Tonight the Kessler Theater plays host to small bit of North Texas music history as Centro-matic embark on their last together as a band. As things stand, it's set to be their final appearance in Dallas, and for the Kessler's artistic director Jeffrey Liles it's an important occasion, a bit like the departure of a dear friend.
"There's nothing about Centro-matic that I can say that hasn't been said. I mean, their legacy pretty much speaks for itself," explains a somber Liles over a late-night dinner. "It's just a bitter sweet occasion. They're one of those bands that made so much music that we actually started to take them for granted."
But for Liles and the Kessler, it's just the sort of show they specialize in: One-of-a-kind shows that shouldn't be taken for granted.
Liles has been the creative buttress behind the Kessler Theater's revival over the past four years. The reemergence of the classic theater, which had remained dormant for decades, was a milestone enough for the Oak Cliff neighborhood, but Liles has brought a particular flair to the booking. This year alone he's managed some major bookings like Lucinda Williams or the performance art of Laurie Anderson. He was also the driving force in Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians' reunion at the North Oak Cliff Music Festival, which is put on by the Kessler.
There seems to be no clear-cut mapping system of the wide range of artists that appear onstage, but Liles admits there is one quality they all share. "Should the power in the building go down, would they be able to still entertain a room full of people until it came back?" asks Liles. "To me that's the measure of an incredible entertainer, someone that can, just on the fly, immediately entertain a room full of people."
It's a refreshing commitment to retain artistic authenticity, but it is also one that borne out of sheer practicality: "The building itself is in the oldest power grid in the neighborhood. So whenever there's a thunderstorm, the power will occasionally go out," Liles says with a laugh.
Liles' experience over the years have run the gamut of the music industry. He was a part of the Deep Ellum music scene during its first boom in the 1980s, working at venues like Club Dada and managing bands like Rigor Mortis. (He was also close friends with the New Bohemians.) When the Kessler plans started coming together a few years back, he was living in Los Angeles, but returned to his native Texas to take up the reins of the theater.
The Kessler Theater continues to draw interest from a community of varied tastes, to which Liles attributes to the building's host of versatile events. "What we're trying to do is create a mosaic, an entertainment mosaic," says Liles. "We have an art gallery space, we do shows that are burlesque shows, we're doing an a cappella jazz show [Monday] night, later in the week we're doing a tap dancing presentation. We'd like it to be as close to an old vaudeville theater as possible."
Booking such unique artists otherwise not represented at other venues in town may seem like a tough challenge all its own, but Liles explains his biggest challenge is not having enough room to book everyone he wants. The Kessler is renowned as a great sounding room with an intimate vibe, but with only 400-person capacity it can be tough to get artists in the door who don't know any better.
"That to me is the most frustrating part of it, is knowing that there are these incredible artists out there that just, for whatever reason, we haven't been able to find the right show for them, the right spot for them to open up for somebody or the right night to get them in there," explains Liles.
"So that's the challenge is to find the right shows for them to open up where you've got them playing in front of a captive audience, somebody else's captive audience," Liles continues. "And those really honestly are one of my favorite moments is seeing the baby bands playing in front of an audience who has no idea who they are and they make a connection, and you know, it happens a lot, it really does happen a lot."
But booking artists that will continually draw crowds obviously remains key for any establishment. The lights have to stay on, (storms notwithstanding) and the staff has to be compensated.
That's why Liles says he's committed to "fulfilling a niche," which in one sense means artists like the Singapore Slingers who are "committed to the instrument," but also means a venue that female artists will feel comfortable playing in.
"In a louder, rock room they don't really get to put their best foot forward. In a place like the Kessler that almost is a dedicated listening room, the female performers can really do their thing," he says. "I mean, they really can be what they wanna be onstage. And you don't really see that many other venues I don't think, making that kind of commitment to as many female artists as we present.".
Liles has been working in what he refers to as a "hustle and flow" type relationship with the building's owner, Edwin Cabaniss, not only over the course of the Kessler's tenure, but stretching all they back to 17 months prior to its opening. It's a relationship of two very distinct dynamics, but the balance of the their relationship is definitely responsible for the venue's continual success.
"He's always like, up first thing in the morning, on the phone trying to hustle up, calling agents, saying, 'Hey bring this artist here, let's do this, let's do that,'" Liles says. "And I'm more like kind of a flow guy, I'm more of like an old timer kind of panning for gold, seeing what's coming through town what will work and figuring out how we'll put it in the schedule and make it happen."
Cabaniss had come from a business background, already a world removed from what Liles is used to, but the two have put faith in each other handling their respective sides of the Kessler vision.
"You know he had a vision, a much broader vision for the neighborhood, and the Kessler is pretty much the tent-pole attraction for that neighborhood, and I'm glad to be working with him," says Liles. "He and I personality wise are like night and day. We both love baseball, we're totally into baseball or whatever, but he's never smoked a joint in his life, and he never will."
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Together it's led to a venue that specializes in intimate and memorable shows. In sense, it's hard to imagine a show like Centro-matic's farewell happening anywhere else in Dallas. (They played the Kessler last summer for the release of Take Pride in Your Long Odds.) And that has as much to do with Liles' relationship with Cabaniss as it does his own knack for booking unique shows.
"I love working with him, you know. It took us a couple of years to find what each of us do really well, and learn to kind of stay out of each other's way, and also depend on each other's expertise for things that were a little nebulous or whatever," Liles admits. "But after five years now, it's a really really great working relationship. Both of us know what the Kessler is capable of doing and we're capable of doing beyond the Kessler."
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