By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Here's the ugly truth about Oak Cliff: Exciting and progressive a neighborhood as it may be, those arguing about its future as a musical epicenter for this city are doing little more than propagating myths.
The infrastructure just isn't there—not right now, and not in the foreseeable future. As a hub for charming boutiques and trendy dining spots, yeah, Oak Cliff is aces. But for music? Aside from a few remote venues tucked into various corners here and there, the 'hood across the Trinity just doesn't have the firepower.
That doesn't mean that Oak Cliff's musical offerings should be ignored, though. These days, thanks in large part to the efforts of the folks at the Kessler Theater, Oak Cliff, although not a full-on hub or even close, is becoming something else integral to the pulse of a healthy music scene.
It's becoming the breeding ground.
And intentionally so. After spending much of 2009 restoring the former movie house, destroyed somewhat famously by a 1957 tornado, into the beautiful listening room that it's been since officially opening in March, owner Edwin Cabaniss and artistic director Jeff Liles have made a point of having the Kessler showcase this city's young, up-and-coming, largely unshowcased musical talent.
"There's two reasons for that," the dreadlocked, rock-worn Liles explains during a recent show, while taking a breather in the venue's upstairs art gallery. "For starters, we're actually a school."
Indeed: During the day, the theater's main performance hall and back rooms are filled with youngsters scurrying about the space for dance lessons and piano lessons. New Bohemian Kenny Withrow even offers guitar lessons.
"On the other hand," Liles continues, "I knew that what we're doing here in Oak Cliff is similar, in some ways, to what we were doing in Deep Ellum in the '80s. Deep Ellum was where so many musicians in this town stepped on stage for the first time."
Long a fixture in the local music community—and storied for his efforts during the 1980s revitalization of Deep Ellum thanks to his booking work at the Theatre Gallery and later at Trees—Liles knew that the Kessler Theater had to establish itself as a home for something different from the offerings of Deep Ellum or even Denton. And though it's unlikely that, by following this same path of putting an emphasis on showcasing young talent, the Kessler will help turn Oak Cliff into the next Deep Ellum—at least not for some time—the plan is certainly helping the Kessler, which doesn't yet have the clout of other, more recognizable rooms around town, make a name for itself.
"And people like seeing that," Liles says. "Seeing someone who is freakishly talented beyond their years—people love that. There's a curiosity there."
A recent debut Kessler Theater performance from 21-year-old Booker T. Washington High School and Berklee College of Music graduate Nadia Washington, celebrating the release of her whopping third album at a mid-November show, essentially proved as much. As Washington, a jazz vocalist joined by a trio of talented jazz performers flown in to back her powerful pipes, performed a fairly awe-inspiring set on stage, her crowd marveled at the breath of her musical stylings (everything from jazz fusion to traditional Brazilian acoustic fare) and her jaw-dropping ability to throw her vocals around like they existed on some sort of yo-yo.
But they appeared equally as inspired by the room itself. A room this nice—with clean wooden floors, separate balcony seating and the kind of light and sound setup that old Deep Ellum haunts could only dream of—can do that to you. And it does it even more so when coupled with the surprise that a room like this would so welcome a young performer like Washington.
That's just the idea, says Liles, who hopes that when people think of the Kessler, they don't think of it as a traditional venue by any means.
"As long as these kid artists feel like they're at home here and that it's a safe haven for their art, that's great," Liles says. "This isn't a nightclub. Nightclubs can be cruel. This place is something else; it's a place to bridge the generation gap."
That explains the venue's booking philosophy, which has trended toward either the really young or really old, for the most part. Aside from a few independently booked shows aimed at attracting the indie-rock crowds, the Kessler's booking has mostly showcased a cast of talented, if underappreciated, touring veterans (Guy Clark, Marc Ribot) or the young, talented and completely unknown, like Washington. Great as the former showcases are, though, it's in the latter where the venue has truly shined.
Credit that much to Liles' ear for young talent. In just nine months, the venue has become home base for a whole roster of musicians like Washington. Among the Kessler's under-22-years-old regular performers: Emily Elbert, a finger-picking guitar virtuoso currently studying at Berklee like Washington before her; Hunter Hendrickson, the city's next great blues hope; pop-rock singer Tiger Darrow, whose music has already appeared in films such as the Robert Rodriguez-directed Machete; and 16-year-old fiddle wunderkind Ruby Jane, who, as the youngest-booked act at this past year's Austin City Limits Music Festival, became something of a darling from the weekend, invited to perform on stage alongside the likes of buzzing indie-rock outfit Local Natives and '90s still-arounds Blues Traveler.
"We want to show off virtuoso performers, people with extraordinary skill sets," Liles says with something of a shrug, as if they're easy to find. "You can get people in the room to see that. People are fascinated by it—they love seeing people that they've never heard of blow them away."
And, as the Kessler continues coming into its own—the venue just recently finished installing its kitchen and still has some work planned for its main facade—it's accomplishing a similar feat.
No, Oak Cliff isn't a music center yet. And it might not ever be. But for now, it's growing up quite nicely.