Butch Hancock couldn't have planned a better time for a repeat performance.
Twenty years ago, Lubbock's lyrical light was kicking around ideas for a multi-night stand at the Cactus Cafe with the club's manager, Griff Luneburg. "I was thinking that maybe I'd cover a different artist every night, like Billy Joe Shaver one night and Johnny Cash the next," says Hancock, who aged us all when he turned 65 last month. "But then Griff said, 'You have enough material to just do your own stuff every night'" for a week.
Thus Hancock's "No Two Alike" marathon of witty, touching, detailed songcraft was born. Over five consecutive nights in early 1990, Hancock performed only his original songs, repeating not a single one. Think of that: two 90-minute sets a night for five nights in a row. And when it was over, Hancock still had more material, so Luneburg tacked on a sixth night.
The 140 original Butch tunes from that special week, which drew 27 guest performers, including fellow Flatlanders Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely, were released on 14 cassettes.
With Luneburg's controversial departure as manager of the Cactus looming, it's only fitting that "the iconic years" close out with a reprise of Luneburg's greatest booking feat. Public radio station KUT takes over management of the Cactus next week, though Luneburg says he'll continue to help book the club until at least December.
Hancock says he's held off requests for a repeat of "N2A" through the years because "I kept thinking back to (1990), when I was wondering, 'What have I gotten myself into?'" It seemed crazy then and it seems crazy now, he says of the "one big spontaneous question mark" played out in front of a red curtain.
"I ran into (Boston folk singer) Ellis Paul up at Woody Fest (in Oklahoma) and he'd just done something similar," Hancock says over dinner at La Cabana in Smithville, with his longtime partner Adrienne Evans, her 15-year-old daughter, Katy, and their 12-year-old son, Rory. To mark his 20th year in the music business, Paul performed his eight solo albums in chronological order over four nights.
"Ellis asked me how I did it. Did I have to use cheat sheets (lyrics written out) on some songs?" Paul was impressed to learn that Hancock sang all his tunes from memory over those six nights. "If you don't stop doing a song, you don't forget it," Hancock explains. He never uses a set list for his solo shows and likes to pull out songs he hasn't done in a while, much to the pleasure of his loyal following.
Luneburg joined the Hancock cult in 1978, right after moving here from Houston to attend the University of Texas. Hancock released his first album, "West Texas Waltzes and Dustblown Tractor Tunes," earlier that year.
"Butch Hancock is the very first act I saw in Austin," says Luneburg, 52. "It was at Sun Fest at Auditorium Shores." Luneburg was a big Bob Dylan fan, and he found the Texas version that day. "Butch announced from the stage that his album was available at the Alamo Lounge, and the next day I went over and bought it."
Hancock has played the Cactus more than anyone else, Luneburg says, guessing "at least 200 times."
Hancock, who moved to Terlingua in 1997 and currently splits time between there and Wimberley, describes Luneburg as "a father, a mother, a sister and a brother all mixed into one" to the acts he's booked. "He takes care of us, first by making sure the sound is perfect." For many years, Luneburg also ran the room's sound board in the back.
Hancock's attention is taken away from the interview for a few minutes, as Rory finds an open space in the restaurant to show some of the extravagant yo-yo tricks he's been practicing. Like his father, Rory makes the improbable look so easy.
When Luneburg first saw Hancock at the Cactus, which opened in 1979, Griff was a bartender at the 150-capacity listening room. In '83, he took over the booking and gave the mainstays of Guadalupe Street folk club Emmajoe's, which had just closed, a place to play.
Luneburg's first big discoveries were Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, but through the years, the singer-songwriters who best embodied the Cactus as a place where words brought laughter and tears (and, for musicians, the impetus to go home and write better songs), were Townes Van Zandt and Butch Hancock.
Van Zandt, who died of a heart attack in 1997 at age 52, provided the most memorable moment of the first "N2A" when he made a cameo during "Split & Slide II." The quirky epic references a line from Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" at the end, and when it got to that part, Van Zandt almost magically appeared onstage, sang "and all the Federales say, they could've had him any day" and disappeared out the back door. "Nobody saw him for months after that," says Luneburg.
Folks are flying in from all over the country for "No Two Alike II," which promises even more guests than 20 years ago as the songwriting stunt has turned into a de facto homage to Luneburg, who has been reassigned to manage the Texas Union Underground, which has blacklight bowling, whee! All 70 five-day passes to "N2A" quickly sold out, with the remaining 80 tickets per night to be sold at the door the night of each show. The lines should be brutal.
"I still don't really know what went down," Hancock says of the Jan. 29 decision, since reversed after public outcry, to close the Cactus for budgetary reasons. "My first thought was that the people who ran it and who played there are very resilient human beings. Everything comes and goes — the spirit would just move somewhere else."
The whole strange saga was reminiscent of a rock band that wants to get a new bass player, but instead of firing the current one, they break up the band and reform a few months later with a new bass player. But what the Texas Unionettes don't seem to realize is that Luneburg was a key element of the band. He had the best taste in music. So what if he didn't want to do the group bow at the end of shows?
Hancock, whose best-known compositions have been covered by Emmylou Harris ("If You Were a Bluebird") and Joe Ely ("She Never Spoke Spanish to Me," "Boxcars," "Down on the Drag"), has seen good clubs die. When the original Saxon Pub, Spellman's, emmajoe's and the Alamo Lounge shuttered up, they left the songs outside for a while, but they eventually found a stage, an audience.
Like Hancock's set list over the next five (and possibly six) nights, the Cactus is different from all the others. And yet quite similar at the core. You go there to hear songs that make you more alive.
During the transition, Luneburg has had nothing but good things to say about KUT: a booking consultant role for Luneburg seems quite possible.
Rather than a funeral, this week's shows should feel more like a celebration of how the passion of the Austin music scene saved a landmark venue.
Couldn't ask for a better guide than Hancock, who always seems to bring the best out of everybody.
Rory ends his impromptu set at La Cabana with a trick that makes it look as if the yo-yo is asleep on the strings; then he pulls his arms apart and the yo-yo flies to the ceiling and snaps into a series of crazy loops. Some in the restaurant clap; everyone goes back to their dinners.
Butch Hancock: ‘No Two More Alike' 20th Anniversary with guest stars
When: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: 8:30 p.m., $15, Friday and Saturday, 8:30 p.m., $20
Where: Cactus Cafe, University of Texas campus