It was late spring 2012, and a scraggly band clutched acoustic guitars and a washboard in the middle of Deep Ellum Brewing Company's beer garden. As a hundred or so drinkers milled about, basking in the sunshine and sampling the young brewery's beers, one simple, frantically delivered line caught the crowd's attention.
"When the shit goes down, you better be ready."
With that exclamation and the completion of the song — a cover of a classic Cypress Hill tune — Dallas' Fish Fry Bingo, a self-proclaimed "Beergrass band," turned an otherwise slow-walking brewery tour into a rowdy concert. With souvenir pint glasses raised high, the crowd gathered and danced in front of the band as it tore through a handful of their rustic, bluegrass-based tunes.
In the two years since, North Texas' craft brew scene has exploded, with new breweries throwing open their taps seemingly every month. That's meant an increase in surprisingly legitimate live-music venues. Breweries such as Lewisville's Cobra Brewing Company, Martin House Brewing Company in Fort Worth and Community Beer Company in Dallas, among others, have become outlets for artists performing original material to reach new listeners. An afternoon once reserved for high-ABV beer and fellowship now often includes buying a CD from a newly discovered artist — a three-way win for the performer, brewery and consumer.
Fish Fry Bingo have capitalized, playing countless such gigs and becoming a craft beer house band of sorts. Dan Benjamin and his crew, who began playing after meeting in Garland in 2006, love beer (and wild-ass beards), but it was their showmanship as a band that led to their current suds-supporting status.
"We first started playing Saturday tours at Rahr and Sons in Fort Worth several years ago," Benjamin says. "Many of the people associated with the newer start-up breweries would come to those tours and it just grew from there. Our fan base blew up because of playing the Saturday tours."
With so many breweries now operating weekend tours, more artists are needed to turn the afternoons into something resembling a party. It's no longer enough to just get some beer and some pointers for your 10 bucks.
Breweries lean toward booking the types of artists who can come in with an acoustic guitar, small amp and two or three hours' worth of vocal-cord strength. Sonic diversity isn't quite yet a part of the area's brewery tour scene, for better or worse.
Matt Dunn, a 30-year-old singer-songwriter who came back to Texas after serving in Iraq until 2010, has played at Deep Ellum Brewing and Community Beer's open-house events. His EP, Black Lines, is a rock-focused alt-country gem, and he's certain that he's won new fans from the gigs he's played in breweries. He recognizes the singer isn't always the main attraction — especially when competing with life-size Jenga games, which Community has a couple of — but he relishes the opportunity nonetheless.
"I'm a musician. Sure, I want people to notice me and listen to what I have to say — that's why I do what I do," says Dunn, who counts Adairs Saloon in Deep Ellum as his favorite non-brewery venue to play. "I also understand that sometimes, people are doing their own thing, and sometimes, I'm background music. That's just a part of it."
Dunn helped introduce another artist to the benefits of brewery shows. Van Darien, a poet-turned-musician who grew up in Weatherford, has also played Deep Ellum and Community brewery tours. She says she's willing to shake off the possible distractions to reach even a few of the folks turning tickets in for their next beer. With a new record, Silent Sparrow, due in June, she too says the boozy afternoon gigs have led new fans to her work.
"Many people buy my albums at the brewery shows," says Darien, 28. "I've even noticed some of those people come out to shows at other venues I play at."
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Other than Fish Fry Bingo, there may not be an artist who's covered more Saturday sudsy ground than Justin Pickard. Formerly the lead singer for country-rock outfit Sidekick Mafia, Pickard has proffered his solo skills during Saturday tours at Deep Ellum, Lakewood, Four Corners Brewing Co. and Cobra. He too enjoys the lively vibe of the Saturday tour gigs, which have helped him continue his life as a full-time musician. With a new album on the way, Pickard sees his relationship with the various breweries as an essential part of his livelihood.
"Hell, some of these things pull close to a thousand people on a nice Saturday afternoon," says Pickard, who learned "Smoke on the Water" on his first guitar when he was 10. "I've done a bunch of private parties and other gigs as a result of playing at the breweries. I seem to get a few more 'likes' on Facebook every time I do a brewery tour gig, too."
Whether beer or music is the main attraction isn't the point, Dunn says. It's like that game of Jenga happening stage left: An artist has to learn to let the blocks fall where, and when, they please.
"I've started involving the audience more, talking to them, laughing with them and just noticing what they're doing," he says. "And honestly, that's seemed to get them to notice me a bit more, too, while they were playing Jenga and knocking back their booze, of course."