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In a way, The Chat Room Pub will come full circle Saturday night when The Theater Fire and Peter and the Wolf take their places on the Oriental rug that serves as an improvised stage along the bar's painting-festooned back wall.
The Fort Worth bar had built a devoted clientele of regulars in more than five years as a Fairmount-area hangout until Brad Hensarling, himself a former musician in bands My Space Coaster and Tiebreaker, took over ownership from Jon Carney about two years ago. It was during a dark period in Fort Worth's music history, as the Wreck Room and the Black Dog Tavern were shutting their doors, thanks to massive redevelopment projects in the Seventh Street area.
"There was just this gap in the scene," Hensarling said. "It kind of started because our friends needed places to play, and we started booking it that way."
Having a built-in bar crowd has allowed the bar to do things differently as a music venue. The club turns over 100 percent of the door receipts to the bands, taking no house cost and splitting the money evenly among the acts. Sensitive to the financial difficulties of being a touring musician after putting in two years on the road himself, Hensarling wants to ensure the bands that play there get paid. That fair treatment has lead bands to recommend the Chat Room to their friends, giving the bar and the booking agency it uses, The Roman Seasonal, the luxury of being very choosy about who plays there.
"We don't do shows that often because we're not a venue," he says. "The shows do cost us more. Every show, I'm coming out of pocket more than a couple hundred dollars to pay for the labor and upkeep of the sound system, but I'm not charging it back to the band. If it's going to be that situation, we'll book them if we want to see them. There have been some shows that have been total busts, but me and Ben [Rogers] are happy because we get to sit down and watch them."
Bartender Ben Rogers works with The Roman Seasonal to book acts and runs sound during the shows. Rogers is also the mind behind 100 Second Dash, a free online compilation of songs (all 100 seconds or shorter) by local musicians. The first volume—featuring Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, Eaton Lake Tonics, New Science Projects and 22 other artists—was released last month, and he's accepting submissions for the second. Rogers is also the executive director of Fort Worth arts co-op Metrognome Collective, which hosted local and touring bands at its gallery space before fire code violations shuttered the space in 2006. Along with The Spiral Diner, The Chat Room now serves as a gallery for a rotating collection of work by Metrognome artists.
Both see The Chat Room as part of a larger neighborhood effort to keep ownership local and offer an alternative to those who don't want to hang out with the Yuppies, frat boys or tourists drawn to other parts of Cowtown.
"Aside from the bar, we do what we can to contribute to the scene," Hensarling says. "I mean, we do what we can as far as helping out with the area. My front door is one block from the bar. My entire life exists within an eight-block radius. So it's a bar, but it's also part of a larger community. This is one of those areas where everything that's owned on the street is owned locally. Starbucks tried to move in, Walgreens tried to move in, and the business owners and residents got together to keep them out, to keep at least this strip of [Magnolia Street] locally owned. The bar really fits into a larger picture of this side of town."
Saturday's show will hark back to the bar's beginnings as a music venue. Members of The Theater Fire are friends with Rogers and Hensarling—in fact, trumpeter Nick Prendergast's wife, Kara Keith, works there—and were among the voices clamoring for the bar to host live music. The band has played there a few times and frequently recommends new bands for the club to book.
"It kind of started up because of those guys," Hensarling says. "In fact, The Theater Fire and Peter and the Wolf were one of the first shows we had."
While The Chat Room Pub isn't strictly a music venue, it's downright conventional compared with other spaces that have held Peter and the Wolf shows. Austin musician Red Hunter's experimental folk-rock project has performed in odd venues including a graveyard, an abandoned bus and an uninhabited island.
"The reason I'm playing The Chat Room and The Cavern is because I'm playing with a full band, which I haven't done a whole lot," Hunter says. "In the past I've done solo or with a female backing vocalist.
"In the beginning we did a lot of unusual venues because people hadn't heard of us, and we were going out on the road for the adventure of it. This tour, I'm bringing an actual amplified band, so there're certain rules we have to follow. We need electricity at every venue, basics like that, and we need to be able to make noise. We can't play in the kind of non-legal places we used to play, because usually you're trying to be quiet there when you've got these hushed acoustic acts in, like, a building that's under construction or something, you're keeping it very quiet. The style of music we take on the road determines the performance more than anything else."