The Deep Ellum Experience

Dallas has good bands. So why did they flee Deep Ellum?

There you have it, Dallas. The tombstone.

It's glaring at you from newsstands all over town--even in the very district it's damning, Deep Ellum--and we at the Dallas Observer really wish we were happy about dribbling out this "I told you so." For years, we said that crime was a problem. We said that parking was a problem.

We even said, to some degree, that booking was a problem--notice how our concert review coverage for Deep Ellum for the past two years stuck mostly to Gypsy Tea Room, then ventured elsewhere for the other weeks. Purely intentional. After all, we didn't want to write mean reviews about brainless, sell-out butt-rock bands at Curtain Club, Club Clearview and Trees.

Gently down the stream: If Bosque Brown's Mara Lee Miller can make it without the help of Deep Ellum, then maybe local music will be just fine in 2006.
Gently down the stream: If Bosque Brown's Mara Lee Miller can make it without the help of Deep Ellum, then maybe local music will be just fine in 2006.

Before anyone argues that our choice was an issue of taste, well, you're mostly right. But here's the thing--Deep Ellum rock venues, for the past few years, have become notorious for leaving bands underpaid and scared shitless. I don't have charts, graphs and musicians' quotes to take that point as far as I'd like, but I will say that I haven't had a single person come up to me in the two-plus years I've written here and tell me about a good Deep Ellum experience.

Even if it's not an entirely accurate portrayal, it's still the lasting impression that every musician I've talked to in the past few weeks has brought up--"I never want to play Deep Ellum again." Members of the Golden Falcons and Sorta said that. Salim Nourallah said that. And many more said it off the record, whether complaining about low show payments, cars being broken into or the inability to load and unload band vans because of blocked streets and bottlenecked Deep Ellum traffic.

Strike one: the good musicians stop coming. The only ones who'll play are too stupid to look for better venues. Granted, local music isn't a huge money-maker, but when the venues can't even pay the bands respect or dignity--let alone a decent percentage of the door--then why bother?

In recent conversations with cover feature author and former music editor Robert Wilonsky, he dared me to name five current local bands whose music is as classic and timeless as the bands that reigned during his tenure in Deep Ellum (you can find his list of '90s greats in the feature). It was his way to start the conversation that many other people have had in recent weeks, blaming Deep Ellum's state, among other reasons, on Dallas' lack of good bands.

What a load. Just because major labels have given up on this city doesn't mean the music isn't great. Just because Trees wasn't recently selling out on weeknights with local bands doesn't mean the city isn't producing quality sounds.

Like most weekends in Dallas, this past weekend was a live-music treat. On Friday, the pAper chAse debuted new all-acoustic songs from their forthcoming record in what may have been the band's best local concert in more than a year. Saturday saw Glen Reynolds, Peter Schmidt and the Happy Bullets each hold court throughout Dallas with spectacular sets.

Wilonsky argued that those groups, with the exception of the Happy Bullets, are still remnants of the old guard. Where are the new groups? To him, I answered with my own list of great musicians around town--just check our year-end special ("The Local List," December 22) for a refresher on that one. I then reminded him that one of the biggest concerts of the month takes place this Saturday, when Bosque Brown, the band I picked for the No. 1 local album of 2005, headlines a bill at the Cavern that includes Patty Griffin aficionado Kristy Kruger and swamp-murder-country kings Spitfire Tumbleweeds.

People, this'll be one of the last times you can see the songs of Mara Lee Miller in concert before SXSW 2006, where I predict (or at least hope with all of my soul) that she will be transformed from small-town gem to underground sensation. The first time Bosque Brown performed at the Cavern, only 15 people showed up. The second time, that number was up to 50, and it was one of the few times I've heard the Lower Greenville destination go silent during a concert--even quiet indie darling Devendra Banhart couldn't do that last fall.

Questioning the fate of local music in the wake of Trees and Club Dada's troubles seems silly--the best have already built their local careers out of surviving without Deep Ellum's help. If anything, bands right now might be the best DFW has ever seen, playing, creating and even thriving without the love of major labels, packed weeknights, radio support or a convenient, central location. See for yourself on Saturday.

 
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