Embracing the Cactus

Updated Jan 30, 2010

This story originally published January 29, 2004.

The Cactus Cafe is the ghost of Townes Van Zandt, haggard and thin, maybe sober, probably not, slouched on a tall stool in the middle of the stage, somehow tangled in the strap of his guitar. He is fighting demons and summoning angels, explaining to us how songs can fly to you through open windows . . . and at last singing that transcendent line about the sound of raindrops on a conga drum.

The Cactus Cafe is Scottish folk singer Ed Miller standing on the same stage, musing about bodies of water as metaphors for separation -- and an audience who thinks it the most pertinent banter in the world. The Cactus is the memory of a young Lyle Lovett and cellist John Hagen finishing another free show with "Closing Time." The Cactus is gypsy-flamenco ensemble Rajamani inviting the audience to dance. It is Austin singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson leading it in a singalong for peace. It is bluegrass icon Bill Monroe leading it in prayer.

The Cactus Cafe is Alejandro Escovedo at the end of a midnight set -- leaving the stage and leading his band, violin and cello and all, into the audience to serenade us with a goodnight song. It is Butch Hancock singing "Leo and Leona" and "Pancho and Lefty" and "Split and Slide," and "Own and Own," considering the sacred and the profane, mixing existential tongue twisters with some very bad jokes. What do you call a bear that's proficient at using the Internet? A virtual-oso, of course. What a planet . . .

The Cactus Cafe is a live music club, warm and welcoming, the most intimate listening room you will find in Texas. In a town renowned for its funky and audacious music venues -- The Armadillo! Liberty Lunch! Stubb's! The Broken Spoke! The Continental Club! -- this public cafe on the ground floor of the University of Texas student union is as understated as a whisper. Yet the Cactus stands out as the place to savor acoustic music, an Austin institution that in February celebrates its 25th anniversary with a month of all-star shows featuring everyone from Shawn Colvin to Robert Earl Keen to Loudon Wainwright III.

"The Cactus is a sacred place for a singer-songwriter," says Ray Wylie Hubbard, one of the Cactus' most popular draws during the past year. "But it's not folk church, either. It's friendly. From the moment you walk in, you feel history in there. You feel a bond with the audience, something that says, 'We're all on the same side. We feel the music.' It's like that line from the old Van Zandt tune: We're all here for the sake of the song."

To know the Cactus is to love it, provided you can get past some of its prickly little ground rules. The Cactus means no smoking, no easy parking, no credit cards, no talking over the music (a big one), no reserved seats, no trendy drinks at the bar. They'll happily draw you a pint of Guinness at the Cactus. But don't even ask the bartender for a Red Bull-and-vodka or the latest low-carb beer.

The Cactus Cafe is a spare and simple room, concrete walls and sublime acoustics, burgundy stage curtain and round wooden tables, small cactus plants set against wooden window shutters. There are 150 chairs, maximum. So if you want a prime seat for show that may sell out, you'd better show up an hour before the show -- and wait in line, outside the door.

It can seem like work, going to the Cactus Cafe. But investment is central to its aura. The people who come out for a show want to be there, and they really come to listen -- which makes the shows all the more special. Music is golden at the Cactus, and so is the atmosphere. If a patron orders a margarita during a set of music, the bartender will actually shake the drink in another room as a gesture of respect for the musicians on stage.

"The customers. I think they're the real story of the Cactus," says Susan Svedeman, who has worked behind the bar for 12 years, adding it's a rare night when she doesn't recognize at least half the people in the audience. "The people who come here are intelligent, cultured and well-mannered, and the fact that they are willing to seek out something different means a lot to me. They're not about Top 40 or watching TV. They want to come out and see something unique, something real.

"At the Cactus, you're right there. You sit close to the performer. You can feel the emotion in the songs. This is no chain restaurant. You didn't choose to come to some place that's all shiny and plastic-y. You came to feel something, and that's what you get at the Cactus."

Living a dream

Griff Luneburg is the 46-year-old caretaker of the Cactus Cafe: its manager, its booking agent and its creative conscience for more than 22 years. Griff's wavy blond mane gives him a faintly leonine aura. But he's a gentle soul, self-effacing to a fault, forever devoted to the beauty of poetry in song.

We meet him now in the magnificent shamble that is his backstage office. He's sitting at his desk, talking on the phone, tilting backward in his chair in such a way that he's able to prop his foot against the wall. Look closely to where his boot rests. Griff has been at the Cactus for so many years that he's scuffed all the way through the Sheetrock and rubbed his footprint down to wood support beam.

"I can truly say I've lived my dream," says Griff, whose destiny was forged at age 17 when he bought an eight-track tape of Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" -- just something to play in the car on the way to the beach. "I used to say, 'You know what I want to do with my life? I want to run a singer-songwriter's club just like Gertie's Folk City, where Dylan came out of in his old Greenwich Village days.' And here I am!"

The walls of Griff's office -- and the Cactus itself -- are jammed with posters that celebrate the glory of the Cactus. Ralph Stanley. Richard Thompson. Gillian Welch. Iris DeMent. Patty Griffin. A lot of the posters are pieces of art. But some of the vintage ones with hand-scratched block letters tell a bigger story: "Lucinda Williams, solo. Her guitar. Her songs." Griff points to a Nanci Griffith poster. "She was the first artist to ever play for a cover charge here." October 1982. Students got in for a buck, the public paid $2.

Although the Cactus Cafe is celebrating a 25-year anniversary, the room is as old as the student union, which was built in the 1930s. In those early days, it was known as the Chuckwagon -- a student diner with stainless steel bar stools encircling a U-shaped chrome counter. Eventually it became a student lounge; some Austin music fans remember seeing a very young Willis Alan Ramsey playing the room several years before the union renovation of 1974.

Griff started working behind the bar in 1981, when the Cactus was a night venue for cover bands. But in '82, he took over the booking and began showcasing singer-songwriters. And while Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt were its early staples, the Cactus became a training ground for a new wave of Texas singer-songwriters -- Lyle Lovett, Darden Smith, Jimmy LaFave, Robert Earl Keen -- all of whom started out playing for free on weekday nights.

In the beginning, Lovett would play for no charge, three sets a night, before a handful of friends. "I'd pay him $90," recalls Griff, who graduated from UT with a degree in government but never really left campus. "He was a gracious, Southern gentleman with an urban flair. He never really drew anybody at first, but he was so good, you know? By the time we first charged a cover for him, I think he was drawing 50 or 60 people, on a regular basis, without a cover. So we decided, OK." The charge: $3.

"If you were trying to get the word out that you had something to say as a singer-songwriter, you had to play the Cactus Cafe," recalls Keen, who will play three Cactus shows in February, his first visit to the club in a decade. "It's no exaggeration to say there was a family atmosphere in there. My sister and I shared a house with Griff's girlfriend, Mary, in those days. We'd go down to the Cactus together all the time on our nights off, just to shoot the breeze."

The Cactus' reputation as a listening room grew as quickly as its reputation for staging top talent. Griff never put up a "No Talking" sign, like you might find at the famous Birchmere in Virginia. The Cactus audience just seemed to pick up on it.

"I like artists. I understand what's important to them," says Griff. "I try to put myself in an empathetic place and accommodate an environment where they can do music from their heart on stage. And people do leave their heart up there, man."

Keen, who matured as a songwriter and performer on the Cactus stage, says the audience there taught him to write songs for real people -- as opposed to worrying about which Nashville superstar might want to record them. The Cactus taught him it was safe to take a risk, to sing from his heart, to breathe, even to eat a hamburger on stage for a laugh if the spirit moved him.

"More than any other place, the Cactus taught me about songs and how songs work," he says. "Because it was such a listening audience, I would play a new song and know from the reaction if the song was gonna fly or just be a flash in the pan. It got me thinking, 'Will these songs work for this audience?' It shaped the way I think today. It shaped the way I still write today."

"Whenever I write a new song, I totally imagine the Cactus," adds singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, picking up on Keen's thought. "I see the faces in the audience -- supportive, psyched, ready to go down every avenue you might take them. I totally imagine that song, and how will that present to those people. 'Will they love it? Will they get it?' The visualization helps me in the writing. The Cactus is absolutely the room that I imagine a song being played for the first time."

For the sake of the song

Townes Van Zandt looks over the shoulder of every musician who plays the Cactus Cafe, seven years after his death. We see him now, his haggard face on a black-and-white concert poster that hangs beside the club's south doors, just left of the stage. Townes signed this very poster after one of his last shows: "Cactus. My home club."

Griff moved this poster from behind the bar and placed it at this special spot several years ago -- taking pains to hang it above a small sign that says, "No Alcohol Beyond This Point."

Townes would have appreciated the irony. He drank too much. Everyone knew it. But he was more likely to laugh about it, darkly, than to deny it. Townes' genius was forever tangled up with his demons. It is exactly the kind of joke he would have told about himself.

Griff estimates Townes Van Zandt played a hundred nights at the Cactus Cafe -- shows that were alternately stunning and heartbreaking and sorrowful and transcendent. You'd never know from night to night, set to set. He was gloriously inconsistent.

"It was a privilege to book Townes, even though some of those shows were some of the most stressful nights of my music life," says Griff. "Townes had a real love for the club. He felt safe here. Maybe because we kept booking him when so many other clubs wouldn't. Even the shows he blew . . . they had a certain beauty to them."

Local singer-songwriters -- especially Butch Hancock -- turned out in force whenever Townes played the Cactus, a gesture of respect to a man considered the finest Texas singer-songwriter of his generation. The bar staff was adept at watering down Townes' drinks in an attempt to keep him sober. It became an affectionate joke between them: A shot of Van Zandt Vodka was seven parts water, one part vodka.

Everyone has a Townes story. The night he collapsed from exhaustion in the middle of "Tecumseh Valley." The night he fell asleep on stage. The night he lapsed into a hallucinatory monologue and pointed an imaginary pistol at the crowd, scanned the room and wondered what it would feel like to pull the trigger. The night he played "If I Needed You" with such heart-wrenching honesty it brought tears to our eyes.

During a Butch Hancock set in 1990, Townes surprised the Cactus by jumping onto the stage from the audience -- where in the world did he come from? -- as Butch was in the middle of "Split and Slide II." Townes stayed on stage only for a few seconds, just long enough to sing one couplet that makes a playful allusion to Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty": "All the federales said/we don't want 'em alive or dead." Then he raced out the back exit and disappeared into the night. "No one saw him again for three weeks," says Hancock.

For all his inconsistencies, Townes failed to appear for a Cactus show only one time. The story goes that he fell and broke his arm on a houseboat and couldn't get to a phone to cancel. Griff knew something was wrong whenTownes missed the afternoon sound check. After waiting an hour beyond show time -- close to 10 o'clock -- Van Zandt's guitar player, Mickey White, took the stage and played a few songs in the hopes that Townes might yet walk in the door and save the day.

Then Lyle Lovett walked in. . . .

"I saw him right away and said, 'Lyle, man. Townes isn't here. Can you go up and play a few?' So Lyle gets up there, with no warm-up, and starts playing Townes' 'Flyin' Shoes.' Keep in mind that this was before Lyle's first record had even come out.

"Lyle played 'til about 10:30 or 11. Still no Townes. So finally I say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for coming out. Looks like Townes isn't gonna make it tonight. Then we played (the classic Townes album) "Live at the Old Quarter" over the P.A. system -- and everybody stayed, and listened to it!"

Alone, but not lonely

During a five o'clock sound check, the Cactus Cafe is rich with the sound of whistle and fiddle. The Sarah Dinan Band, a local Celtic group, is warming up their instruments for tonight's show. A young man with a long, blond ponytail approaches Griff with an earnest request.

"Excuse me," he says. "Do you have an oven here?"

It's for the drum. The man wants to heat the goatskin cover of his djembe -- a three-foot tall African drum that looks like a giant cupcake mounted on a thick, sticklike pedestal. It's all for the sake of the sound, he says. The heat will stretch the goatskin, making for a more genuine tone.

What to do? Griff turns on the overhead stage lights, the drummer climbs up a ladder toting his giant drum -- and the goatskin gets stretched by the warmth of the colored lamps. "Write this down," says Griff. "Twenty-five years at the Cactus, but this is a first."

Although the Cactus is renowned as a haven for singer-songwriters, it has evolved into something much more diverse. The Cactus is bluegrass. It is Celtic music. It is gypsy music. It is guitar virtuosos. It can even be jazz. Griff has booked everyone from Ani DiFranco to the California Guitar Trio to Doc Watson to Gatemouth Brown to Czech bluegrass ensemble Druha Trava.

"A lot of European bands really like the Cactus because it reminds them of home," says Svedeman, the bartender. "They feel comfortable here. People come to listen. We have a lot of European customers, in fact." Svedeman says she didn't care at all about Celtic music before working at the Cactus. Yet this summer, she'll be traveling with her husband to Scotland to visit members of The Battlefield Band -- a touring Celtic ensemble that so charmed the Cactus staff that they became lasting friends.

Griff has a special affection for bluegrass, whether the player is Tim O'Brien or Del McCoury or the Gourds. One of the most touching nights in Cactus history involved the late, legendary Bill Monroe -- who, upon arriving in Austin, had been informed that his daughter was seriously ill in Nashville. He was on the telephone for most of the afternoon.

"He was very distraught, calling the hospital all through sound check, just to make sure she was OK. We didn't know, 'til the very end, whether the show was going to happen at all. Finally, he said, 'Well. I'm here. She seems to be doin' all right. Let's do the show.' "

Monroe played two shows. Near the end of the last one, he stopped and shared with the audience he'd received some bad news about his daughter, that she was seriously ill, perhaps near death. Griff remembers Monroe saying, very softly, "It would really mean a lot to me if you could all stand up for a moment and pray with me."

"Everybody stood up. They held hands. Monroe said a little prayer on stage." Here, Griff's voice begins to break as he finishes the story. "Then he played 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' and followed that up with 'Amazing Grace.' Everybody just stood, the whole time -- still holding hands. I swear, I still get emotional just talking about it. And then he left the stage. End of show. There was no encore. It was maybe the most emotional moment we've ever had in here."

Closing time

The Cactus Cafe is that instant of holding hands, understanding that music in its most sublime form washes away all those barriers between artist and audience, that it is something communal, that it speaks to something universal. The Cactus Cafe is both that instant and that memory. The Cactus Cafe is that feeling that lingers.

The Cactus Cafe is the woman who brings her knitting with her as she waits in line at the door. The Cactus is Happy Jack, the guy with a braided beard and jingle bells on his shoes, who for the love of song embroidered the Cactus Cafe sign that hangs above the stage. The Cactus is the probability, on most nights, that there will be more gray hair in the audience than pierced body parts.

The Cactus Cafe is Butch Hancock telling the house "I've run out of songs" at the end of a set -- only to hear a voice from the back of the room shout back. "Oh, come on. What about the other hundred songs you know how to play?"

Butch addresses his heckler. "Why don't you come up here and help me with one, J.T.? Ladies and gentlemen, let's hear it for J.T. Van Zandt." J.T., of course, is the son of Townes Van Zandt. Enthusiastically, J.T. takes the stage. He's tall and thin like his dad, dressed in jeans and pullover sweater.

With his guitar resting on his knee, Butch breaks into "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," one of Townes' favorite songs. It's about a war hero whose great acts of courage and selflessness have been forgotten by a callous culture. Butch sings softly. J.T. stands off his shoulder, leaning forward to the microphone to sing every other verse. He looks down at the floor. He jams his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. Everyone in the house is thinking about the beauty of this song -- and the man who so often sang it in this room.

The Cactus Cafe is comprehending all the beauty and the poignance of this moment. "Gosh, how I wish someone had brought a camera," Griff says softly from his seat at the mixing board when the lights come up. "What I'd give for a picture. There's no record of any of this at all . . ." *

bbuchholz@statesman.com, 912-2967

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