New beginning for historic Cactus Cafe

Darren Puccala, Life and Arts Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the March 8, 2022 flipbook.

Lights dim as the crowd’s murmurs subside into anticipatory silence. The first act of the night makes their way on the stage with haste at the historic Cactus Cafe. Long-time institution for student and local musicians in the Austin area, the Cactus Cafe offers aspiring artists the opportunity to showcase their original music — an open invitation for all at any stage in their musical journey.

After a two-year shutdown and ending a decade-long contract with NPR radio station KUT, the Cactus Cafe is heading in a new direction, a direction that started with the passionate Dylan Smith, a senior student programs advisor in the Student Programs Office. Smith, who has been working as the programming director since July 2021, said he hopes to solidify the Cafe’s success going forward through open mic nights and a welcoming atmosphere. 

“It was a lot of planning, asking questions, working with the University Unions to figure out what (we are) looking to do,” Smith said. “What are our resources at hand? What’s the vision?”

The Cactus Cafe holds live music every weekend, usually a concert most Friday or Saturday nights. However, the Cactus’ backbone comes from weekly singer-songwriter open mic nights. 

“We’ve got a pretty full house every Tuesday,” Smith said. 

Open mic nights occur every Tuesday from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., but most singer-songwriters stay after to socialize with the growing community. 

After one visit, Erik Mason, a 25-year-old who has been performing in Austin since December, said he already feels a connection to the Cactus clientele.

“There’s a huge level of support (that) everyone shows each other after performances,” Mason said. “The old guns would come up to the younger performers and say how great they did. There’s just a shared love of music.”

Musicians looking to network with similar artists find the supportive and social atmosphere helpful. Musician John Perez, inspired by the acts on stage, returned to the Cactus after his first visit to try his hand at performing. 

“You get good feedback,” Perez said. “We have time to talk to each other (after). You don’t just perform and leave like other places. Upcoming musicians want to make connections with other musicians.” 

Smith said he wants the Cactus Cafe to remain an inviting space for local songwriters with a strong backing by the support of students.

“There’s a lot of student interest,” Smith said. “It’s an amazing venue, and to be able to open that up to students potentially who want to perform is a really great opportunity.”

Although UT students have supported the venue since its opening in 1979, making it an integral part of student life, Smith said the pandemic affected the way students recognized the Cafe.

“Being shut down for almost two years is a big loss for our students,” Smith said. “If you were a freshman the last time the Cactus was open, and you’re a senior now, you missed out. If you’re an underclassman, you may not even know about the Cactus.”

With continuing collaborations between student organizations and an exciting slate of programming scheduled for the spring semester, Smith said he hopes that student support will become stronger.

“I want students to know that the Cactus is open for business,” Smith said.