Las Manitas Farewell – Las Manitas (Austin, TX)
Nightclubs are not the only institutions in Austin where musicians gather to drink, eat and occasionally play. Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, a cozy Tex-Mex diner on Congress Avenue in the heart of downtown, is considered just as essential to the community. Since 1981, it has served as a gathering point for musicians, artists, political activists and government insiders.
News that it would be razed in the building of three luxury hotels set off alarms within the faction of this city intent on keeping Austin weird. It also stepped up a continuing debate about the current building boom in Austin’s downtown, and the toll paid on the city’s oddball charm.
In bigger cities, food and music do not typically intersect. But in Austin, barbecue and Tex-Mex are as much a part of the cultural diet as accordions and guitars.
At first, Las Manitas (“Little Hands”) was a place where Austin musicians felt comfortable meeting over huevos rancheros and enchiladas. “It’s affordable for most musicians and artists,” said Cynthia Perez, a co-owner with her sister Lidia. “We became a vortex.”
In the early days, the Perez sisters regularly transformed the restaurant into a music club, inverting the front of the restaurant into a stage area and encouraging people to enter from the back. They booked traveling minstrels from Mexico and gave others their first opportunity to play in the city.
“I think we organically made connections with musicians,” Perez said. “We had an affinity for the art form from the get-go. We were always amiable to them and wanted to accommodate anyone who would play.”
In 1997, the restaurant began presenting concerts on its back patio during South By Southwest. While music industry types sprawled across the city seeking out that year’s buzz bands, the invite-only gatherings at Las Manitas became a quintessential low-key Austin anecdote. Wooden benches, acoustic instruments and a premier lineup of primarily Texas artists of Mexican-American heritage created the familiarity of a family picnic where the stage had no end and everyone became part of the show. Among those who took part over the years were Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, Doug Sahm, Alejandro Escovedo, Ruben Ramos, Rick Trevino, Rosie Flores, Los Lonely Boys, Flaco Jimenez, Joe Ely, Los Lobos, Calexico, Jon Langford, Sally Timms and John Cale.
Inevitably, the concerts sparked new music and unlikely friendships. Escovedo premiered his song-cycle By The Hand Of The Father in the restaurant’s backyard in 1999; from there, the theatrical piece based on that material enjoyed a healthy run across the U.S. and Canada. In 1997, producer Dan Goodman persuaded Trevino — a country music hitmaker — to join his left-field Austin peers at a Las Manitas show; Sahm endorsed Trevino from the stage and made him feel welcome. The encounter ultimately led to Los Super Seven, the rotating Texas supergroup that ended up releasing three albums and won a Grammy in 1998.
“[Sahm] just folded him in,” said Paula Batson, co-producer of the long-running concert series. “Austin is unique because the musicians are from different musical genres but they know each other and they play with each other.”
The Perez sisters’ restaurant is the latest casualty in the widespread redevelopment of Austin’s downtown. Warehouses, parking lots and antiquated one-story buildings are rapidly being replaced with office towers, hotels and condominium developments. Austin’s relatively low cost of living (compared to Northeast and West Coast business centers) is attracting companies to open regional offices in or even relocate their headquarters to Austin, creating a housing boom and turning the real estate market on its head.
Las Manitas is losing its lease as a result of White Lodging Services’ plan to erect three Marriott hotels by summer 2009, a $185-million complex that will add 1,000 rooms downtown. The construction will also uproot neighboring businesses Escuelita del Alma (a childcare center) and Tesoros Trading Company (a folk-art retailer).
When the news broke, concerts, fundraisers and happy hours were organized to raise money for the restaurant’s legal defense. In February, Patty Griffin, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, James McMurtry and others played a benefit at La Zona Rosa, a nearby club. The Perez sisters plan to use the money to help relocate the restaurant to a building they own on a nearby corner, and are working with architects to draft ways to refashion what is now an art gallery and community center into a working replica of Las Manitas.
The old location was still open during this year’s SXSW, but construction at the new site is expected to start within six months. The sisters received better news in February when the Austin City Council approved a plan to provide low-interest loans of up to $750,000 to smaller downtown Austin businesses that face being displaced.
Still, Perez remains concerned about her city’s future. “I think the real heartbeat of Austin is the music and art of Austin and there has to be a way to keep that balance because otherwise we turn into Dallas,” she said.
In March, farewell proceedings translated to a final patio concert during South By Southwest. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme slipped into the crowd at some point, and later told Perez he wants to document the restaurant’s final day of operations on film, she reported.
San Antonio mariachi troubadours Campanas De Las Americas set the groundwork for the evening, strolling among guests who, crammed tight on rows of wooden benches, feasted on a full menu of Tex-Mex food. As much revelry as the trumpets and violins summoned, the two-plus hours of performances kept returning to those iconic Texas songwriters — Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Townes Van Zandt — whose spirits were continually evoked to remind the audience of Austin’s musical legacy.
“For me, country music and Tejano music is less with Freddy [Fender] gone,” announced Rick Trevino before launching into Fender’s “Before The Next Teardrop Falls”. Despite their generational divide, Austin mainstay Charlie Sexton and former Sahm keyboardist Augie Meyers locked into the kind of roadhouse boogie that would satisfy Meyers’ former boss: speedy, twisted, irreverent.
As the rotation clipped forward, headliners were relegated to two songs each. Rosie Flores fired off a heavy dose of rockabilly ruckus with only an acoustic guitar, while Chip Taylor dragged up a full band so that young blonde protege Kendall Carson could belt out a song about trucker crushes. That was weird, but not so much as Bob Neuwirth rattling off one-note agitprop backed by Chuck Prophet. “You’re a liar — a fucking liar,” Neuwirth growled, grating each time.
Alejandro Escovedo joined Prophet to preview a song they co-wrote for a forthcoming album. Like legendary singer Ruben Ramos, who performed earlier in the evening, Escovedo’s show-closing moment seemed more complementary to the surroundings. With his full band (plus string section) huddled together atop the creaky wooden planks that served as a stage, Escovedo ended the proceedings with his signature combination of mournful songs and restless rockers, including the haunting elegy “Rosalie”, which became a group effort to close the show.
Near the end of Escovedo’s set, as he launched into a new song, the sun had fallen, and the lone lightbulb illuminating the stage went out. In true Las Manitas fashion, a busboy scrambled to replace it while the band played on, in the dark.