When the Texas Union reopened in 1979 after extensive renovations, it featured a new coffeehouse called the Cactus Café. But long before that, going back to the ‘30s, the space was known as the Chuckwagon. It’s where a UT student named Janis Joplin first performed in front of an audience in 1962, with a folk trio called the Waller Creek Boys.
What made the Cactus special at the beginning was a bartender named Griff Luneburg, finishing up his degree in Government. A Bob Dylan fanatic, Luneberg ran the club’s open mike night on Thursday and started booking the club fulltime in 1982. The first act to charge a cover ($2) was Nanci Griffith, who told her friend Lyle Lovett about the Cactus, and his career was built there in ’84, ’85.
Think of anybody who’s written a song in the past 30 years that’s made you cry- they almost all played the Cactus. Townes Van Zandt, Doc Watson, Gillian Welch, Bill Monroe, Todd Snider, Iris Dement, Jimmy Webb, Kasey Chambers… It’s really kinda ridiculous to try to list the nights of songwriting magic there. I’ll point out two.
The first was when an Austin High School basketball player named Suzanna Choffel saw Patty Griffin at the Cactus and saw the person she most wanted to be like. Nights at that little 100-capacity club have changed many in the audience. But they’ve also changed lives of those onstage. Bruce Robison and Slaid Cleaves are just two of many popular acts who didn’t know for sure that they could do this until they bowled ‘em over at the Cactus. Distance and volume are things that keep performers safe from revealing too much, but there’s no place to hide at the Cactus.
After an outraged public beat some sense into UT, which had announced they were closing the Cactus in 2011 (and ended firing Luneburg to save face), it seems to be cruising along. But the Cactus was Griff. I have no real idea of what went on behind the scenes, but UT shouldn’t have done Griff like that. He’s the only reason there’s not still cover bands playing the Cactus, as in the beginning.
I said I was going to tell you about two specific shows to add some flesh
around the thumbnail. This second one was my favorite show ever at the Cactus. I remember because we were among only about 10 people to see John Hiatt. This was right before Bring the Family. Across town that night, the Backroom was packed for Richard Thompson’s solo show. Glass Eye and Brent Grulke and all the other people who told you about music were always raving about Richard Thompson. Meanwhile, John Hiatt had spent a few years getting unfogged from various addictions and nobody knew if he was still any good. I just wanted to hear “She Loves the Jerk” and head on over to the Back Room.
Hiatt, also solo, was playing all these brilliant new songs like “Memphis In the Meantime” and “Stood Up,” and singing with such soul. It was a pure connection with the few of us. At the end he went to the piano and played a song I’ve heard hundreds of times since, but on that night it was new. “Have a Little Faith In Me.” I mean, come on! Here was this artist starting over, playing to nobody, being overcome with this real sense of personal fulfillment that only comes with humility. One man, one stage, one song. That was the night for me.