Plano Skatepark is Becoming a Live Music Venue
A wide-eyed, panting inline skater—no more than 12 years old—whizzes through a narrow concrete passageway past a fenced complex of quarter-pipes and launch ramps.
"Guys! Guys!" he yells to his buddies. "There's a band about to play! There's a band about to play!"
It looks like Vicki Eisenberg's prediction is about to be proven wrong. Earlier in the day, Eisenberg expressed doubts about how many people would actually show up to watch the band play her indoor skate park in Plano this evening.
"I don't have a big expectation for the band tonight," she had said, mentioning that she'd gotten an "amateurish" vibe from her correspondence with the band. "I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't draw one person. Don't get me wrong—I love their sound. Maybe I'm wrong."
Surely, at least this young skater is excited to watch the band play. On the other hand, the music venue's $10 cover charge is a lot of dough to a 10-year-old. Maybe some snacks at the concession stand—which is about 20 feet from the stage—would be a better investment?
The three men in Joy Bus—who all look twice the age of the average Friday night Eisenbergs Skatepark skater—finish setting up on the portable wooden stage. The other band scheduled for the night, The Recovery, hasn't shown up, so Joy Bus will be the sole act for the night. Thanks to traffic, they're running late too. They've brought their own PA system, as per Eisenbergs' requirements.
The performance space is an open area between the park's two enclosed ramp courses, "The Cage" and "The Pro Course." Sharing space with the band are a handful of arcade games, though to the audience's credit, nobody is feeding quarters into the machines.
Then again, the audience appears to consist solely of about a dozen of the band's family members.
Joy Bus begins their set at around 8:30 p.m. with a fast song, playing so loud that some of their younger relatives cover their ears. The Austin-based band's songs are catchy, guitar-driven and have a bigger sound than you'd expect from a trio, thanks to multi-tasking guitarist Joshua Vaughn providing the bottom end on bass pedals. Drummer Jake McCown, in a faded black Debbie Gibson concert tee, bashes out frantic beats on a three-piece kit with two cymbals and a high-hat that are damaged almost beyond recognition. With their thrashing drums, pretty melodies and layered effects on the vocals and guitars, they sound something like a blend of My Bloody Valentine and Helmet. On slower songs, like the winding "Something Wrong Inside," they show off their impressive improv abilities, particularly with singer Preston Maddox's well-practiced guitar soloing. They sound well-rehearsed, even if they look a bit listless onstage.
Maybe their unenergetic stage presence can explain the lack of non-family spectators; there's not much to look at, and you can hear them quite well throughout the park, even over the hiss of wheels on concrete and plywood.
Though their performance could hardly be called "amateurish," Eisenberg does seem correct about Joy Bus' crowd after all. Kids making their way between the two separate ramp complexes slow down and look on approvingly, but the only people who actually stay and watch are band family members.
The park's payment policy, spelled out on its Web page, is refreshingly upfront: Bands get $2 per head for bringing in 10-20 paid admissions, $3 per head for 21-30 and so on up to a possible $6 per head. On this night, however, nobody appears to be collecting the $10 admission charge.
Though the park has had bands perform almost since it opened its doors in July 1997, the idea to provide a performance stage for the patrons was an afterthought.
"When we opened in '97, that was not part of the plan, " says Josie Eisenberg, who booked bands for more than eight years before going to work for her father's graphic design firm in 2005. "Kids were constantly asking, 'Can our band play?' And we saw that kids were hanging out there who were not skaters. They didn't have a place to go, so we put two and two together, and said, 'Sure, why not have bands?'"
After parental complaints about foul language on CDs played on the park sound system, the park stopped playing music with foul language. The cuss-word ban applies to bands as well, Josie Eisenberg says; offenders will be shut down and banned from performing again.
Over the years, the demand for shows has fluctuated. At first, performances were booked every weekend, but they petered out as other all-ages venues, most notably Rock Steady, also opened in Plano. But recently, Vicki Eisenberg says, bookings have started to pick up.
A few Eisenbergs alumni acts, ranging from punk to screamo to ska to metal, have gone on to make a name for themselves in North Texas and even nationwide: Spector 45, Medicine Window, The Filthy Skanks, Birth to Burial and A Dozen Furies are just a few of those acts.
Chris Mosley, now the frontman for The Nouns Group, is one of many musicians who got his start here. He remembers his Eisenbergs shows with his band the Early Lines as his first real gigs. The pay could be lucrative for a young band—sometimes as much as $200 a show—and it was a good place to try out experimental material. That approach led indirectly to another dubious benefit.
"It was a pretty low-key environment," Mosley says, "besides the fact that you had a lot of young kids who, if you didn't sound like radio-rock, they'd heckle you. But I think that's good for you, actually.
"That's kind of where we developed our early crowd, so when we moved on to play in Denton and Dallas, we' d already have a crowd that we didn't have to work for at the club."
When Joy Bus finishes its set, Maddox, the band's guitarist, is all smiles. He doesn't seem bothered by the lack of crowd attention. In fact, his band even arranges to play the skatepark again the following night.
Maddox says his band loves playing at skate parks and points out that Eisenbergs is considerably nicer than others his band has played around the state. Most skateparks, Maddox adds, aren't set up for music. And while Eisenbergs is certainly a skatepark first and a music venue second, its available stage and roomier performance area sets it apart from other parks where his band has played.
"It's usually pretty random, like, 'Oh, go over and set up in that corner,'" he says. "That's usually how it works. This was actually pretty refreshing. I thought it was pretty cool."
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