Liberty Lunch 1976-1999
by Michael Corcoran
To those of us who moved to Austin in the ‘80s and had to hear about how we missed the Armadillo World Headquarters: think of how much worse that would have been if we didn’t have our own ‘Dillo in Liberty Lunch! This sacred venue was bulldozed in 1999 to make room for Computer Sciences Corp. headquarters and I still remember everything about the Lunch.
I’m not talking about the lineups, like the triple bill of My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr. and Babes In Toyland, which were unforgettable. I remember how the floor was more like ground and how the best place to see the band was stage right, where the pot smoke from the patio hit the jetstream of sound.
Physically, there wasn’t much too it. A big stage so flimsy that Run-DMC had to perform like statues because every time they moved in ’86 the record skipped. No place to sit. Gross bathrooms that the acts had to use because there wasn’t running water backstage. But what made the Lunch was the people who worked there. They treated you like you were guests at their home. And on the way out, the audience would say “thank you!”
Besides great roadshows, the Lunch nurtured several local scenes, including the funk-rap with Bad Mutha Goose, Do Dat, Bouffant Jellyfish and Retarded Elf. Any kind of live dance music worked there. Any kind of music really.
You felt safe at Liberty Lunch, which was all-ages, that parents just dropped their kids off for shows to go out and have a quiet dinner.
Mark Pratz and J-Net Ward were the couple, now married, who ran things from ’83- ’99, but let’s not forget the Austin couple that founded Liberty Lunch. Before Esther’s Follies, Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton took
over the site of a former lumberyard, which had been used as a ratty ass flea market, on Dec. 9, 1975. They planned to call this food/ performance space Progressive Grocery, but while scraping the paint off the front of the building they saw the name Liberty Lunch from when the Texas Lighthouse for the Blind served lunches there after WWII. During the patriotism of 1976, they decided Liberty Lunch was the name.
Soon after opening, the club’s Cajun-influenced restaurant got a rave in Texas Monthly and the staff struggled to keep up with the demand. The first bands to really take off were Beto y Los Fairlanes (salsa), the Lotions (reggae) and Extreme Heat (soul/funk), each inspiring dancing on the gravel floor that covered the whole place in dust. This was around when that dopey
tropical mural was painted. The city owned the property and wanted to shut down Liberty Lunch and all those half-naked stoned hippies from the very beginning.
Charlie Tesar took over in 1980 and built a roof over Liberty Lunch made of materials from the Armadillo, which closed on the last day of 1980. The torch had been passed, but the old Lunch crowd hated it not being open-air. The old standbys started eating it at the door and a new era was about to begin.
Pratz, the doorman since ‘78, started booking the club around ’81, then joined with Louis Meyers, manager of Killer Bees, to bring in bands from Jamaica and Africa and, of course, the Neville Brothers from New Orleans.
At 1,200 capacity, the Lunch was the perfect launching pad for bands like Nirvana, Replacements, Pavement and Alanis Morrissette who’d outgrown the Continental Club, which Lunch Money also booked. You’d see k.d. lang, when she was a rockabilly singer, and then the next night would be Fugazi and then the Count Basie Orchestra.
In 1998 city council voted to end Pratz’s lease and rent the land to a high-tech company. The club had six months and when Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs called out a stage hand in Dec. ’98 and ended with a fractured skull, everyone kinda knew there’d be no reprieve this time.
The last year of the century was the last year of not only Liberty Lunch, but Steamboat, Electric Lounge and the Bates Motel. Things were changing as fast as local hero Lance Armstrong on the Tour De France.