Commentary: Countdown at the Cactus

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Commentary: Countdown at the Cactus

Onstage at the Cactus Cafe, 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, soft-hearted 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 Cafe 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 Cafe. 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 Cafe 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 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 Cactus 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 Cafe, 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.

Cactus Cafe shows

Paula Held plays an encore CD release show at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 6 (free). The Austin Lounge Lizards play at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, July 10 ($18), and Eliza Gilkyson is scheduled to play at 8:30 p.m. July 16 ($20). The Cactus is at 24th and Guadalupe streets inside the Texas Union on the University of Texas campus.

See the full schedule and more details at www.utexas.edu/ txunion/ae/cactus.

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