had fewer people, probably a result of SXSW fatigue, but Chris Gage still played until 1.30 AM as always. The musical guest I saw that night was Matt Giles, one of the many great guitarists in Austin. Again the communication between the two musician was relaxed, highly professional and with some surprises, among them a slow version of Alex Chilton’s The Box Tops’ big hit The Letter.
If you live in Austin, or are visiting Austin, you should definitely spend at least one night at Donn’s Depot. The place itself is worth the visit, with its always friendly bartender. And if you go there on a Monday night, you will also hear Chris Gage with one of more of his friends. Who knows, maybe Jerry Jeff Walker also joins him that night?
All pictures are © Per Ole Hagen and must not be used without written permission.