Off the Record
Forsaking the Song
"What happens onstage is the most important thing that happens here," Griff Luneburg told the Chronicle last year on the occasion of the Cactus Cafe's 30-year anniversary (see "Blood on the Tracks," Feb. 6, 2009). "The bar is secondary. It's not like that in other clubs. For musicians, it's just a real nurturing environment. One thing I've learned is that it's all about building relationships with people. Loyalty is an important quality in the music business. ... We come from a place where we respect an artist, and they remember that."
If only the University of Texas held itself to the same standard.
Citing budgetary concerns, the Texas Union board approved plans last Friday to phase out operations at the campus cafe in August, along with UT's longstanding informal classes, which serve about 25,000 people per year.
The news spread like an obit over the weekend, the local music community collectively rattled. "It's just terrible," bemoans Beaver Nelson, who after his tenure at UT in the early 1990s opened for Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams at the club. "No one saw this coming."
According to University Unions Executive Director Andy Smith on Monday, the cuts will save an estimated $122,000 a year, about $50,000 of which would come from the Cactus' closing. "If they had been revenue-positive, we wouldn't have been dealing with them on this, because they would have been contributing to our bottom line and not taking away from it," says Smith, adding that the cafe has been subsidized seven of the last eight years and will be added to the Union's inventory of rooms available for reservation by recognized student organizations and faculty departments. Both Luneburg and longtime bar manager Chris Lueck are being promised positions at their current salary levels "in other areas within the division."
When repeatedly pressed on the matter at the town hall meeting on the UT campus on Tuesday, Feb. 2, Smith, with blunt frustration, raised the Cactus' portion to $66,000.
"If it's a matter of money, we will raise the money to keep the Cactus open," offered Reid Nelson on behalf of the 17,000-plus represented by the "Save the Cactus Cafe (Austin, Texas)" Facebook group. Other speakers offered alternatives such as creating patronage programs for the Cactus comparable to that of Texas Performing Arts (formerly the Performing Arts Center) and the Blanton Museum of Art, both UT offshoots. Jim Boon of the Texas Exes has expressed interest in making the Cactus part of the expansion plans for the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center, a symbolic gesture that ignores the historical significance of the venue itself.
Despite strong, passionate opposition from the standing-room-only audience that overflowed into two neighboring classrooms, UT President Bill Powers defended the decision made by the Texas Union board, which comprises six student members and three faculty members appointed by the UT president (see "'A' Is for Axed," News).
Smith, who was the main force behind the 1997 termination of the Texas Union Film Program (see "The Last Picture Show," News, Jan. 23, 1998), also stated in the press release that the cafe and informal classes "do not fit within the core student mission of the Texas Union and Student Affairs." Dan Grissom, the host of open mic night at the Cactus, estimates that half of the weekly performers are students, while numerous students expressed frustration and confusion with the board's decision at the forum.
"Griff has always handpicked the stuff that would speak to the students' sensibilities of growth, excellence, and a even little bit of revolution," relates David Garza, whose collegiate outfit Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom went from busking on the West Mall to headlining the Cactus his freshman year and, two decades later, reunited last December at the venue. "I know firsthand that he definitely opens his eyes and his ears to new artists. I can't think of another venue in the country that draws from the students and the students' spirit."
After overturning a question in the sixth and final round about the title of Watchtower's first album, Energetic Disassembly (more on that next week), the Chronicle's Twenty Tinnitus – myself, team captain Audra Schroeder, Senior Account Executive Jerald Corder, Music critic Greg Beets, and my Chronthology co-editor Doug Freeman – took home the gold at the first Mind Over Music trivia bowl at the Palm Door on Monday, edging out stiff competition from Austin City Limits, KUT, and 25 other local music industry teams of five people each. Tensions flared between co-emcee Andy Langer and Internet radio broadcasters Woxy, who answered "some KGSR bullshit" during the Austin music round, and one of the C3 Presents squads was disqualified for cheating, but in the end almost $2,000 was raised for local nonprofit Grounded in Music. For more, see "Mind Over Music: Austin's Music Trivia Smackdown," Sports.
• Judy Collins, John Doe, Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club's Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, and Andrew W.K. are among the artists now on board for panel discussions at South by Southwest 2010. "We really want the musicians to get into the discussion," relays coordinator Andy Flynn. The list of showcasing artists continues to blossom. Notable additions include Chamillionaire & Paul Wall, Hauschka, Mayer Hawthorne, and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, while keynote speaker Smokey Robinson is set to anchor the Austin Music Hall on Friday, March 19. www.sxsw.com/music.
• The Austin delegation at the 52nd annual Grammy Awards – Willie & the Wheel, Shawn Colvin, Ruthie Foster, Conspirare, and Sarah Jarosz – were sent home empty-handed on Sunday, though Steve Earle's emotionally hewn tribute Townes earned Best Contemporary Folk Album. Oscar nominations on Tuesday included a Best Original Song nod to Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett for "The Weary Kind (Theme From Crazy Heart)."
• The Young, which helps commemorate the release of Matador's Casual Victim Pile compilation at Beerland on Friday, Feb. 5, is releasing an LP this summer on Mexican Summer, the vinyl-only subsidiary of Kemado Records. As guitarist/vocalist Hans Zimmerman confides, "It's a record for dopers and creeps."
• As a quick tour of Emo's outside patio attests, the history of rock & roll scenes is sometimes best told through the concert posters plastered in its wake. From the surrealist psychedelia of San Francisco's Big Five through the silk-screened absurdity of Austin's Lindsey Kuhn, that inextricable link and history goes under the lens in the new documentary American Artifact, which screens at the Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek on Friday (Feb. 5), complete with a Q&A with director Merle Becker, a poster show in the lobby, and a demo session by Billy Bishop. Local legend Frank Kozik, in particular, is credited in the film for the poster art resurgence of the early 1990s. "It was not just a new poster art form," posits Jello Biafra. "It was almost a new kind of humor bursting out from behind the closet."