Uni­ver­sity of Texas’ ven­er­a­ble acous­tic mu­sic venue lives on – but will it keep its spirit?

Thanks to a new op­er­at­ing agree­ment, the Cac­tus Café lives on, right? Well, maybe. And maybe not.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Brad Buchholz AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN STAff

On­stage at the Cac­tus Café, singer Jimmy LaFave strums his gui­tar be­tween songs and squints through the stage lights to­ward the back of the house. “Say, Chris,” he calls out to the man be­hind the bar. “How many years has it been that you’ve worked at the Cac­tus now? It’s got to be 20, right?”

Chris Lueck, the Cac­tus’ burly, soft­hearted bar man­ager, is too mod­est to re­spond at first. But LaFave per­sists un­til he gets the hon­est an­swer: 27 years. The au­di­ence re­acts with gen­uine sur­prise — a com­mu­nal “whoa!” — as if it had just wit­nessed a sec­ond base­man mak­ing a nifty back­hand snag at a base­ball game.

“As far as I’m concerned, you can’t call it the Cac­tus Café if Chris isn’t work­ing here,” LaFave an­swers from the stage. “And I’ll stand on Bill Pow­ers’ cof­fee ta­ble in my cow­boy boots and tell him so.”

LaFave’s com­ment — with its al­lu­sion to Wil­liam Pow­ers, pres­i­dent of the Uni­ver­sity of Texas — ad­dresses the es­sen­tial ques­tion about the fu­ture of the Cac­tus Café. The most renowned acous­tic mu­sic venue in Austin lives on, at least in name. But will its essence sur­vive? Will its spirit en­dure af­ter KUT-FM takes over the op­er­a­tion later this sum­mer?

Like many who love the Cac­tus — and as a long­time pa­tron, there’s no use in me claim­ing ob­jec­tiv­ity here — I want to stand on that cof­fee ta­ble, too. The char­ac­ter of the Cac­tus is es­sen­tially linked with the peo­ple who run it. That means book­ing man­ager Griff Luneb­urg, who be­gan work­ing part-time at the Cac­tus in 1981 and

shaped it into the sen­si­tive lis­ten­ing room we know to­day; Lueck, the club’s noble con­science; and Su­san Svede­man, who for 18 years has im­bued the club (as singer Tom Rus­sell notes) with a “quiet fire” of gen­tle­ness and con­cern. All three started at the Cac­tus as UT stu­dents; all three are UT grad­u­ates.

Luneb­urg — sad-eyed, soft-spo­ken, leo­nine — is as im­por­tant to the Austin singer-song­writer scene as the late Clif­ford An­tone was to Austin blues. Like An­tone, Luneb­urg is about love first, love of mu­sic. But af­ter Butch Han­cock plays the fi­nal night of the Cac­tus sum­mer sea­son on Aug. 14, Luneb­urg is as­signed (by UT) to man­age the Union Un­der­ground, home of the cam­pus’ funky, black-light bowl­ing al­ley.

Lueck and Svede­man re­cently have de­cided to stay on at the Cac­tus af­ter the tran­si­tion — en­cour­ag­ing news, es­pe­cially if the new man­age­ment chooses to honor their con­nec­tion to the Cac­tus her­itage. Luneb­urg could con­ceiv­ably stay as well, as he’s free to ap­ply for the “va­cant” Cac­tus Café man­ager po­si­tion (KUT is the hir­ing en­tity, not the uni­ver­sity), though the dip in his shoul­ders some nights sug­gests the tu­mult of the spring has been break­ing his heart.

Will he do it? Would KUT hire him? Will the new care­tak­ers value those who built the Cac­tus’ rep­u­ta­tion? We will see soon enough.

In the mean­time, the Cac­tus is a club in limbo. The week­end shows have been packed, the con­certs rich with emo­tion. The fa­mil­iar faces — on­stage, at the door, be­hind the bar — are still there. But there’s a “hello, good­bye” sen­sa­tion in the air. Feel­ings of trep­i­da­tion, mixed with hope­ful­ness, mixed with con­cern, mixed with skep­ti­cism.

“It’s kind of like watch­ing a friend die slowly — a friend you know is go­ing to die, and it’s sort of in­evitable,” says singer-song­writer Slaid Cleaves, fear­ing he’s played his last show in the House that Griff Built.

“The only rea­son peo­ple are talk­ing about the Cac­tus at all is Griff and this core staff and the way they run the place. Now: I know there’s some dys­func­tion there. And I un­der­stand bu­reau­cra­cies can’t han­dle that. But I kinda won­der what the point is in keep­ing the Cac­tus open with­out Griff. It’s his vi­sion that has made it what it is. And his dys­func­tion, too. I mean: They kind of go hand in hand.”

For the past five months, mu­si­cians have paid homage to the Cac­tus staff and the Cac­tus legacy on­stage. In words. With mu­sic. “Viva the Cac­tus,” said Joe Ely, last month. “Long live this place.” El­iza Gilkyson con­fessed, “I don’t know what I’ll do” if the Cac­tus goes down — and then closed her show with a new song, ded­i­cated to Griff, about roads of feel­ing, roads of in­tegrity, the road of sac­ri­fice, the road of art.

James McMurtry said noth­ing at all, but put on a fierce, in­tense “gui­tar” show that mir­rored his re­spect for this place, this legacy. The Bat­tle­field Band, from Scot­land, closed their spring

‘It’s kind of like watch­ing a friend die slowly — a friend you know is go­ing to die, and it’s sort of in­evitable.’

SLAid CLeAveS Singer-song­writer, of his last show at the cur­rent in­car­na­tion of the Cac­tus Café

set with their hit tune “Rob­ber Barons” — about greed and abuse of power — and promptly ded­i­cated it to UT pow­ers seek­ing to squash the Cac­tus.

Ray Wylie Hub­bard’s last Cac­tus show was punc­tu­ated by an exquisitely ten­der cover of “Driv­ing Wheel,” which he ded­i­cated to Luneb­urg and de­part­ing KUT ra­dio disc jockey Larry Mon­roe. “I feel like some old en­gine that’s lost my driv­ing wheel,” Hub­bard sang, al­lud­ing to the dis­ori­en­ta­tion that comes in the af­ter­math of loss.

There is an abid­ing hope among some Cac- tus fans that KUT will be a sen­si­tive care­taker. Drum­mer Davis McLar­ity, a re­spected agent in town, expressed as much last week be­tween sets af­ter com­ing off the Cac­tus stage as a mem­ber of Terry Allen’s band. Luneb­urg has al­ways wanted to raise the Cac­tus’ pro­file, and KUT’s fi­nan­cial mus­cle could help that hap­pen.

Yet the Cac­tus fam­ily un­der­stands, acutely, that the en­tity en­trusted with car­ing for the Cac­tus — and its tra­di­tion — showed am­biva­lence for Austin mu­sic tra­di­tion last year when it cut three nights of pro­gram­ming by Paul Ray and Larry Mon­roe. These two DJs are Austin mu­sic leg­ends with vast in­sti­tu­tional me­mory and a sense of taste that tran­scended the trends of the day. Ray sang be­side Ste­vie Ray Vaughan, stood at the cen­ter of Austin’s blues re­nais­sance. Mon­roe con­sis­tently pro­duced some of the most in­de­pen­dent and eclec­tic playlists in ra­dio. And both were ex­pend­able, for the sake of a dif­fer­ent vi­sion.

“You know what’s both­ered me the most?” says singer-songer­witer Terri Hen­drix, think­ing about KUT, think­ing about the Cac­tus. “It’s the cal­lous­ness of it all.”

In the spring, with the Cac­tus in cri­sis, Hen­drix strug­gled to talk sin­cerely about her af­fec­tion for the Cac­tus. She brought pre­pared re­marks, threw them away. From the stage, she looked Chris Lueck straight in the eye and fin­ished the night with her song “Prayer for My Friends.” I’m tak­ing a moment to pray for my friends, A hand­ful of peo­ple on whom I de­pend. Our path­ways are dif­fer­ent But I love them no less. I’m hop­ing their sor­rows you’ll mend, Tonight I pray for my friends.

“All I could think about, look­ing at him, sing­ing that song, was how nice Chris was to me when I was so scared to get on­stage,” says Hen­drix, re­mem­ber­ing the moment. “I thought about Chris. I thought about Griff. I thought about Clif­ford An­tone. Peo­ple who made me feel like when I got on a stage it was com­fort­able to play — be­fore I was ready to play. You can’t teach some­one how to be kind like that.”

Chris Lueck, a man who has known 27 years of mu­sic at the Cac­tus Café, was deeply touched. And as he wiped away his tears at the end of Hen­drix’s song, I re­al­ized he wasn’t the only one.

larry Kolvo­ord pho­tos AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

RAy WyLIE HuB­BARD ‘Viva the Cac­tus,’ singer-song­writer Joe Ely said dur­ing his set last week at the Cac­tus Café. ‘Long live this place.’ The ac­claimed acous­tic mu­sic venue will re­main open, but it might not have the same feel.


James McMurtry brought a fierce gui­tar sound to the stage that of­ten­times hosts acts that are more acous­tic. Butch Han­cock will take the stage on


Griff Luneb­urg has been as­signed by the uni­ver­sity to man­age the Union Un­der­ground.


At a spring show, El­iza Gilkyson ded­i­cated a new song to Luneb­urg.

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