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Each week musicians drag out their friends, family and co-workers to see them play new-band showcases where the drink specials are the real draw (and often stronger than anything seen onstage). They hope one day they'll play to more than a handful of familiar faces and some disinterested drinkers. Maybe they'll catch the attention of an established band or a local booking agent and land an opening spot at Club Clearview or Trees or Curtain Club. To them, playing onstage in Deep Ellum is the first step toward validation as a musician and maybe also a stride toward their dream of warming the crowd for Creed or whatever band the kids with the beat-up Telecasters are emulating these days.
Fort Worth's The Theater Fire is not much different. The group wants to play in Deep Ellum, too, except it's not talking about the sanitized Deep Ellum of today, with its valet stands on almost every corner and renovated warehouse lofts. The band, which has been around for six years in various forms as Vena Cava, would rather play the Deep Ellum of yesteryear, when people jammed into back alley bars and speakeasies to hear the blues musicians who were passing through town as they rode the rails that once ran close to the clubs.
"The type of music we play would have fit in in Deep Ellum back in the day," says Curtis Heath, one of The Theater Fire's two guitarists and vocalists. "Deep Ellum was just full of little clubs. Like the Gypsy Tea Room--the original Gypsy Tea Room--was there. And Blind Lemon Jefferson was there. And a lot of other great musicians were there back in the day. And that stuff is very much along the lines of what we're doing now. And that was that area. And it's strange that now we can't really play there. There's not a place for us. It's strange that it has completely turned around. We would have fit in perfectly during the first half of last century, but not nowadays."
Not that The Theater Fire hasn't played Deep Ellum. It has performed at the Liquid Lounge and Gypsy Tea Room, along with Muddy Waters, the Barley House and various venues in both Fort Worth and Denton. But no one's sure who to book them with or what type of crowd they'll interest. It's no surprise since even The Theater Fire (which also includes Don Feagin on guitar and vocals, Aprell Feagin on keyboards, Sean French on pedal steel and xylophone, drummer Nick Prendergast and bass player Mark Castaneda) has a hard time describing its sound or naming a single group it would perfectly match up with. "Since what we're doing is so different, we don't know who it's going to appeal to," Don Feagin says. "We just need to get out there and play because there aren't any standard places that the bands we play with tend to play, and we just need to see what kind of response we'll get."
The pedal steel gets the band thrown into the country category, but the spacey guitar sounds have no place in a honky-tonk. And the percussion is more experimental than boom-boom-crash, so they can't be alt-country. "We do pull a lot from not necessarily modern folk, but old American sort of folk music from the '20s to the '40s and from a lot of country as well," Heath says. "And we're probably even more influenced by the blues bands than the new blues bands that play now."
This unclassifiable sound that keeps them from finding a niche is also part of the attraction. But the diverse influences are just one element of The Theater Fire. Another, they say, is the more organic nature of what they do, and that even extends to the instruments they play. "Almost everything we use was bought at a pawn shop," Heath says. "It's refreshing for people who are used to going into a show and seeing brand-new gadgets. This [old, wooden guitar purchased at Trader's Village] cost me $35. It's very expressive. It's part of your body almost. It's not like technology is bad. But this is sincere."
Add to those ingredients lyrics that aren't first-person recounts of love and woe, but rather, story-songs in the tradition of Woody Guthrie or pre-Nashville country ballads. "One of the best compliments we've gotten at shows or from people who've heard our [free, self-released, four-song] EP or from other musicians--people who have the ability to be intrigued by really good music and not so much be impressed by a flashy show--is that we're really like storytellers and we do some really beautiful storytelling," Prendergast says. "That's the impression they get. The people who seem to be our greatest fans or people who appreciate us the most, people who come out to every show, they know there's much going on. It's not just musically, but there is so much emphasis on the story being told. And a lot of them are third-person narratives. I don't hear enough of that happening. A lot of songs are, 'I love my girlfriend and she loves me.' They're relationship songs. So it's refreshing to hear a band that's not that."