By Mark Guarino
AUSTIN — Music clubs are not the only institutions in this city where musicians gather to drink, eat and occasionally play. Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, a cozy Tex-Mex diner located on Congress Ave., just a short walk from the state capitol building, is considered just as essential. Since 1981, it 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. Except in Austin, where black beans and pulled pork is 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, by 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, such as Los Lobos, their first opportunity to play in the city.
“I think we organically made connections with musicians. 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,” Perez said.
Then, in 1997, the restaurant started hosting annual back patio concerts during the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference. 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 line-up of Texas artists — Rick Trevino, Ruben Ramos, Freddy Fender, Alejandro Escovedo, Doug Sahm, Rosie Flores, Joe Ely, Los Lonely Boys, Flaco Jimenez and many likeminded peers including Calexico, Jon Langford, Sally Timms, Los Lobos and John Cale — created the familiarity of a family picnic where the stage had no end and everyone became part of the show.
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 it 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 including Sahm who endorsed Trevino from the stage and made him feel welcome. It was a collaboration that would ultimately lead to Los Super Seven, the rotating Texas supergroup that ended up releasing three albums and a Grammy award 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. They’re extremely generous. Everyone is willing to do things for free which doesn’t happen in New York or L.A.”
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. The low cost of living plus wide swath of universities 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. There is currently 22,000 new apartments or condominiums under construction and over a millions square feet of office space being built, the highest numbers since 2000.
Las Manitas is losing its lease thanks to White Lodging Services, a developer planning to erect three Marriott hotels by summer 2009, a $185 million complex that will add 1,000 rooms downtown. The plan is also uprooting Escuelita del Alma, a childcare center, and Tesoros Trading Company, a folk arts retailer, located next door.
When 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 concert at La Zona Rosa, the nearby club. The Perez sisters now plan on using 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 remains open 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 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. The San Antonio mariachi troubadours Campanas De Las Americas set the groundwork for the evening. They strolled among the guests who, crammed tight on rows of wooden benches, feasted on a full menu of Tex Mex food. As much revelry the trumpets and violins summoned, the two-plus hours 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 wild years, before corporate shareholders became the bottom line.
“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. “My best friend ran off with my wife ... I miss him,” Meyers deadpanned.
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 for the only reason so young blonde protégé Kendall Carson could belt out a song about trucker crushes. That was weird but not so much as Bob Neuwirth rattling off one-note agit-prop backed by (and underutilizing) 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 collaborative album forthcoming in June. Like Ranchero singer Ruben Ramos who performed earlier in the evening, Escovedo’s show-closing moment seemed more complimentary to the surroundings. With his full band (plus string section) huddled together on top the creaky wooden planks, Escovedo ended the night with his signature combination of mournful songs and restless rockers including the haunting elegy “Rosalie,” which became a group effort to close out the night
That same party, music-minded filmmaker Jonathan Demme (“Stop Making Sense,” “Storefront Hitchcock,” “Heart of Gold”) slipped into the crowd, later telling Perez he wanted to document the restaurant’s final day on film, she reported. As Escovedo launched into a new song, the sun had fallen. In true Las Manitas fashion, the lone lightbulb illuminating the stage went out and a busboy scrambled to replace it while the band played on in the dark.