Gloriathon at Liberty Lunch July 23-24, 1999
Many would choose to list the 1974 Van Morrison concert at the Armadillo World Headquarters where he played seven encores. But I picked the show where he just phoned it in.
Liberty Lunch was the Armadillo in the trousers of ‘80s and ‘90s Austin. It was a special, no-frills club where all the greats played on their way up, where the folks who ran the place were happy if you were. The club was on city property, paying $600 a month rent on a plot worth millions, so its demise was eminent. When the singer of Afghan Whigs was hospitalized with a fractured skull after a fight with a stagehand it seemed to validate the heave ho, and the Lunch had its date with the ‘dozers. It was the end of July ’99 and Texas Monthly writer Michael Hall put together a send-off of epic proportions. He and anyone else who wanted to would play the Van Morrison garage rock anthem “Gloria” for 24 hours straight.
Hall’s short-lived band the Brooders started the one-song marathon at 9 p.m. Friday July 23, kicking it off in a trance of vibrato guitars for 15 minutes. And then Hall started singing those lines that launched 10,000 bands; “She comes ‘round here…” It was another 45 minutes until the chorus was reached like a climax. “G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!” Twenty-three more hours to go.
The concept was brilliant- 1952 Greenwich Village brilliant- but how could Hall and company possibly keep it up? Who’s going to play at 5 a.m.? Or two in the afternoon? But the Austin music scene showed up. All night, all day. Jam bands, blues players, shuffle drummers and sax players. One musician came offstage at 4 a.m. to find his car missing, so he went down to the station, filed a report and went back to the club in the morning light, played another hour- and then found his car exactly where he’d parked it the day before. One drummer was so wasted he just pissed up against the back wall of the stage. Fresh beers were distributed at 7 a.m., like cups of water from strangers on the side of the road, urging on the marathoners. It was just craziness, but the sense of community fueled the whole thing. Customers became musicians- playing on the stage that once held Nirvana, Bill Monroe, My Bloody Valentine, the Neville Brothers, Foo Fighters, Wilco and on and on and on.
Every musician brought their own thing to the simple E-D-A chords that relentlessly built to a climax and then walked back down that hill to start over again. G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria! That part never got old. The Gloriathon was a 24-hour orgy with bodies coming in and out all day and night. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” Gretchen Phillips sang it, Patti Smith style. This was our lives they were playing about.
At about three in the afternoon, Van Morrison’s road manager held up a phone as Van the Man sang “Gloria” at a festival in Scotland, and it was piped over the sound system at the Lunch. He didn’t normally perform the 1965 song anymore, Morrison said, but there were a crazy bunch of folks in Austin playing “Gloria” for 24 hours straight, so he dedicated it to them.
A great moment, for sure, but the superstar cameo was a deviation of what was really happening. We were not just toasting a beloved venue and the people who made it shine. We were saying goodbye to a paradise of our youth, a time and place that made us feel as if we finally belonged. The summer of ’99 marked the end of the ‘80s in Austin. It was time to start families, to get on with the work that would define us, to see what we were really made of, now that the fantasy was being torn down.
The last hour of the Gloriathon, with the finish line in sight, was the best. At 8 p.m., the crowd waiting outside to see Saturday’s headliner Joe Ely was let in, just as the stage was wailing, with about 20 people up there. Joe King Carrasco’s dog yelped into the same microphone as his owner- an insane harmony that felt right. The newcomers urged on the hodgepodge orchestra, and for awhile there was no song, just players. It was challenging, abrasive, yet full of purpose, and the audience pumped their fists at the ugly and beautiful dissonance. But here she comes. When they hit the final familiar chorus, something beautiful burst. The whole place, now jam-packed, was singing along and stomping. There is no sadness in the final climax.