Shallow Reign are one of the earliest and most important bands to come out of Deep Ellum in the 1980s. After a long hiatus, the group returned for a show at The Kessler Theater last Saturday. The performance was an emotional one: Back in December, Shallow Reign’s original drummer, Jan Paul Davidsson, passed away. And 30 years after the band started, the old songs had new meaning.
During the last year of Davidsson’s life, while he was ill, the group gathered at his house to play together. But four years had passed since Shallow Reign played an official gig. The cathartic tone was immediately set when the band started the performance with the song “Days Gone By.” Front man Bob Watson belted out the lyrics to a heavy song about lost time that literally had him screaming, “Goodbye! Goodbye!”
But this show was about more than saying goodbye to their late friend. It was also a celebration of their lasting friendship, even as the years have pushed them in different directions. Lead guitarist Kit Chambers and longtime drummer Kyle Thomas still live in Dallas. Mark Thomas lives in Austin and Watson lives in East Texas. “We all still talk,” says Watson. “So we figured, ‘Why not?’”
Jeffrey Liles played a role in getting the band started decades ago, so it was fitting that the reunion took place at the Kessler where he serves as artistic director. Some thought the band would never perform again and many expected Saturday's show to be their last. But there will be at least one more chance to see Shallow Reign perform at an upcoming performance at The Prophet Bar.
Back in 1985, Liles came up with their name. They recall him writing several suggestions down on a piece of paper. “We grew up with Jeff,” says Watson. His childhood home was right next to Liles', and Thomas lived down the street. “We all grew up in North Dallas,” says Thomas. Chambers was the exception, who grew up in Norman and joined the band in 1988.
“Jeff was instrumental in us playing music,” says Watson. He explains that Liles was making music before any of them and encouraged it. “Jeff was like the first one who was so into records and music when we were kids,” Thomas explains. They remember Liles teaching them one of the first songs they ever learned how to play, “Angie” by the Rolling Stones.
The band vividly recall what Deep Ellum was like back in 1985, when they played their first show at the Theatre Gallery. “It had nothing to do with commerce,” remembers Watson. “At the time there were all these cover bands playing in Dallas.” But then a bunch of people showed up making original music, learning how to play by being in a band. “The energy was amazing,” Watson continues. “The cops didn’t even know about Deep Ellum for a while."
Back in the mid-1980s, they remember the Flaming Lips and Red Hot Chili Peppers playing at the Theatre Gallery. Later on when Shallow Reign played in Oklahoma City, they often hung out with the Lips. “Wayne Coyne worked at Taco Bell,” says Watson. “No,” says Mark Thomas, correcting him. “It was Long John Silvers.” Coyne’s girlfriend at the time took Shallow Reign’s first group photo back in 1987.
If you didn't know where the Theatre Gallery was, you could drive all over Deep Ellum and never suspect that anything was going on. Thomas remembers most of the bands coming from different parts of the city. But Thomas recalls “rich kids who hated their families” from several different other areas meeting together in Deep Ellum to escape suburbia. Right away, this new scene was a melting pot.
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“It was great,” says Kyle Thomas. “But like a ghost town. It was about songwriting, girlfriends, drinking and a lot of angst. People needed live music that wasn’t a cover of Bon Jovi or Bad Company.” A new community seemed to emerge out of nowhere. “The cool thing about it was the variety of music,” says Watson. “And it was welcoming,” adds Kyle Thomas. “It wasn’t even alternative. It was just underground.” Back in those days, there was no precedent of a band from a scene like Deep Ellum getting a record deal. The most you could hope for was another gig.
Yet Shallow Reign did appear in Born on the Fourth of July, the Oliver Stone film starring Tom Cruise, playing a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover in a club called Up Your Alley. “It felt kind of silly,” says Watson. “Oliver was a dickhead,” says Mark Thomas, before explaining that Stone was filming in Dallas to avoid the costs of union labor. The appearance in the film created a little bit of a buzz, but Shallow Reign were known for building a fan base organically with incredible live shows.
Eventually everyone except Kyle Thomas had kids and they went off in different directions. They get together for reunion gigs, but Shallow Reign hasn’t been a full-time band since 1991. Returning to the stage with those songs all those years later, and without Davidsson there to join them, was a challenge, but one they still relished. Guitarist Kit Chambers filled in on the songs that Davidsson once sang himself. “Those are great songs,” says Chambers. “I just try to do them justice. I love those songs. I happened to be the guy who could sing them the best.”
“We’re older now,” Watson says, looking back on the idea of reuniting. “We just do it because we like it.” “If Jeff hadn’t called us up we’d still be sitting on the couch,” says Mark Thomas. “It’s good reason to get together,” Watson continues. “We all grew up together.”