The Cactus Cafe turns 25

Griff Luneburg
Griff Luneburg (Photo By John Anderson)

Cactus Flowers

The first coffeehouse in Austin. The first local music venue to go entirely smoke-free (in 1992). The first Austin stage to host everyone from Daniel Johnston and Poi Dog Pondering to Ani DiFranco and Jason Mraz. And for many Austinites, their first and only choice for an intimate evening of live music.

Tucked away in a corner of the Texas Union on the western edge of the UT campus, the Cactus Cafe has changed little since opening in February 1979. The original beams and lights from the Union's 1932 construction are intact, but when general manager and artistic director Griff Luneburg arrived as a student in 1981, the room was missing something important: a stage.

"We would drag in a little sound system from the audiovisual department," remembers Luneburg. "One of those little Peavey mixer things that everybody has."

Luneburg, who traces his love of singer-songwriters to discovering Bob Dylan while at Spring High School near Houston, began as a bartender before taking over the booking reins from the Texas Union Programming Office in late 1982. He wanted to bring in folks he was hearing at then local clubs like the Alamo Lounge and emmajoe's, so he booked a month of Thursdays featuring Nanci Griffith, Butch Hancock & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Lucinda Williams, and David Rodriguez. Cover was $1 for students and $2 for nonstudents.

Other early regulars included College Station buddies Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, Darden Smith, and Townes Van Zandt, who made the club his Austin home base. Soon after, out-of-towners like Dave Van Ronk and Suzanne Vega were calling up wanting to play the Cactus' newly built stage. "We just kept with it and haven't really looked back," figures Luneburg.

Over the years, Luneburg says the club's relationship with the UT administration has been mostly cordial. "It brings people back to the university who maybe graduated here and don't have a reason to come back," he points out, "or it brings people who have never been here on campus to look around."

What they find, alumni or not, is Austin's premier venue for singer-songwriters, bluegrass, and Celtic music, where the distractions of smoke and conversation are conspicuously absent. Audiences and performers alike have repaid the Cactus with unflagging loyalty.

"I've been to other clubs, and the artists, they're employees," Luneburg says. "They're there to sell drinks. We don't look at it that way."

The Cactus Cafe celebrates its 25th anniversary all month long.

My Cactus

Four locals who play there often explain why the Cactus has a special place in their hearts:

SLAID CLEAVES: "Griff's honesty and insistence on high quality forced me to work harder on my craft. And my craftiness, too; I took a job as a sound guy there mainly so I could be Johnny-on-the-spot when he needed an opener."

DAVÍD GARZA: "This is the first place I saw Daniel Johnston, the first place I saw Rick Danko, the first place I saw Jane Siberry, the first place I saw Townes. ... It really does go back to Griff. I think Griff is a seriously huge, huge part of why the Cactus is even here."

ED MILLER: "I've had an annual 50th birthday party concert there for 'several' years now, an evening of Scottish and Latin music. I share the event with my old compadre Pipo Hernandez from Spain, and we both have our families perform with us, which is a real treat."

KEVIN RUSSELL, the Gourds: "The first few times I played there, the intensity of the silence was terrifying. Some of my most nervous shows were there. I had been brought up in loud, smoky bars. The concept of a listening room was wonderful, but once you found yourself up there, 'tis not for the insecure."


To Live Is to Fly

One of the myriad posters on the Cactus' walls is for a September 1993 Townes Van Zandt show the artist autographed to "my home club." Griff Luneburg explains why:

"Townes would always leave his heart on the stage. When he was done, he was done. He'd go in the back room, squat down, put his guitar in the case, start packing up, and never do an encore. People would always clap for more, but he was done, man.

"One night he did an amazingly spectacular show, one of the best Townes shows I ever saw here. We turned the lights up, hit the music, but people wouldn't quit clapping. I knew Townes didn't do encores, and I went back there and said, 'Townes, man, they really want you back. They won't leave.'

"This went on for like five minutes. He looked at me and said, 'That's a gen-u-wine encore.' And he got back up there and did one."

Prickly Pears

Griff Luneburg's choices for the Cactus Hall of Fame, old and new:

Townes Van Zandt

Butch Hancock & Jimmie Dale Gilmore

Lyle Lovett

Nanci Griffith

Robert Earl Keen

Ani DiFranco

Alex Chilton

Alison Krauss

Ralph Stanley

Guy Clark

Darden Smith

Jimmy LaFave

Peter Case

Alejandro Escovedo

Shawn Colvin

Bruce Robison

Michael Fracasso

Davíd Garza

Nathan Hamilton

Slaid Cleaves

Kacy Crowley

Li'l Cap'n Travis

Orange Mothers/Ethan Azarian

J.T. Van Zandt

Grupo Deluxe

Despite the popular Seventies sitcom's insistence to the contrary, eight just wasn't enough for Grupo Fantasma. The caliente local groove collective expanded to 12 members for its April 20 LP Movimiento Popular, prompting a few changes in their touring arrangements. "I think we've graduated to the two-van level if the money works out," hopes guitarist Adrian Quesada. Quesada promises something different on each of the LP's 15 tracks, including "huge orchestra horns," detours into disco and dance hall, and an "old-school Tejano ballad" featuring El Gato Negro himself, Ruben Ramos. "It sounds bigger, more like what we sound like live," vows Quesada. Other songs were built out of drum loops, prompting the band to commission a remix LP they hope to have out by the summer to sell at shows, while still others are indebted to Quincy Jones' production on Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and Thriller. Corralling such a disparate palette of sounds into a cohesive album seems fairly daunting, but Grupo knew exactly what they wanted. "We just pulled out the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head and told the engineer to make it sound like that," says Quesada. Paging Professor Booty ...

sxsw sprinkles: Local Motion

Austin-area acts joining newly announced keynoter Little Richard at SXSW 04. A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!

The Alpha Rhythm, the Applicators, A Tiger Named Lovesick, Aurora Plastics Company, Baby Robots, bedbug, Beecher, Leila Bela, Black Lipstick, Jane Bond, Canoe, Cavedweller, Choking Ahogo, Gary Clark Jr., Corruption Is King, the Crack Pipes, Kacy Crowley, Britt Daniel, Jesse Dayton, Del Castillo, Dumptruck, Echo Base Soundsystem, Endochine, Experimental Aircraft, Fivehead, the Flametrick Subs, Ron Flynt & the Bluehearts, Guy Forsyth, Michael Fracasso, Susan Gibson, Colin Gilmore, Gnappy, God Drives a Galaxy, Grady, Grand Champeen, Hairy Apes BMX, Human, Kissinger, Jeff Klein, Knife in the Water, Jimmy LaFave, Gina Lee, Timothy "Speed" Levitch & the Ongoing Wow, Li'l Cap'n Travis, Matson Belle, Matt the Electrician, Kevin McKinney, the Meat Purveyors, Milton Mapes, Moonlight Towers, the Octopus Project, Oh, Beast!, Neal Pollack & Tammy Faye Starlite, Reckless Kelly, Rhythm of Black Lines, the Rite Flyers, Bruce Robison, Charlie Robison, South Austin Jug Band, the Spiders, ST 37, Subset, the Swells, Jesse "Guitar" Taylor & John X Reed, This Microwave World, Toof, the Transgressors, Two High String Band, Vallejo, What Made Milwaukee Famous, Renée Woodward, Red Young Quartet, Yuppie Pricks, Zykos


Bullet the Blue Sky

• As of noon today, you have about 36 more hours to vote in the 2003-04 Chronicle Music Poll. The ballot is on p.54 or at

• Cameras from the Food Network's Food 911, which purports to solve "food emergencies," will film Elizabeth McQueen & the Firebrands' Hole in the Wall show tonight (Thursday) for a future episode. The emergency this time is reported to be "what happens when you're too hung over for migas?"

• Count legendary record man Jerry Wexler as the latest convert to Latino blues-rock steamroller Los Lonely Boys: "Fantastic. Like three young Freddy [Fenders] at his best. I would say 'can't miss,' but I've been wrong before." Because signing Aretha Franklin was a real head-scratcher.

• North Austinites and Round Rockers who always wonder what all the live music fuss is about can find out at KGSR's Gimme Shelter Saturdays at the Iron Cactus North, 10001 Stonelake Blvd. First up is James McMurtry, 9pm Saturday, with Trish Murphy, Kacy Crowley, the Malford Milligan Band, and the Greencards to follow weekly until March 13.

• A smattering of artifacts from Texas State University's Texas Music Archive, including Jerry Jeff Walker's boots, Bob Wills' fiddle, and Selena's biography, is on display between gates 7 and 12 at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport through March 30. Ticketed passengers only.

• Taking time out from watching American Chopper, harp-blowing Beerland owner Randall Stockton has joined local soul-punkers the Bloody Tears and is currently disaster-proofing his club for the Riverboat Gamblers bonanza Friday and Fuckemos reunion Saturday.

Keep up with all our SXSW coverage at Sign up for our South By-specific newsletter at for news, reviews, and previews delivered to your inbox every day of the Fest. And for the latest tweets, follow @ChronSXSW.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

SXSW Gaming: Noclip Says Love Your Developers
SXSW Gaming: Noclip Says Love Your Developers
Danny O’Dwyer wants you to understand who is making your games

Tucker Whatley, March 16, 2019

SXSW Film Review: <i>The Day Shall Come</i>
Film Review: The Day Shall Come
British satirist Chris Morris takes aim at security theater

Richard Whittaker, March 16, 2019

More TCB
Music news

Christopher Gray, June 29, 2007


Christopher Gray, June 22, 2007


Cactus Cafe, Griff Luneburg, Texas Union, Townes Van Zandt, Ed Miller, Kevin Russell, Slaid Cleaves, Davíd Garza, Grupo Fantasma, Movimiento Popular, Check Your Head, SXSW, Little Richard, Music Poll, High School Battle of the Bands, Elizabeth McQueen, Food 911, Jerry Wexler, Los Lonely Boys, Iron Cactus North

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle