By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It didn't make any sense.
Last Thursday, in the wake of four—yes, four—music venues and clubs closing in Deep Ellum and Exposition Park within the span of a month, the residents of the region were...celebrating?
On the busy back porch of The Amsterdam, the Deep Ellum/Expo Park crowd nodded along to the Joy Division-inspired sounds of Denton's Grassfight—and didn't bat an eye when the band delved into an odd and unexpected cover of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Games." They danced along to The KuL's Robert Randolph & The Family Band shtick, and legitimately seemed to enjoy the band's encore take on "Take Me to the River"—you know, the Al Green song that wall-mounted fish Big Mouth Billy Bass sings. They laughed as Holy Diver performed loud classic rock covers and vulgar original tunes on kid-sized instruments. They paid a surprising amount of attention to the bartending competition happening to the side of the stage between the band's sets.
There were smiles. There was laughter. These people were genuinely enjoying themselves.
And it was all pretty weird, considering.
Had these people not heard about the recent club closings in their neighborhood—a neighborhood so closely tied to the past successes of these clubs? Did they simply not know about the demise of these venues? Could they not see how this might spell doom in their attempt to reclaim Deep Ellum's storied past?
No, they had, they did and they could. But on this night, they chose not to fixate on that. They were all, for the moment, just kind of over it.
Here, at this party, these area residents chose to keep their eyes on the positive. They wanted to ignore their dreary recent past and instead focus on the hopefully-not-as-dreary times they could be facing in the future—a future where, for better or worse, visual art slides past music as the cornerstone of the area's culture.
That's the thing about this night: Although music was performed at this party, it sat firmly planted in the second seat. The event was a fund-raiser for the Deep Ellum Association's upcoming visual arts showcase, Art-a-lot-a-thon. The people judging the bartending competition were dressed as great visual artists throughout history (see the photos). The fences of the bar's back patio were covered with paintings. There was no mistaking what was being honored on this night. (No offense to Grassfight, The KuL and Holy Diver.)
Yes, it was a change of pace. But while this area has forever been lauded for its musical prowess, there has always been visual art. And in the wake of the DART rail construction and the specific-use permit zoning changes, the visual arts have remained strong here. Now, with more than 20 galleries still in these neighborhoods, and with four more music venues dropping by the wayside (for reasons, it should be noted, mostly unconnected to the SUP zoning changes), maybe it was just time for an official changing of the guard.
Perhaps these people knew something the rest of us continually refuse to acknowledge.
"It's sad, but the live music scene [in Deep Ellum] has changed," says Deep Ellum Association board president Gianna Madrini. "Is there another scene in town with live music? I guess some has gone to Greenville...but I don't know if Dallas really has a strong music scene right now. It's not what it once was."
Madrini's correct, you know—on many levels, but specifically in downplaying how devastating a blow this recent round of club closings is for Deep Ellum and Exposition Park. In any other part of Dallas, four consecutive club closings would've effectively wiped out the entire landscape of live music venues; here, it still doesn't cut the total in half. Between the two neighborhoods, there remains Club Dada, The Double Wide, The Amsterdam Bar, The Fallout Lounge, The Red Blood Club, The Curtain Club, Sons of Hermann Hall, The Prophet Bar, The Door and Reno's Chop Shop Saloon, among others.
No, it's not what it once was.
"It's kind of like a buffet after it's been picked over," says Frank Campagna, co-founder of the Kettle Art Gallery on Elm Street. "It just doesn't look very appealing anymore."
But it's something. That, in the face of what this area has gone through since its heyday of the late '80s and early '90s, there still exist many venues continuing to push forward? I'm sorry, but that's pretty amazing right there.
For an entire decade now, these Deep Ellum-ers have been bruised and beaten by the turning tides of public perception and consumption. It's quite unbelievable, actually, the number of places that have managed to stay open. And how they've managed to keep hoping that soon—perhaps after the DART rail construction is completed and the arteries into Deep Ellum are less clogged by traffic cones—things will move back to where they once were economically.
So if, on this Thursday night, people weren't dwelling on the past, you'll have to forgive them.
"We'd be kidding ourselves," says Club Dada co-owner Amanda Newman, "if we were trying to move forward to a vision of the past and of what Deep Ellum once was."
The perfect storm that swelled to create the live music scene that was once so strong in these parts has passed. But—newsflash, folks—the fact remains there's still no other part of town that offers this many music clubs in so small a radius. There's no other part of town that puts such an emphasis on original live music. There's no other part of town that will forever be as rooted in its own musical history.
If that means the music has to take its spot on the backburner for the time being, then so be it. Because, as Campagna, a Deep Ellum resident since 1981, says over the hum of Grassfight's set at The Amsterdam, the music may be a little tougher to find these days, but it hasn't gone anywhere.
"You can still see the same bands somewhere," he says. "It's just that there's a certain evolution that goes on. I remember in '83 and '84 people bitching about how Deep Ellum isn't cool anymore. That was 25 years ago. Give it the fuck up, people! You can't just keep doing the same thing, no matter what it is. It doesn't make it right, it doesn't make it wrong. It's just change."
On Thursday night in Exposition Park, several Dallasites seemed to understand this. Maybe its time the rest of us do too.