Stick Around, Say Damn: Inside the Cactus Cafe’s Tuesday Open Mic

Songwriters connect under Jake Farr’s ground rules

The Cactus Cafe stage in 2022 (Photo by Wikicannibal / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Artist Dave Hanson beelines toward a post-performance cold one. His black guitar case thuds against the wooden counter, and the bartender behind shatters a shot glass.

“Ah, I feel like that was my fault,” stammers Hanson, an Austin transplant and recording engineer. On this particular Tuesday in February, it’s his third time singing at the Cactus Cafe’s Songwriters’ Open Mic, free for both performers and guests. It’s one of his first times testing solo material under the stage name Dave Endlessly, alongside playing in the Juniper Berries.

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” chuckles the bartender, sweeping up the few shards dropped on the tile. “You were real great tonight.”

Nestled beside a study lounge in the Texas Union, the Cactus Cafe has been a mecca for Austin music since 1979. Each Tuesday night, so as not to interfere with artists’ weekend gigs, songwriters gather to sing, play, be vulnerable, and connect through music. The gathering is open to University of Texas students and non-students alike.

Concert posters outside the Cactus Cafe in 2021 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

By 15 minutes before the 7:30pm showtime, every seat is full – from the small, round tables in front of the wedge-shaped stage to the folding chairs lining the walls beneath posters of David Garza, Lucinda Williams, and more Texas music icons who’ve played the Cactus. A hum of folk tracks, great to see you’s, and pre-show jitters accompanies 40 emerging artists as they try to secure a spot on organizer Jake Farr’s lineup of precisely 24 performers.

“In order to have something that really resonates with people, there’s got to be rules and there has to be a specific person that it’s for,” says Farr. A singer-songwriter and guitar instructor, he’s been running the show since February 2022 (when the Cactus reopened under UT management following the end of a decade-long agreement with KUT/KUTX).

“So by making the open mic very intentionally for songwriters, they’re all gonna be here. It's an expectation that people who come regularly are not just coming to play their song and leave but to stick around, whether they make it on the list to play or not, and be a part of this community.”

If musicians want to perform, they have to follow Farr’s playground rules: stay until the end, take no more than five minutes onstage (including tuning and introductions), remain quiet and off their phone during songs, and never sing covers. For songwriters who don’t land on tonight’s list but watch the entire show, the organizer guarantees a set next week.

Farr announces the night’s lineup, noting which artists are “again’s.” An ode to Babylonian stars on a green ukulele, piano ballads of love lost, and fedora-sporting Americana players precede Dayra Soto, who carries her guitar to the stage as if it might break at any moment. She graduated from Texas A&M in December with every intention to become a therapist, but that’s not what brings her joy.

“Music is my fuel,” Soto says. “I couldn’t wait anymore to live the life I wanted to live, as a musician.”

Shifting on the wooden stool and lowering the mic, Soto launches into “Adeline,” a smooth, vibrato-heavy tribute to her niece. Rowdy Fingers, a road-tripping artist from Grand Rapids, Michigan, taps his cowboy boot in time with the gentle rhythm. Soto throws her head back, strums her final chord, and jokes that for $5, she’ll play in anyone’s living room.

For songwriters who don’t land on tonight’s list but watch the entire show, the organizer guarantees a set next week.

On deck, Rowdy surveys the room. He mounts the stage and pulls the microphone toward him in one fluid motion. “This is a song about appreciating whatchu got,” he opens, soon belting “she’s the only stick I’m shifting” to a crowd shaking with laughter at the love song for his disheveled 1990 Honda Civic.

“He murdered it up there,” says Ellery Yates, a UT student and Cactus bartender, from behind the empty cups and full tip jars. She says “Damn, Rowdy Fingers” with the audience – an affirmation reserved for singers who perform a particularly impressive set, or step out of their comfort zone.

Guests of artists are as supportive as parents at a little league baseball game – beaming, videoing (without flash, to hide transgression of Farr’s rule). Side conversations cease at the door. Farr cries at a song about valuing your grandparents. An artist shouts “You got it, buddy!” when a fellow singer momentarily forgets his lyrics. Couples kiss and wrap arms around each other in the dark and intimate room.

Outside the Cactus Cafe in 2021 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Just one spotlight beams onto the stage, and even after attending the Cactus’s open mic “like clockwork” since 2017, Tyler McLaughlin still feels its heat.

“When I get in the Cactus and I sit down, my stomach is just like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It really is churning and burning,” McLaughlin says. “But the butterflies can’t get me down. That’s energy I’m being given to perform.”

At age 2, McLaughlin says he climbed onto the grand piano in his house (one he still owns 46 years later), touched a key, and felt his soul “open up wide.” He recreates that feeling at the Cactus. “Open mic is my church,” he says.

Last week, the singer-songwriter didn’t make the set list. Tonight, he bounds up to center stage.

“It’s Tuesday night again, my friends, in Austin on the Drag. My stomach’s wound up so good, cause I wanna play music so bad,” McLaughlin sings, earning whoops and the clink of toasting glasses. “Say damn, y’all.”

The Cactus Cafe’s final open mics of the semester land on Tuesday, April 23 and 30 before pausing in May. Singups are open from 7-7:25pm, and the show runs from 7:30-9:30pm. The Songwriters’ Open Mics will resume in June. Find all concerts on the Cactus calendar.

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Cactus Cafe, Jake Farr, Dave Hanson, Dave Endlessly, Dayra Soto, Rowdy Fingers, Tyler McLaughlin

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