SquareRut Kava Bar, Austin TX


Austin: where the weird have already turned pro.

It’s not easy for an outsider to book a gig in Austin. I’ve never had a great show in the self-proclaimed (and frequently – the slogan appeared even on the plane’s exit ramp when I touched down) Live Music Capital Of The World. I think there are just so many professional musicians here, who make their living filling regular slots in the million clubs, bars and pizza joints around town, that there is simply no need for a touring musician in the economy unless they can draw hundreds of people. (Which I’m not. You know…yet).

This time, I tried the shotgun approach, sending out messages to about a dozen venues that seemed like they might stoop down as to make room for a low-profile troubadour, including one place primarily known as a hot dog take-out counter. (Which has three-band bills every night, but still, I’m a little ashamed). None of the dozen even had the decency to respond, even with respond with a No, except SquareRut Kava Bar, which kindly offered me a gig, on a Saturday night no less. Score!

Now, you may think that I’ve spelled “kava” wrong, and that it should be a cava bar. You may be right.

Kava is a Polynesian drink which, according to Wikipedia, causes “slight tongue and lip numbing, mildly talkative and sociable behavior, clear thinking, calmness, relaxed muscles, and a sense of well-being”. Also, it tastes terrible. (Here, Wikipedia is charitable: “slightly pungent”). SquareRut serves kava, and only kava (OK, and some tea). No alcohol, because it’s a really bad idea to mix kava and hooch, apparently.

A Saturday night show in Austin with no beer may sound like a contradiction in terms. I felt a little bad inviting people to the joint, in fact, knowing that they’d be trapped in my sound-world for two hours with no alcohol to assist with the enjoyment. But I went ahead and put out the word, and people responded positively, though none had heard of kava, and some were a bit leery of passing on the invite, knowing about the limited availability of adult beverage refreshment. But signs pointed toward a decently-attended show, at least.

I arrived on Thursday, and greatly enjoyed the foods, drinks and weather of Austin leading up to Saturday. It was a little hard getting used to the fact that it isn’t really a walking town, even though it appears that way on a map. For instance, walking from 6th St. to the strip on South Congress looks like a modest eight-block walk, which should take, I dunno, ten minutes at a good pace. But in actuality it will take you at least half an hour, and in the searing Texas sun you’ll probably expire before you make it. Buses generally arrive every 20 minutes at best, and the new metro rail system only has a single line which runs once an hour, and shuts down completely from 4 pm Saturday until Monday morning. So…when visiting, pack a car.

Saturday evening, I and a group of friends worked hard to find a dinner place that had an open table for seven people, but even at the ungodly early hour of 6 pm, everywhere was booked solid. I have to assume that everyone just makes plans to hit up one of the food trucks parked in every vacant space in the city (there are easily more food trucks than actual restaurants) after taking in their live music for the night. But we finally found a Thai place that had room on their patio, and under the glow of heat lamps (hot as the days were, the nights get chilly in the desert) ate an excellent meal.

Then we got in our cars and headed south. SquareRut is located on South Congress, but south of the strip. Four miles south, to be exact. We left behind the bright lights and passed through open fields in total darkness before arriving at a small strip mall, with almost nothing around it. This was the real Austin city limits.

The space inside was bright and friendly, at least, with a good stage and decent sound system. I got myself set up, and other friends soon started to arrive. Most tried the kava, with some bravely choosing the recommended dosage of three full servings, which arrived in charming coconut half-shells. There were various flavorings available, which made the stuff much more palatable, until they ran out of everything but the straight stuff partway through my set, I learned later. The general consensus on the taste: “bitter dirt”. Or, “the water left over from washing potatoes”. Slobber!

I didn’t find this out until later, of course. I’d been warned not to try it before playing, as the potion numbs one’s mouth and I didn’t want to be drooling onstage. So I plugged in and kicked off my two sets, happy to have a nice crowd of friends as well as a fair number of kava-sipping diehards scattered around the cafe. It felt great to be onstage again, and I felt like I was connecting pretty well, though some of those diehards sat with their backs to me the entire night, try as I might to get their attention.

People had nice things to say afterward – my newest tune “Conversation With the Spirits” got some high marks – and a group of us headed for the Hotel San Jose courtyard for a beer. None of my friends reported much of a relaxing effect from the kava, even after three half-shells. Before I left, I did in fact have a sip – my lips numbed, and my tongue recoiled at the distinctly bitter taste. But given the number of other people in the cafe who were drinking it all night, with gusto, it clearly does have an audience, mysterious as that is.