By Michael Corcoran
7/15/99 Austin American Statesman
IT’S ONLY A BUILDING, and an ugly one at that, with bathrooms that would’ve been an issue at the Geneva Convention and a hippy dippy mural dominated by a pouring coconut.
It’s just a building, yes, but for the last 20-plus years it’s been a structure where musicians and fans were at their best. Physically, Liberty Lunch is not a comfortable place. Chairs are rare and waitresses are non-existent. But emotionally, no other nightclub has made its patrons feel more at home.
Liberty Lunch was our Armadillo World Headquarters, and to think that we let another living landmark disappear only points to the fact that the times are changing. It’s the high-tech industry, not music, that wags the Austin of today. After one last night of revelry July 31, the Austin music scene will take a big step toward being like everywhere else. We’re losing something very special and all we can do is stand by and watch.
. . . And remember. The corners of our minds have been enriched by the music and comraderie of the bare bones club, so we asked the principals to help us tell the story of the Lunch. We also polled folks on their all-time favorite Liberty Lunch concert. “There were so many great shows,” Butthole Surfers singer Gibby Haynes said, “but the thing that really sticks in my mind is the people who ran the club. They were always smiling, always wanting to help you. When you came to the Lunch you felt welcomed.” Owners J-Net Ward and Mark Pratz have never allowed their customers to be frisked and when heavy metal act King Diamond demanded that audience members be patted down one night in the ’80s, the Lunch let them keep the deposit and canceled the show.
Let’s consider our loss and think of that gorgeous building that was more about the music than the money. In the impending roar of the bulldozers, only the memories will remain. But thanks to those who kept the doors open through three decades of change, those recollections are almost enough.
LIBERTY LUNCH: An Oral History
By Chris Riemenschneider & Michael Corcoran
From the Austin American-Statesman, Oct. 7 1978: “Liberty Lunch has thrived for the last three years in a little bit of building on West Second Street that once was a dilapidated wagonyard. It had two condemnations: One from the health department and one from the fire department. But that was before Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton took over. As founders of Liberty Lunch and then Esther’s Follies, the two have been part — if not a cause — of a minor social revolution in Austin.
“At first, Liberty was just a lunch spot catering to all downtown types. But as soon as they saw the place, Sedwick said, she and Shelton knew they would convert the Lunch’s vast outdoor area into a performing and eating area. As a result, Liberty has become a night spot with an open-ended range of entertainment. Groups such as Beto and the Fairlanes may play one night, Bobby Bridger the next. There are evening poetry readings, human rights benefits, theatrical and dance acts. Eclectic is the word.”
* MICHAEL SHELTON, Esther’s Follies founder and Liberty Lunch co-owner 1975-1979: We went around with Bill Smith, a local realtor, looking for a place and the (Liberty Lunch) site looked just bad enough that we might actually make a successful bid on it. Right before we got there, it was a flea market, and it wasn’t a very good flea market. Of course, it started out as part of the Calcasieu Lumber Co., the city’s first and biggest lumberyard. The company is still around, out on Burleson Road.
We opened on Dec. 6 in ’75. We were going to call it Progressive Grocery, but when we were scraping the paint off the front of the place we found the name Liberty Lunch underneath. That’s what it was called sometime after World War II, when the Texas Lighthouse for the Blind served lunches from there. . . . The whole “liberty” idea kind of fit during that first summer, ’76, the bicentennial. That’s when we started performing skits and having bands. We’d have burger cook-offs and gumbo cook-offs and all kinds of back-yard parties that celebrated Americanhood.
* JOE ELY, Austin music veteran: In the late ’70s and early ’80s, a lot of the clubs transformed and became something else. Places like the Chequered Flag and that club on San Jacinto and the One Knite, which is now Stubb’s, and of course Soap Creek. It was a special time. You know, you could go out and see the Thunderbirds or Stevie Ray or Townes on any given night.
Liberty Lunch is really the only place still around from back then, except for Antone’s, which of course isn’t where it used to be. I used to go out to Liberty Lunch when it was still a lumberyard. There’d be people playing among the 2×4’s. It was real cool, really a part of that old Austin feeling. I think in a lot of ways, Liberty Lunch became what the Armadillo started out as.
* SHANNON SEDWICK, Esther’s Follies/’75-’79 co-owner: That first summer was incredibly hot. A friend of ours who we did theatrical stuff with on campus, Doug Dyer, came back into town. Doug started “Stomp” (the “Hair”-like rock musical, not the current Broadway hit). It was so hot, we did a water ballet on land and told everyone to come in their swimsuits. Doug did this whole thing where it looked like he had wet his pants and water started spewing on everyone. We had Richard Halpin, too, who now runs the American Institute for Learning and is quite an upstanding citizen but was really just a crazy hippy like the rest of us back then. We’d have a band booked like Shiva’s Headband and we would do stuff like stand on the roof with light fixtures on our head and just walk around — you know, wow, performance art or whatever.
The restaurant part of it really took off. It was mostly Cajun/creole food, muffaletta, gumbo. Our chef at first was Emil Vogley, who quite fittingly made a performance out of the food, too. Texas Monthly had discovered us before we were ready, and things really got out of hand. The bands at night really started taking over, too, especially Beto y los Fairlanes and the Lotions.
* ROBERT ‘BETO’ SKILES, Beto y Los Fairlanes: I really think those early days at Liberty Lunch were the Big Bang of the Austin music scene. What went on there evolved into the various body parts of Austin music. For us (Beto y Los Fairlanes), it was building a bridge to the Latin music world, which was on the other side of the tracks at the time. The crowds were amazing, too. We’d play to half-dressed, sweaty people dancing barefoot on the ground, who were all eager to dance. That was it. It all had this tribal sort of feel.
* MAMBO JOHN TREANOR, percussionist for Beto y Los Fairlanes: The tropical-themed mural was inspired by the early Beto shows at the Lunch. Starting in the late ’70s, we played every Thursday and the people would come out in droves to dance to salsa music. The floor was pea gravel and when everyone was dancing there’d be a big cloud of dust. At the end of the night you could write your name on my drums — there was a layer of dirt.
There wasn’t a roof until the early ’80s, so if it rained, the gig would be canceled, which was a drag because we were making good money. We had a pretty big band and each member would make $150-$200 every Thursday. Four of us lived in a big house at Sixth and Oakland, where the rent was only $250 a month, so we could survive on the Lunch gig alone.
* MICHAEL SHELTON: By the time we sold it (’79), the money had really shifted from the lunch crowds to beer and bands at night. The look of the place was changing, too. They had brought in the roof from the Armadillo, and Doug Jaques painted the mural around that time. When we left, it wasn’t doing too well. I think they had some real lean years there for a while.
* SHANNON SEDWICK: The whole time we were there, the city wanted to shut us down. A month after we moved in there, the city took over the property and they would have run all over us then except we had a lawyer who helped us out and wound up talking the city into renting the building to us. Even then, they didn’t want us. It seems like ever since that first month, Liberty Lunch has always been a point of contention with the city.
CHARLES TESAR, lease holder/bar owner 1979-1993: I persuaded the City of Austin to renew a lapsed lease for the property in 1979, with Shannon and Michael. The lease was only for one year: a limited term condition that persisted throughout the 14 years I held the lease.
The first task was to dismantle the lumber stalls and build a stage. Opening night was St. Patrick’s Day, 1980, with the Uranium Savages. They, with Beto and the Fairlanes, the Lotions and Extreme Heat, kept us from going under in 1980. Since the Armadillo started outbidding us for our most productive bands in late 1980, I wasn’t too dismayed to hear that the owner had sold the property in 1981, and Pee Wee Franks had demolished the structure. A different plague was visited on us the same year. After the Memorial Day floods, it rained just about every night through that summer. By the fall, I was able to get a loan to buy the girders, trusses and beams from the Armadillo. With some advice from Pee Wee (a demolition expert) we dug the holes for the foundation, set the I beams and connected the trusses to support a new roof. City inspectors were appalled with the work, as was I, but it passed inspection nevertheless. Everybody I knew helped put the structure up, and it was met with round denunciation by most customers, particularly since the clear roof and huge crowds created temperatures well over a hundred.
* KIRK WATSON, mayor of Austin: My first six weeks in town, I saw Beto at Liberty Lunch at least four times. The one thing I remember, besides all the music and dancing, was that everyone was so proud of that dadgum roof. I kept thinking “What’s the big deal about a roof?” But since it came from the Armadillo, there was a sense that the torch had been passed to Liberty Lunch.
* MIKE MCGEARY, the Lotions: I remember a lot of our people weren’t happy about the roof. Part of the vibe of the place was that whole under-the-stars thing. The Lotions really were the first reggae band in Austin, so it made sense that we played outdoors. It didn’t matter too much to us, because I think we were the only band that had a rain guarantee. We got paid even if it rained. That was the kind of pull we had back then, because we brought in good money. We’d play every Tuesday night, and we’d pack the place. I mean, they’d have to stop letting people in. That went on for about three years.
* MARK PRATZ, booking/co-owner 1978-present: I started as a doorguy, and then a co-manager and manager. Eventually, we started bringing in road shows and I worked out a deal to get a cut of the door. The first road show was Michael Martin Murphey, who did great. Then it was the Ricky Nelson show, which was a trip to see because all these 50-year-old groupies showed up.
(By ’81 or ’82), things really changed. A lot of people were still pissed off that we put a roof on, and that just killed the open-air vibe for all the old hippies. They stopped coming. And around that time, emmajoe’s closed, so we started doing a lot of folk. We’d have Townes and Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett. I remember seeing Lyle in the front corner of the little building, where the offices are now, and thinking, “There’s no way this guy’s going to make it.”
* LOUIS MEYERS, booking 1982-’88: Mark and I started Lunch Money Productions and tried for a little pre-Tim O’Connor empire. At one point, we were booking five places, including the Continental Club, Texas Money (where Emo’s is now) and a bad Mexican restaurant called Casablanca’s.
At Liberty Lunch, we hit this whole reggae/world-beat wave. We brought Burning Spear in on a Wednesday night with a $2,000 guarantee and it turned out to be a huge success. We really had a few magical years with it. All you had to do was put “direct from Africa” or “direct from Jamaica” on the marquee and at least 600 people showed up. We had King Sunny Ade, Sonny Okosun. There was just a whole swelling of support. Waterloo Records would help us promote them. Michael Point did a tremendous job covering the scene in the Statesman. It was a real communal era.
* PAT MACDONALD, formerly of Timbuk3: The first time we played there was in the afternoon, and it was a totally different scene than it is now. There were a bunch of old hippies in there, and their dogs, too. It really felt like it had more to do with the Armadillo generation. I liked the sound better back then, before they put the roof on. You could turn the low-end way up.
Sound seemed to be an issue there for us. We were opening for Jonathan Richman, and he made us turn down the volume. He walked out to the sound board and did it, we had no idea, except that all of a sudden people stopped dancing. I met Jonathan years later and thought he was a real nice guy, but man, for a while there I had sort of a low opinion of him.
* CHARLES TESAR: Our only experience with Stevie Ray (’80 or ’81) was not a good one. I guaranteed Double Trouble $300 for a concert and we only made $150 at the door and had to give him the $125 out of beer sales, so we still owe him $25. Maybe we’ll pay up with some flowers for his statue some day.
* LOUIS MEYERS: The Neville Brothers were the act for us for a while. In ’85, we had them doing two sets a night. We probably were getting them a lot longer than we should have, but each time we would just bump up the price a dollar or so and everybody would show up and the vibe would be just magical — for the band, the fans everyone. Then we lost them one year to the Terrace, and it didn’t work for them over there. It just didn’t work.
* STEVE COLLIER, singer-guitarist in Doctors’ Mob: Mark Pratz ran the Continental Club, and he’d have bands like Poison 13, the True Believers and us play there. Well, when he left, that scene sort of moved over to Liberty Lunch. It set the stage for what the place would become (in the latter half of the ’80s), which was that whole college rock, indie band kind of scene.
We got to open for a lot of great bands. We opened for the Replacements the night of the fires. We opened for Husker Du a couple times. I remember when we opened for NRBQ, we did it as this sort of alter-ego band called Free Flyte that did all the bad ’70s covers that you could think of. Nobody there for NRBQ knew that we were kidding, though, so literally we had people throwing stuff at us and booing.
* SCOTT ANDERSON, Doctors’ Mob manager and bartender since ’93: The night of the fires was definitely the most fun thing I remember. It was the Replacements, Poison 13 and Doctors’ Mob, sometime in the winter (Jan. 19, 1985). They moved the stage back by to where the door is now because it was warmer, but it was still cold as hell. The roof was still open then. You had all these people huddled together watching these bands, and three metal trash cans that eventually had fires in them. What a fun night. The Replacements knew some of the guys in Poison 13, so they were all in good spirits. And they weren’t too drunk, you know. They were in that middle ground where they were always best.
* STEVE DEAN, owner of Under the Sun: I had this thing for a while where, for the people that I liked, I would hiss when they were on stage. I’d do it to Marcia Ball, you know, and she’d make some kind of comment toward me and laugh. One night the Tailgators were playing, with Keith Ferguson. My friends and I were drinking, but not too bad. I hissed, and Don Leady took offense to it. He jumped down from the stage and swung at me. I tried to explain, “Hey man, it’s just a joke,” but he came at me again, and we were down on the ground kicking and fighting. The bouncers broke it up pretty quick, but I’ll never forget it.
* GIBBY HAYNES, singer Butthole Surfers: Before they had the fenced-in patio off to the side, you could drive through it. I remember one night some crazy dude almost plowed his car through a bunch of people. He slammed on his brakes and stopped about a foot from the people and he started laughing. It really pissed me off that he thought almost killing someone was funny, so I went over and swung at him. I didn’t know that the window was rolled up, so my hand went right through the glass and sorta nicked his face. It didn’t hurt at all. My friend was going “Your hand’s broken, man” and I didn’t feel anything. I went back in the club and had a beer. Meanwhile, the idiot in the car peeled out and almost killed a couple more people. He turned the wrong way down Second Street and was never heard from again.
* HENRY ROLLINS, singer Black Flag: I swore I’d never come to Austin again. We were playing at Liberty Lunch (about ’86), and I got to watch the crowd, mostly white, single out one black guy and beat the (expletive) out of him. And when I said something, everyone got pissed, so we left. It was ugly. I couldn’t believe that would happen in Austin. I thought Austin was different from the rest of the Sieg Heil (stuff) in Texas.
* BYRON SCOTT, Do Dat guitarist: During the ’80s, there was a thriving funk-rap scene that was sorta based out of Liberty Lunch. Do Dat, was part of that, along with Bad Mutha Goose, Bouffant Jellyfish, Retarded Elf, Def M.F.’s, who am I forgetting? The first big concert that showed that rap could work at the Lunch was when Run-DMC played there in ’84 — at the height of their popularity. Do Dat opened that show and Eloise Burrell — a jazz singer who started doing hip-hop because it was the hot thing — played right before Run. It should have been us second, her first, but it was alright, the place was already packed when we came on. I mean, I haven’t seen the Lunch so crowded as it was that night. You couldn’t move in the audience. As it turned out, they couldn’t move onstage either. When Run and DMC hit the stage, they started their usual jumping around, getting all hyped, but the Lunch’s stage was kind of flimsy, not really reinforced, and the records kept skipping. They stopped the show and tried to move the turntables away from the middle, to see if that would be better, but every time the guys moved the records kept skipping. So finally, Run-DMC had to do their show standing in one place. You could see how frustrated they were, because they were accustomed to running back and forth, back and forth. But the crowd went nuts anyway. It was “big time rap comes to Austin” and they were eating it up.
* LOUIS MEYERS: We even had wrestling matches one night. It was the “Rock and Wrestling” show, and Will (Sexton) & the Kill and Dino Lee would get on stage in between the matches. One of the wrestlers was Shawn Michaels, who I guess is big in the wrestling world nowadays. Yeah, that’s one night that definitely stands out.
* MARK PRATZ: For a lot of the ’80s, it seemed like we were the babysitters of the Austin music scene. All along, we were one of the few all-ages clubs and town, and parents were always dropping their kids off and leaving them with us. I guess they thought it was a safe place or something like that.
* Correction in the Austin American-Statesman, Aug. 22, 1985: “Liberty Lunch, the popular nightspot on West Second Street, will not be closing in October, as was reported incorrectly in a story Tuesday. Although the land is owned by the City of Austin, and is expected to eventually become part of the new City Hall, the club will remain open at least through October 1985, and possibly longer.”
MARK PRATZ: They were first going to tear us down in ’85, but then the depression hit Austin and the economy went (down the tubes). We did alright, though. In ’88 or ’89 we got our first five-year lease. Of course, the leases always had the 188-day move-out stipulation if they wanted us out.
* JOE ELY, on his 1990 album “Live at Liberty Lunch”: I had been playing with (David) Grissom and Davis (McLarty) and Jimmy Pettit for about five years, and it got to that point where I felt like I needed to catch the energy. We had been touring so much, it seemed right to do it at a place that felt like home. I did it without any record company knowing about it. I just tore down my recording studio, packed it up in a truck and parked it out at Liberty Lunch with James Tuttle running the board. We did it over three nights, and sure enough, the first night was a disaster. I was screwing up lyrics. We all had that feeling like, “Oh, I gotta play this right.” It was a real nervous energy. The second night was a lot better, and so was the third, so that’s what you hear on the album. . . . I had just finished with my two albums for Hightone at the time, and they didn’t want to release a live album for whatever reason. In the end, that was the album that made (MCA Records president) Tony Brown want to sign me again. Those recordings really shaped the next decade or so in my career.
* DAVID GARZA, former Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom singer: Our first gig there was in March of ’90. It was sort of a rite of passage. It was where my big brothers had seen Burning Spear and Bad Brains, you know, it was very cool. And around the time that we started playing there, everybody like Shoulders, Ed Hall, the Wannabes, Poi Dog (Pondering) and Stick People were playing there. I guess in the early ’90s, there was really a happening local scene there. It was the Armadillo of our generation. I always thought of it as the Willie Nelson of Austin venues, that one infallible place.
It was also the very first place I played as me. Before Twang Twang broke up, we were filling the place up on weekends. It was great. Then I went and tried to play there all on my own, and maybe 100 people showed up. . . . Liberty Lunch don’t lie.
* KEVIN McKINNEY, singer-guitarist of Soulhat: Our good shows there were probably from like ’93-’94. We did some of those Summer Solstices with Joe Rockhead and others, probably the Ging’breadmen. Those were fun. For us, Liberty Lunch seemed to be mainly the place where all the good road shows were. Sonic Youth, Fugazi, the Flaming Lips — all the bands too small to play the Erwin Center played there. We even got to open for John Lee Hooker there, and Johnny Winter, which was exciting.
I guess (the road shows) made it more of a thing for local bands to get there. It was something to set your sights on, a step up the ladder, playing Liberty Lunch on a weekend night. My only wish is that they had a toilet in the backstage area, or at least more private facilities. I guess that was part of the duty, having to sit on the toilet in front of everybody (in the men’s room). “Are you going to play `Stinkpot?’ ” “Yeah, I’m playing it right now.”
* MARK PRATZ: Nirvana (Oct. 21, 1991) was when we really started getting into (capacity) problems. We were just trying to be polite and letting everybody in, and we wound up with about 1,400 people with what was then a much smaller room. I remember there were people coming through the ceiling. They were climbing up the pecan tree out front and dropping through the skylights. You’d look up, and there would be people sliding down our poles like fireman. Kurt didn’t do anything crazy, they just played a great show.
The Alanis Morissette show was crazy, too. We didn’t sell advance tickets just so we could (mess) with scalpers. That’s another ongoing Liberty Lunch tradition, battling scalpers. Well, we of course wound up with a long line of people waiting outside and this major monsoon hit. We were handing out cardboard boxes and anything for people to cover themselves, and they all waited. The same thing happened for Beck, too, it rained like that again. I remember rain pouring in from the roof where it was open and kids just dancing underneath the (skylights) like it was part of the show.
* MARTHA GUTHRIE, doorwoman since ’93: I think something probably only the employees know about are the rodents who have shared Liberty Lunch over the years. We had a white rat we’d always see. One night we watched him and a few other rats dance. It was during some bands soundcheck, they just ran out on the dance floor and started spinning around. There was a porcupine, too, that always came around. It would sleep in this fruit basket in the back by the bathrooms, and sometimes we’d walk by and it would hiss at us. We really just learned to co-exist with them all.
* ALAN TUCKER, bartender since 1989: We had pot plants growing in the parking lot once. I assume they just came from people flicking their buds onto the ground out back, and there were seeds in them. But yeah, here were these 2-foot pot plants, on city property, a block away from City Hall. Of course, we did our duty and destroyed them, for the sake of the city.
* MARK PRATZ: In ’93, there was a whole nasty lawsuit (by an injured fan) and problems with the city, and they weren’t going to renew our lease. So I wrote a proposal for our renovations. We tore down everything, added the new wall (by the front door), fixed the leaks, the bathrooms, worked on the stage. Finally we got everything up to code, and $100,000 later we thought we were sitting pretty.
By ’97, we signed a five-year lease. The very next day I opened the paper and saw a new plan for city hall and lots more on . . . guess where? We’ve always had a feeling that we were living with a terminal disease over here.
* Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 10 1998: “. . . Last week, the Austin City Council voted to move ahead with a plan to turn Liberty Lunch’s property at 405 W. Second St. into the headquarters of a high-tech company. The city owns the property, so there’s little (J’Net) Ward can do. Her lease gives the club at least six months leeway before it has to close, and all signs are suggesting that the city won’t allow much time beyond that. It’s a now-classic tale of old Austin vs. new. Computer Sciences Corp. is offering thousands of jobs, millions of dollars and the attraction of turning the area along West Second and Third streets into a bustling business/city hall center. Liberty Lunch, with its piecemeal roof taken from the old Armadillo World Headquarters and the fading, tropical mural that adorns its walls, can offer the city only a touch of character and a beer garden full of good times.”
* J’NET WARD, co-owner and primary operator ’97-present: It doesn’t fully sink in until I think about the building being demolished. I think, “Oh, God, what about the mural? What about the backstage area where Dale (Watkins, a late employee) gave Dolly Parton his jacket because she was cold, or the riser where Mark had to hold up the members of the Replacements because they were too drunk to stand?” There are so many memories, so many of them good. We’ll still have them, I guess, but they just won’t be the same without the building here.
* JOE ELY: Mark and J’Net are really what attract many of the performers to Liberty Lunch . They’re just good people. It’s easy to tell the good ones, especially in this business. I think if they’re still running the place, wherever it is, it will be Liberty Lunch.
* MARK PRATZ: The thing that has always touched me over the years is when the show is over and everyone’s leaving, they’re smiling and they say, “Thank you.” That happened a lot in the earlier days, and it still happens. I hope we get it at the new place, but I don’t know. I think that’s just what that old building does to people. I mean, what other club in the city or in the country do people say, “Thank you,” as they’re walking out the door?
Interviews by Chris Riemenschneider and Michael Corcoran
*KIRK WATSON: The Yellowman show in ’84 or ’85 really sticks out because it was the first time Liz and I had ever heard live reggae music. A fellow lawyer, Steve Selby, was a reggae fanatic — he’d even sent out a memo with a reggae glossary — so at his encouragement we saw Yellowman and we were just blown away. He wasn’t one of the biggest names in the biz, but everyone at the show seemed to know all his songs. We were part of this communal musical experience and it was intense.
* MICHAEL POINT: For me, Liberty Lunch will always mean The Spear, burning brightly into the early morning hours with an audience of dedicated dreadheads so perfectly attuned to the hypnotic reggae anthems booming out from the stage that it seemed more like a religious ritual than a concert. The Lunch transcended eclecticism — who else would book Bill Monroe, Run DMC, Count Basie, k.d. lang and King Sunny Ade, not to mention the litany of cutting-edge rock thrashers — but the reggae revolution of the mid-’80s consistently filled the club (and the street) with the fervent faithful and that’s what I remember best. There was an air of discovery, as well as a special aroma in the air, as acts previously known only through radio and recordings, both the famed, such as the dynamic double bill of Toots & the Maytals and Yellowman, and the esoteric, such as the Twinkle Brothers and Tenor Saw, appeared on a steady basis. The rapidly expanding local reggae fan base was still holding awestruck conversations about last week’s Michigan & Smiley or Mutabaruka show when Sugar Minott, Big Youth, Eek-A-Mouse or some other reggae sensation came to town. It was a relentless riddim assault and The Spear ruled supreme over it all .
* MICHAEL CORCORAN: I’ve seen more great shows at Liberty Lunch than at any other venue, including several magical Neville Brothers concerts, an incredible Ween show, NRBQ, Fugazi opening for Bad Mutha Goose and that great Foo Fighters/Spearhead double bill from ’95, but the one concert that was pure ecstasy from beginning to end was when D.C. go-go band Trouble Funk played in ’85. This was an era when most funk or soul bands were dressed like space men with these ridiculous, shiny costumes and Trouble Funk came out in cut-offs, jeans, tank-tops and just rocked the likes of Earth, Wind and Fire into oblivion. T. Funk had a big following in Austin, thanks to their show with the Big Boys at Club Foot — one of the all-time legendary nights of music in town — and they seemed genuinely turned on by the audience response. I’m usually too self-conscious to let go at concerts, but on this night you stood out if you weren’t dancing.
* JOHN T. DAVIS: There were several years, between 1987-’91, when the Neville Brothers made regular pilgrimages to Liberty Lunch. I’ve never seen the band play better, either before or since. There seemed to be a synergy between the Nevilles and the Lunch that defied easy explanation. They could play in January, they could play in June, and it didn’t matter. For the duration of that night, the entire universe was a swampy, polyrhythmic, propulsive, irresistably danceable World Under One Groove. Park your car up the block and walk down the street toward the Lunch, and you could hear that big walloping bass line, echoing through the sidewalk and up the bottom of your feet. Get closer, and the siren wail of Charles Neville’s saxophone began to cut through the funk. Walk in the door, and the interplay of percussion, keyboards, chicken-scratch guitar, Second Line rhythms and Aaron’s angelic solo just swept you away from this veil of tears and into a special cosmos, a New Orleans of the imagination. I wouldn’t trade anything for those nights.
* DON MCLEESE: My first was Poi Dog Pondering at my first SXSW (’87 or ’88, memory blurs), which I was covering for the Chicago Sun-Times. The club was as much a part of the dynamic as the crowd and the band, and that dynamic was much of the reason I wanted to move to Austin. The first show I reviewed for the Statesman after making that move a couple of years later, was a Liberty Lunch triple bill of the Highwaymen , the Kris McKay Band and David Halley, where I discovered how easy it was for Austin to take such inspired music for granted, as a couple dozen of us shivered through the January evening. Too many great shows to mention followed, though the supersonic warp of My Bloody Valentine is the one experience I will never forget (and the one from which it has taken Austin rock in the ’90s so many years to recover).
* MILES ZUNIGA (of Fastball): I’ve seen too many cool shows to count. Some highlights: The first-ever Fugazi appearance in Austin, opening for Bad Mutha Goose. Oasis’ first appearance in Austin. An amazing show by My Bloody Valentine along with Dinosaur Jr. and Babes in Toyland, which many people say started the whole space-rock scene (Flying Saucers, 16 Deluxe, etc). I have many fond memories: Paul Westerberg milling about by himself after an amazingly drunk performance by the Mats. Dino Lee ringing in the new drinking age (21) while all these 19 year olds eagerly gulped down their last free legal minutes. To me the Lunch was like a trade school. I really believe I learned a big part of my craft there.
* CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER: My first time was in an ice storm in ’88. Along with about 30 other people, I learned the hard way that Liberty Lunch wasn’t built for winter, nor for the Dead Milkmen. The great shows came in due time: Camper Van Beethoven two days before “Key Lime Pie” came out; Soul Asylum when they recorded some live tracks; Dave Pirner singing “It’s a shame we’re so lame,” to the opening act (the Lemonheads). And that Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine and Babes in Toyland show, when MBV literally played a single note for like five minutes straight. The best night, though, was during South by Southwest in 1990 when I didn’t know the SXSW acronym from WASP. I saw the Jayhawks, the Silos, the Reivers and an upstart named Kelly Willis. Nobody set the place on fire. It was just probably my first true Austin night.