Local Music

Luna Star Cafe Celebrates 20 Years as a Miami Music Scene Misfit

It’s rather remarkable that in a city as diverse and cosmopolitan as Miami, a listening room like the Luna Star Cafe has become an anomaly. 

Over the past two decades, folk, blues and Americana artists of all stripes have embraced it as a place that spotlights more subtle and divergent forms of expression. Some of them are standard bearers of South Florida’s indie scene — Jim Camacho, Graham Drout, Matthew Sabatella, Diane Ward, and Rod MacDonald among them — while others with national reputations, like Bob Lind, Kinky Friedman, and Malcolm Holcombe repeatedly return to share their wares. They all owe a hearty thanks to Alexis Sanfield, the owner and proprietor of Luna Star Cafe, for giving subtlety a chance to thrive in its intimate environment. The fact that Sanfield’s managed to maintain the club’s reputation as a superior showcase speaks volumes, especially given the fact that it mostly operates well below the radar and at a substantially lower volume than most Miami venues.

“I wanted something I could call my own,” Sanfield says, thinking back to her original intentions with Luna Star. “A place where people felt at home.”

Sanfield grew up in Brooklyn (“way before it was cool to live in Brooklyn,” she notes) and earned her living in the New York City club scene before taking off for Europe. “Traveling, living, and working abroad was a great experience and taught me everything I needed to know at the time,” she recalls. After her parents relocated to South Florida, she returned to the States and went back to work, first for their short-lived pizza establishment and then as a waitress and bartender while also attending school.

Those experiences apparently served her well when she opened Luna Star in 1996, although her family’s influence helped as well. “I gained on-the-job experience,” she recalls. “My dad had dabbled in showbiz while I was growing up. He played guitar and sang. My mother and father taught dance. Then there was the time my dad owned a circus when I was 9 years old, big tent and all.”

The café started out as a coffeehouse that was open during the day and only a few nights a week. Sanfield knew a good amount of musicians hungry for a stage, so she started an open mike night soon after Luna Star opened. The South Florida Folk Club quickly discovered the joint and made it a preferred showcase for locals. Soon, other musicians found the place as well.   
Still, Luna Star’s commercial prospects were then — as they are now — hindered by the fact that it was clearly out of sync with the tastes and temperament of Miami as a whole. Sanfield agrees. “It is really tough to have a venue like the Luna in South Florida, let alone in North Miami,” she concedes. “Everywhere in South Florida is a destination location. There are far and few walking neighborhoods, so having people pop in for late afternoon lunch or dinner just does not happen. Plus, the majority of people down here think that musicians should work for free, and so they resist paying a cover charge. They believe that music ought to be background for their conversations. It always amazes me that people will pay $10 or more to see a movie and sit quietly in a theater, but when asked to be quiet while a musician is onstage seems to be a challenge.” 

Nevertheless, Sanfield is grateful to have survived in spite of the odds. “We have a loyal, loving customer base [that travels] from miles away to come to the Luna Star Cafe on a regular basis. I tell people that Luna Star Cafe is like Cheers on LSD, and as far as that’s concerned, not much has changed 20 years later."

Luna Star is celebrating all week with a performance from Box of Light on Friday, the cafe's classic open mike night on Saturday, and Irish folk act the Three Jacks on Sunday. And, if Sanfield has her way, the music won't stop any time soon.

"My goal is to keep the doors open as long as I can and/or until I stop loving the place. I always want to be able to bring live music to South Florida and have a venue where songwriters have a place to be heard.”

The Luna Star Cafe, 775 NE 125 St., Miami; 305-799-7123; lunastarcafe.com.
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Lee Zimmerman