Chronicle Live Music Venue Guide

Cactus Cafe

The Cactus Cafe is somewhat of an anomaly in the Austin music scene, as the artists that grace its stage are often larger than the club itself. Tucked in the Student Union building on the University of Texas campus (it can be a bit difficult to find, but just ask any passing student), the Cactus has been a haven for singer-songwriters and folkies since it opened its doors in 1975. The intimate room (capacity 156) regularly features major-label talent and developing artists. National treasures and true Texans like Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith played the Cactus in the fledgling stages of their careers, and legends such as Townes Van Zandt played the club on a regular basis up until the end (R.I.P. Townes). Other notables that have walked through its doors include Graham Parker, Iris DeMent, the Cowboy Junkies, Richard Buckner, Steve Forbert, and literally hundreds of others.

Photo of Cactus Cafe sign.

photograph by John Carrico

Befitting the musicians who play there, the Cactus has quietly established an impeccable reputation over the years among both artists and patrons, and the small setting virtually guarantees laid-back, loose, and friendly performances. About the only drawback to the Cactus is that any background noise in the room (incidental chatter, etc.) is unusually audible, but the crowds are typically mild-mannered, and for proximity to the performer, the place can't be beat. Tickets are almost always sold at the door only. As part of the university, the Cactus is subject to a few quirks: If it's near finals time, forget about parking, and at Christmas, the Cactus takes its holiday break just like the students. Finally, and this is a bonus for some while a pain in the ass for others, the Cactus Cafe is a smoke-free club, as is every university building. So, if you want a butt, you have to step out on the back porch. If it makes you feel any better, so do the performers. -- Michael Bertin