By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
During the '80s the building at 2709 Elm Street sat empty. Huge glass windows in the front allowed anyone to see the ascending staircase that went straight up the middle of the room to the balcony and second tier. The owner always left the light on, and the small glimpse made me wonder about the history of the room--surely it was an elegant ballroom or dance hall during the Depression. For those of us who promoted concerts and ran nightclubs during the late '80s, the room seemed too good to be true--probably too expensive to run and turn a profit. Too beautiful to even think about.
When a public relations whiz kid named Jessica Clarke woke me up early one morning in the spring of 1990 and asked if I would meet her for breakfast, I could hear the urgency in her voice. Over grits and toast at East Dallas' Goldrush Café, she informed me that a 22-year-old kid named Brian Davis, youngest son of notorious Fort Worth millionaire Cullen Davis Jr., had just leased the Elm Street building. Brian's father was once accused of murdering the lover of his estranged second wife but was later absolved after a lengthy and controversial trial. Cullen Davis was our OJ Simpson, our Robert Blake, and now his son, flush with daddy's cash, was stumbling into business in Deep Ellum.
Davis had just moved back from Louisiana and had no experience as a business owner, yet he had tentative plans to open a Cajun-themed restaurant. He'd hired Clarke to handle the publicity for his new venture, but she enlisted me to convince him to use the space as a music venue instead. Apparently, I pulled it off, because he promptly hired me to book the venue and serve as DJ. We quickly assembled a skeletal staff of close friends, including Davis' college roommate David Webb, bartender Geoff Lane, manager "Big Steve" Shein, door girl Malina Pearson and an inexperienced sound engineer named Russell Turns (the only one of our group who endured the entire life of the club).
Trees (named for the support beams that looked like tree trunks) was, if you'll pardon the expression, a more organic enterprise during the early years. The interior was made of bricks and plywood, and the walls were decorated with autographed drum heads. A roll-up metal door directly behind the stage was often left open during concerts. A raging thunderstorm on Elm Street provided an unforgettable backdrop to a memorable solo acoustic performance by former Husker Du front man Bob Mould. Dozens of kids stood outside on the sidewalk and watched from backstage as Radiohead performed "Creep" in Dallas for the first time. Passersby could see nimbus clouds of secondhand smoke billowing from the club during sets by De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Cypress Hill.
Because of this open-door design, anything that happened at Trees set the tone for the neighborhood on a given night.
The timing for a new 900-capacity venue couldn't have been better. Grunge was poised to take over mainstream rock radio, gangsta hip-hop was filtering into middle America and the local music scene in Dallas was in full swing. The Buck Pets, Toadies, Course of Empire, New Bohemians, Rigor Mortis, Funland, Tripping Daisy, MC 900 Ft Jesus and Rev. Horton Heat had signed record deals with major labels, and Trees quickly became their hometown venue of choice. Clarke and I nurtured an ongoing working relationship with concert promoters Mark Lee and Danny Eaton (former partners of 462 Productions), which meant artists like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, PJ Harvey, Elliott Smith, Afghan Whigs, Guided By Voices and Marilyn Manson all made their Dallas debut performances as "baby bands" at the club.
Trees had its share of trouble, of course. Mazzy Star unplugged their instruments and abruptly walked offstage four songs into their set after someone tossed a beer bottle at singer Hope Sandoval. Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli almost got his ass kicked for propositioning a woman from the stage while she was standing next to her boyfriend. Cop Shoot Cop bassist Tod A left his gear behind and ran off the stage through the side door in a delirious, dope-sick effort to get a fix.
And who could forget the year anniversary of the death of Loco Gringos' frontman Pepe Lopez? Rev. Horton Heat hosted a "séance" which turned into a drunken open-mike confessional featuring "Dookie" (the late, smack-addicted, cross-dressing saxophonist from '80s Ellum favorites Daylights) and a twisted testimonial from born-again club owner Russell Hobbs. Things turned surreal as Hank Tolliver from Bar of Soap seized the microphone and drunkenly recited the lyrics to the Gringos' "Nurture My Pig" while Turns ran his voice through an octave divider and frequency pitch generator. It sounded like Darth Vader channeling The Chipmunks inside Carlsbad Cavern. Chairs and empty beer bottles were thrown, bewildered audience members screamed at the stage and each other, and somewhere, Pepe kicked back with a can of Schaffer's and smiled down on it all.