Playing By Heart

The Theater Fire can barely squeeze all of its members onto one stage, let alone one photo.

Each week musicians drag out their friends, family and co-workers to see them play new-band showcases where the drink specials are the real draw (and often stronger than anything seen onstage). They hope one day they'll play to more than a handful of familiar faces and some disinterested drinkers. Maybe they'll catch the attention of an established band or a local booking agent and land an opening spot at Club Clearview or Trees or Curtain Club. To them, playing onstage in Deep Ellum is the first step toward validation as a musician and maybe also a stride toward their dream of warming the crowd for Creed or whatever band the kids with the beat-up Telecasters are emulating these days.

Fort Worth's The Theater Fire is not much different. The group wants to play in Deep Ellum, too, except it's not talking about the sanitized Deep Ellum of today, with its valet stands on almost every corner and renovated warehouse lofts. The band, which has been around for six years in various forms as Vena Cava, would rather play the Deep Ellum of yesteryear, when people jammed into back alley bars and speakeasies to hear the blues musicians who were passing through town as they rode the rails that once ran close to the clubs.

"The type of music we play would have fit in in Deep Ellum back in the day," says Curtis Heath, one of The Theater Fire's two guitarists and vocalists. "Deep Ellum was just full of little clubs. Like the Gypsy Tea Room--the original Gypsy Tea Room--was there. And Blind Lemon Jefferson was there. And a lot of other great musicians were there back in the day. And that stuff is very much along the lines of what we're doing now. And that was that area. And it's strange that now we can't really play there. There's not a place for us. It's strange that it has completely turned around. We would have fit in perfectly during the first half of last century, but not nowadays."

Not that The Theater Fire hasn't played Deep Ellum. It has performed at the Liquid Lounge and Gypsy Tea Room, along with Muddy Waters, the Barley House and various venues in both Fort Worth and Denton. But no one's sure who to book them with or what type of crowd they'll interest. It's no surprise since even The Theater Fire (which also includes Don Feagin on guitar and vocals, Aprell Feagin on keyboards, Sean French on pedal steel and xylophone, drummer Nick Prendergast and bass player Mark Castaneda) has a hard time describing its sound or naming a single group it would perfectly match up with. "Since what we're doing is so different, we don't know who it's going to appeal to," Don Feagin says. "We just need to get out there and play because there aren't any standard places that the bands we play with tend to play, and we just need to see what kind of response we'll get."

The pedal steel gets the band thrown into the country category, but the spacey guitar sounds have no place in a honky-tonk. And the percussion is more experimental than boom-boom-crash, so they can't be alt-country. "We do pull a lot from not necessarily modern folk, but old American sort of folk music from the '20s to the '40s and from a lot of country as well," Heath says. "And we're probably even more influenced by the blues bands than the new blues bands that play now."

This unclassifiable sound that keeps them from finding a niche is also part of the attraction. But the diverse influences are just one element of The Theater Fire. Another, they say, is the more organic nature of what they do, and that even extends to the instruments they play. "Almost everything we use was bought at a pawn shop," Heath says. "It's refreshing for people who are used to going into a show and seeing brand-new gadgets. This [old, wooden guitar purchased at Trader's Village] cost me $35. It's very expressive. It's part of your body almost. It's not like technology is bad. But this is sincere."

Add to those ingredients lyrics that aren't first-person recounts of love and woe, but rather, story-songs in the tradition of Woody Guthrie or pre-Nashville country ballads. "One of the best compliments we've gotten at shows or from people who've heard our [free, self-released, four-song] EP or from other musicians--people who have the ability to be intrigued by really good music and not so much be impressed by a flashy show--is that we're really like storytellers and we do some really beautiful storytelling," Prendergast says. "That's the impression they get. The people who seem to be our greatest fans or people who appreciate us the most, people who come out to every show, they know there's much going on. It's not just musically, but there is so much emphasis on the story being told. And a lot of them are third-person narratives. I don't hear enough of that happening. A lot of songs are, 'I love my girlfriend and she loves me.' They're relationship songs. So it's refreshing to hear a band that's not that."

Though either Don Feagin or Heath might bring the basics of a song to the band, they develop each one as a group, adding their own lines, giving each other feedback, recording themselves to test it out and sometimes spending months reworking a song. Other times, a song will come together in the matter of a practice or two. This lineup has been together a year since French and Prendergast (a longtime fan of Vena Cava) joined, and having a group that "gels," as Castaneda says, has really changed their writing and performances. This growth is part of the reason Vena Cava decided to switch monikers, choosing democratically--pulling the name out of a bowl, basically--The Theater Fire, based on the freedom of speech parable about the consequence of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. (They also discovered there was an established California band using the name Vena Cava.)

This new cohesion can be seen at live shows as well as later this year when the band plans to self release a 10-song album recorded in the Feagins' Fort Worth home. (They've already given away more than 500 copies of their EP.) And though they're excited about having a full-length disc to sell at shows and at the prospect of recording in a studio eventually, for this band, putting a song to tape doesn't make it concrete or hallowed. It's just one particular take on that song; live, it may barely be recognizable to those who have heard the recorded version. "We try to keep our songs loose," Don Feagin says. "They're open to interpretation. We try to go into a show and think, 'How does this room sound? Well, then we'll try it this way.' With us, everyone knows the songs well enough that we don't have to do exact lines. We know it so well that we can try something different and everybody will fall in and take a different approach."

The Theater Fire's repertoire includes slow tempos and songs with sparse instrumentation, which doesn't always work in a crowded, noisy bar. Therefore, they tailor the songs to the venue and audiences. "If you go see a band live, some things don't transfer well," Don Feagin says. "It could be the environment. Or it could be just that you've worked all day, then you go to the bar and you're standing on your feet. And slower, sadder songs don't always translate well live. Too much chatter, too much guitar noise. It can overpower the song live."

Don't assume, however, that the band panders to the audience. The Theater Fire's only gimmick is that it doesn't have a gimmick. "If the music sounds good, then you'll have a good time and you will enjoy it, and that will come across to the audience," Don Feagin says. "But to a certain extent you have to give them some kind of a show. Entertain them somehow. But with us it's a 'meet you halfway' thing. We'll put up a little bit; we'll gear stuff so it'll be faster for the bar mood. And they should give us at least a little attention and give us a chance to see if they like what we're doing because we don't really sound like anyone."

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