Still miss Liberty Lunch?

ABGB will host a reunion event Saturday for nostalgic Austinites
and bands who played the iconic venue

Walk the five-block stretch of West Second Street between Congress Avenue and Shoal Creek downtown today, and the geography feels like an urban canyon. Condo towers dominate both sides of the street. Google pushes its new Fiber service from a former museum space. The splashy new City Hall looks out upon the hulking W Hotel and the marquee music venue ACL Live.

Not all that long ago, this canyon was a flatland. You could see for blocks in most directions, with few structures occupying the now-prime real estate. Across from the old City Hall was an often-empty parking lot. And the street’s music mecca was an entirely different experience altogether, an indoor/outdoor venue that had been a lumberyard before beginning a two-decade run as the rightful successor to hallowed 1970s hangout Armadillo World Headquarters.

“I still miss Liberty Lunch.” Seventeen years after the club was bulldozed to make way for a tech-industry office building, those words remain on the lips of countless Austinites who shared life experiences at a place that had its own special personality.

RELATED: “When Liberty Lunch was the place”

It’s fitting, then, that when some fans dedicated a public Facebook group to its memory back in 2009, “I Still Miss Liberty Lunch” was the name they gave it. More than 3,500 members now track its posts, though that number no doubt represents just a fraction of those who harbor cherished memories of magical nights there.

“I Still Miss Liberty Lunch” is also the title of a reunion event set for Saturday at South Austin restaurant and brewery ABGB. From 5 p.m. till beyond midnight, devotees of the Lunch will gather to tell stories, bid on memorabilia in live and silent auctions, and hear music from a half-dozen bands who regularly performed at the club during different phases of its heyday.

Carrie Clark of Sixteen Deluxe surfs the crowd at Liberty Lunch in 1998. (Photo by Kevin Virobik)

The Facebook page “was kind of a stimulating element” for the reunion, former co-owner Mark Pratz said last week around a table at ABGB, which was eager to provide a home for the event. “We’ve always wanted to do it, and we’d talked about it,” added co-owner J’net (pronounced Jeannette) Pratz, Mark’s wife.

ABGB’s Mark Jensen had attended many Liberty Lunch shows in the 1980s before moving to New York for 15 years. When he returned to Austin a few years ago and helped open ABGB in 2013, Jensen expressed interest in working with the Pratzes on a reunion event.

Former co-owner Mark Pratz showing off some of his favorite Liberty Lunch memorabilia.  Photo by Jessalyn Tamez

Former co-owner Mark Pratz showing off some of his favorite Liberty Lunch memorabilia. Photo by Jessalyn Tamez

But it wasn’t until Mark Pratz’s recent retirement that he found time to put it together. Since the late 1990s, he’d worked as an elementary school principal with the Round Rock Independent School District, for whom J’net still teaches physical education.

Getting the bands on board was easy. Late-’70s bands Extreme Heat and Pressure, early-’80s nuevo-wavo maestro Joe King Carrasco, mid-late ’80s alt-rockers the Reivers and Wild Seeds, and ’90s power-pop stars Fastball all were happy to play. Several special guests also will appear, including Javier Escovedo of the True Believers.

But preparing material for the auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, has taken a whole lot more of the Pratzes’ time.

“We knew we had a lot of stuff in storage. We didn’t quite know how much,” Mark said, explaining that while the club was in its prime,they were constantly filing away batches of posters, T-shirts, ticket stubs and the like. “Typically when the show was over, we threw it in a box, shoved it away and continued to move it around with our lives,” he said.

For most of the past two decades, those boxes have been in ashed behind their house in Taylor. Only recently did they begin an extensive excavation process, with Mark posting photos of the results bit by bit to the “I Still Miss Liberty Lunch” Facebook group.

One day, the page might be filled with dozens of promotional photos of bands who played the club: Flaming Lips, Richie Havens, Sonic Youth, Gwar. The next, maybe it’s a montage of paper tickets: Ben Folds, Burning Spear, Los Lobos, Wilco.

A number of old show posters will be auctioned off at the Liberty Lunch reunion on Saturday, June 18.  Photo by Jessalyn Tamez

A number of old show posters will be auctioned off at the Liberty Lunch reunion on Saturday, June 18. Photo by Jessalyn Tamez

Most fascinating are photographs of contracts with the bands. One for the legendary Nirvana show in October 1991 spells out exactly how much the band would make if the show sold out: “$1,500 guaranteed and 90 percent of the door after the first $3,000,” Mark notes. Not only did it sellout, but fans “were getting on the roof and sliding down the poles” to get into the show, he recalls. (One of the venue’s signatures was a removable roof that they adjusted with the seasons.)

The dozens of items up for auction on Saturday merely scratch the surface of the full treasure trove, which the Pratzes plan to sell soon online. They’ve also printed up some new T-shirts ($20 at Saturday’s event) featuring two classic logos from the club’s early days. One of them re-creates the giant coconut from the massive mural that took up the building’s entire inner western wall.

Though money from the auctioned items are earmarked for HAAM, the Pratzes themselves will get the money from the T-shirt sales, which seems only fair: Contrary to some misconceptions, the couple “never got a dime from the city” after Liberty Lunch closed, J’net says.

When Liberty Lunch closed in 1999, demolition crew members estimated it would take two or three weeks just to remove everything inside. (Photo by Adrienne DeVorkin)

Initially, officials of the city, which owned the land beneath Liberty Lunch, were on board to help the Pratzes relocate the business to the Red River district. A city loan allowed them to purchase land on the same block as Stubb’s for a planned partnership, but Mark and J’net said that when the proposed deal fell through, Stubb’s ended up covering the loan and owning the full block. The Pratzes didn’t lose money on the deal, they clarify,but they didn’t make anything either.

When: 5 p.m. Saturday.
Music: Wild Seeds, Fastball with Javier Escovedo, Reivers, Joe King Carrasco, Pressure, Extreme Heat
Also: Auction of Liberty Lunch memorabilia to benefit Health Alliance for Austin Musicians
Where: ABGB, 1305 W. Oltorf St.
Cost: Free.

“We were disappointed that it didn’t happen,” Mark says,noting that he’d already taken a job as a principal before the Lunch closed, when they’d seen the writing on the wall. After the relocation plans collapsed, J’net started teaching P.E. to special-needs kids. “Once we knew, finally, that this is not going to happen, I realized I had to grow up and get a real job.”

RELATED: “So long, Liberty Lunch,” the final show

What they left behind was a generation — generations, really— of Austinites who still miss Liberty Lunch. Hearing those clubgoers share their experiences has been one of the joys of reading posts in the Facebook group, J’net says. “You get all these people on there who are telling you their side of the story. You know, ‘I met my wife here,’ or ‘I proposed here.’”

As magical as it all may have been for Austinites of that era, Mark and J’net realize the Liberty Lunch of the ’80s and ’90s simply would not fit into the Second Street of the city today. “Austin was a very different place then than it is now,” Mark says. “Liberty Lunch was as much a time as it was a place; it was a convergence of many things.”
On Saturday, those who were part of that convergence will reconvene to hear some familiar bands, visit with old friends, and talk about how there will never be another time, or place, quite like it.

“At night, it was just beautiful,” Mark remembers, with a sense of wonder still in his voice. “A full night there, when the band was booming, the sky caps were off, the door was open and the breeze was blowing through — it had this energy. It was just this exuberant energy that I think was Austin then.”

Additional credits: Liberty Lunch archive photo by Ted S. Warren; poster photo by Jessalyn Tamez.

(Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman)