Faster Than Sound: Changes at Two Campus Cafes

The latest on Cactus Cafe and Spider House


Cactus Cafe and Spider House Cafe, both spaces returning under new management (Cactus Cafe photo by Jana Birchum / Spider House Cafe photo by John Anderson)

Cactus Cafe Back Open Under University Management

Last year, KUT/KUTX opted not to renew a 10-year agreement with UT-Austin to manage the on-campus Cactus Cafe. With contentious negotiations leading to layoffs of full-time Manager Matt Muñoz and Assistant Manager Amy Chambless, the question remained: Who will oversee the 43-year-old institution, known as the storied listening room for stars like Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams?

The answer is Dylan Smith, an existing employee of UT's Events + Entertainment division who added programming of the Cactus to his roster last summer. After hosting a few events throughout the fall, the Cactus offers a regular calendar (cactuscafe.org/upcoming-events) for the spring semester. In an interview with the Chronicle, Smith confirmed the venue is now open for weekly open mic nights and concerts, generally one per weekend.

Regular hours are Monday through Saturday, 1-8pm, with longtime bartender Chris Lueck back on board. Events are open to the public and free entry, including upcoming dates with Caleb Boles, Mandy Prater, Matt Walden, and Dawn and Hawkes. Smith says he's aiming for "a nice mix of local Austin artists, some Cactus favorites, and acts that are touring nationally coming through Austin, to keep that balance."

He gives an upcoming Feb. 24 date with folk singer-songwriter Dana Cooper as an example of a returning player.

Since developing under longtime Cactus Manager Griff Luneburg, the venue has never before operated without a dedicated general manager, which Smith says he is not. "My role is to help the [University] Unions put forward the best calendar we can and to be part of the conversation as we continue to build back and plan for the future," he says.

Smith's programming role has only been mentioned in an October episode of the Living the Longhorn Life podcast, where University Unions Director James Buckley said: "This is the first semester, fall '21, that the Cactus Cafe has been fully operated, managed, and programmed by the University Unions." The Chronicle learned recently of Smith when we received emails from touring artists about their upcoming Cactus shows, to which we responded, "Wait, who's booking the Cactus?"

Smith, a longtime worker in student activities across various universities, says the University Unions offered him the opportunity to program the room last July. An employee since 2011, Smith produces annual events like Forty Acres Fest, and says he moved to Austin for its musical reputation.

"I was part of the team already, and I had the skill set and interest, so I jumped on it," says Smith. "Helping students plan concerts, whether it was the booking, promotion, or the actual day-of production, has always been a really rewarding part of my job. So, to have an opportunity to do more of that with a venue that's known all over the world – there's just a lot of upsides."

The venue is also open to student organizations like Events + Entertainment, who hosts the open mic and comedy nights, and KVRX. Last year, during management negotiations, members of the University Unions board criticized the lack of student involvement at the venue.

If you've always wanted to play the Cactus, now might be a good time to take your shot – it worked for Brooklyn bluegrass trio Damn Tall Buildings, who play this Saturday, Feb. 5. Smith says artists can reach him at cactuscafe@utexas.edu. Artists interested in weekly open mic nights, Tuesday at 7:30pm, can also contact jakefarrmusic@gmail.com.

Teams Behind Hotel Vegas and Kinda Tropical to Rebrand Spider House Cafe

Many Austinites learned of Spider House Cafe's quiet pandemic closure last week via an Austin American-Statesman headline, though it had been shuttered for nearly a year.

Brian Tweedy says people come by every day thinking the campus-area hangout, which debuted in 1995, is still open. Tweedy joins fellow Hotel Vegas owner Jason McNeely, Yellow Jacket Social Club's Amy Mullins and Shannon LeBoeuf, and the 13th Floor's Johnny Yaklin in launching a new concept in the space. The five are all owners of Kinda Tropical, which boasts one of Austin's best patios, alongside Spider House's former art-filled outdoor space.

"Spider House meant so much to so many people. We [plan] to keep that magic and carry on the tradition as an Austin institution," texted Tweedy to the Chronicle. "I met my wife there. I really can't express how excited and blessed we feel."

McNeely and Tweedy helped build the Fruth Street lot's musical status. The duo developed their early booking talents next door in the disco-ball-adorned ballroom, launched as United States Art Authority and later known as 29th Street Ballroom. Both left in 2012 to run Hotel Vegas, and later Barracuda.

Tweedy added: "Even though we are excited to be back where it all started with Jason and I, it will not be Spider House anymore but a new brand."

As reported by the Chronicle last year, the venue and cafe sides now operate as separate businesses. The venue at 2906 Fruth is currently open as "The Ballroom" under new ownership of Arlo's Chris Baker. Tweedy's group secured a lease on the cafe at 2908 Fruth from major Austin landowner Jimmy Nassour, who purchased the property last February.

The sale followed turbulence within Spider House's founding ownership of Conrad Bejarano and John Dorgan. A 2018 Chronicle cover story detailed alleged sexual misconduct by Dorgan, who later sued the accusing former employee and Bejarano for libel and slander.

Crosstalk

Boomer Norman, celebrated Austin guitarist and multi-instrumentalist born Charles David Norman, died Jan. 24. He was 58. After moving to Austin in 1982, the prolific musician toured and recorded with various bands, including Stop the Truck, Don McAllister, Walt Lewis, and Jim Stringer and the AM Band. His Telecaster skills – spanning jazz, Western swing, rock, and blues – also led the Boomer Norman Trio. Formerly an instructor at the Center for Music Therapy, Norman suffered from a heart condition throughout his life. After losing use of his left hand following a 2008 stroke, the lifelong musician learned to play piano with one hand and continued to perform. A 1994 review of the Walt Lewis Band's album Wrong, Wrong, Wrong in Music City Texas called Norman "one of the finest country guitarists around, a man of infinite resource and sagacity, whose playing is just fabulous throughout." His family requests donations be made to the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.

Stadium Style: Stubb's announced a new clear bag policy for all shows, matching rules seen at UT games and other large venues. The Red River venue allows clear "tote bags" no larger than 12 by 6 by 12 inches, while "clutch bags" smaller than 4½ by 6½ inches do not have to be clear. The venue posted that the move is "to reduce staff contact with guest belongings."

One-2-One Bar is closed until further notice. The South Lamar live music venue with excellent sound shuttered during the pandemic then reopened with a change of ownership in January 2021. The announcement, via social media, projected uncertainty: "We will update if/when we have a reopening date."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Cactus Cafe, Spider House, Brian Tweedy, Jason McNeely, Amy Mullins, Dylan Smith, Johnny Yaklin, Shannon LeBoeuf, Boomer Norman, One-2-One Bar

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