Chronicle Live Music Venue Guide

Liberty Lunch

A landmark of the Texas state capital's rich and vibrant live music scene, Liberty Lunch has been the crown jewel of Austin concert venues since developers tore down the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters nearly two decades ago. Opened in 1976 on the former site of a turn-of-the-century lumberyard, founded by Michael Shelton and Shannon Sedwick, who later started up Sixth Street's musical comedy theatre Esther's Follies, Liberty Lunch began booking local and touring acts in earnest two years later, quickly establishing the outdoor venue as a favorite gathering place among local fans of live music.

Photo of Ward at Liberty Lunch.

J'Net Ward of Liberty Lunch

photograph by John Carrico

Making its name in the early/mid-Eighties as the Central Texas stopover for reggae and world music, Liberty Lunch flourished in the Nineties under the ownership of Mark Pratz and J'Net Ward, two of the club's longtime bookers/promoters, who took over the lease in 1992 (Ward became sole owner last year). Having replaced the front wall, upgraded the Lunch's sound system, and added an outdoor beer garden to the now-mostly-enclosed former shed, Pratz and Ward have turned the club (capacity 1,000) into Austin's undisputed "Best Place to Hear Live Music" according to 10 consecutive years of Chronicle Reader's Poll ballots.

Unlike most local clubs, Liberty Lunch's size and the fact they book and promote a wildly divergent breadth of music -- as opposed to the more niche-market-oriented cornerstones of the local music scene like Antone's or the Broken Spoke -- give the funky, mural-encased venue with nary a bad vantage point in the house an unparalleled sense of community not seen since the days of the Armadillo; after all, just about everyone has seen a show there (the club estimates 150,000 people pass through its doors annually). In a city where music is commerce, Liberty Lunch is its open-air marketplace.

Currently, the city of Austin is doing its best to tear down Liberty Lunch, a venue most local live music fans consider a landmark. Proposing a plan to locate a large information technology company on the site of the concert venue, the city acknowledges the development of retail, a museum, and public plaza in the area -- thanks in part to the fact that the Schneider General Store, a designated historical landmark that sits on the northeast corner of the Lunch's lot, can't be torn down -- but has yet to realize that building around the club might ultimately make the citizens of this city happier than installing a Payless Shoes store on the retail-designated ground floor of the Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) building.

-- Raoul Hernandez