As I walk into Dan's Silverleaf fresh off a particularly difficult serving shift at a pan-Asian joint just across town in Denton, the roughly 150 people in attendance are scattered throughout the bar. It's cold this Thursday evening, but many still huddle outside, smoking, drinking and sharing fellowship, their steamy breath following where their smoke exhalations end. We are all waiting for Centro-matic to take the stage.
It's been awhile since they played an intimate show like this at Dan's. Frontman Will Johnson busied himself playing the drums for the aptly named supergroup Monsters of Folk, and Centro-matic keyboardist/violinist Scott ≠ has been busy recording and playing the keys with Sarah Jaffe. Danbom and Denton musician Robert Gomez (Jaffe's lead guitarist) flew to L.A. with her early in December to play Jimmy Kimmel Live.
But tonight, as the venerable Denton band takes the stage just short of 11 p.m., their side projects and our blue-collar jobs seem all but forgotten. Centro-matic is in fine form. No surprise for a band that has been contributing to the Denton scene, as well as the world in general, since 1995. As they sluice the muscular, slow attack of "Fountains of Fire" through the audience, the entire crowd is dead set at attention, some screaming the lyrics back at the band and others just enjoying the set, exalting the band with rhythmic head nods and carefully timed beer sips.
Standing to the left of the stage, far back by the merch table, is Brent Best, best known as the creator of Slobberbone, a Denton band that has been rocking this town, country and several other continents since 1993. He'll join the band on lead guitar toward the end of the set.
Best is an internationally recognized alt-country legend, yet he still tends bar at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios just southeast of here, over the train tracks in the area of Denton that has yet to be gentrified.
In the '80s and '90s, the main place to play was the Fry Street district, but now the area east of the square in Denton is the new music and arts hot spot. You would never be able to guess that the Fry Street area used to be a dirty, gritty music hub in this town if you had never been to Denton before. The tall yuppie-starter-kit apartment complexes that now tower over the north side of the University of North Texas spit in the face of the area's geographical history, and only the more seasoned musicians who remain here will tell stories of the glory of Fry Street Fair and the Argo; the days of Rick's Place (now a vapid, flavorless meet-market at the ass end of the frat-bar district) and the Flying Tomato pizza joint (now a Chipotle restaurant).
These days in Denton, the "vital stuff," the shows and festivals that continue to make Denton one of the best little music towns in the world — the Rock Lotteries and the 35 Dentons, the Lumberjack Fests and free, mind-blowing basement shows — they're all happening starting at the square and lumbering east a quarter mile or so. This is the vital area now, all of it a quick walk from the A-train station. This is where you'll see the finest musicianship and artistry, and where the best clubs and venues live. This is where you can catch a triple feature that might start at the basement of J&J's Pizza for an 8 p.m. show and then lead to any of the fine clubs in the area, your Dan's or Rubber Gloves or Hailey's or Abbey Underground. This is where your Brent Bests and Scott Danboms and Robert Gomezes live and work and play. But why do these musicians stay in Denton and work blue-collar jobs to support their artistic efforts, even into their late 30s and early 40s?
"It definitely helps out with the rent and stuff, when I'm not touring or other things," Best says. He went on to explain that the flexibility afforded to him by bosses like Josh Baish (owner of Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios) allows him to take lengthy stints of time off from the bars and go out and tour if he needs to, and he will still have a job when he comes back into town.
Still, this sort of work requires sacrifices. Last year Best was talking to a customer, and then his vision sort of just altered and warped, and his heart rate increased to an alarming speed. He told other members of the crew working that night that he needed to go to the back prep area of the bar and sit down. He eventually leveled off and kept working, but two weeks later had another episode similar to the first, but way worse, and the next night, before playing a show, he spoke to a nurse friend of his who pegged him as having low blood sugar.
A few weeks passed and he finally went to what he called a "doc-in-the-box" in the DFW area, really the only place he could go to for medical attention without health insurance, and was told that he needed to eat better and take better care of himself in general. He was told that his episodes were probably the result of low blood sugar even though his blood work had shown no real problems by that point.
"I think it was just my body's response after years of us being on the road and drinking like idiots," he said. "And I was used to eating only once a day, so that wasn't helping."
That night after his second major episode but two weeks before he would see a doctor, his band Slobberbone was slated to headline the Rubber Gloves 15th anniversary show, and prior to that performance, he sat in the backstage area chugging orange juice. When he went onstage around 1 a.m., he told the remaining crowd not to worry if he passed out onstage, an admission that I thought was a joke at the time. He played and danced and sang like a veteran rock warrior anyway, and he made it all the way through the set as though he were still 20 years old.
The gravity of that situation has since led him to change his habits, putting himself on stints consisting of just fruits, vegetables and lean chicken, and he is back in good health, but still without health insurance
"There are times when you fantasize about having a 'legitimate' job," he says. "But I don't ever see me not being creative ... but if I go out on tour now, you know, it kind of feels like the pressure's off for me, and I don't need that validation anymore. If I go out on tour now, it's not to show the world my mettle." He added the caveat that though he now mainly wants to spend most of his time recording in a home studio, he probably would never want to stop touring altogether. That is something that simply lives inside of him, at times driving him, and probably always will.
"Also, if you're an accountant in Dallas and driving to work, you're taking your life into your hands twice a day," he said — the implication being that the DFW freeways are harrowing at best, especially during rush hour. He says this as a comparison to his years of frequent driving throughout the country, touring with bands like the Drive-By Truckers, and serving as the tour manager for bands like Pedro The Lion.
Throughout the 20-plus years since Best moved to Denton from Lucas, Texas, a tiny town just east of Allen, he's been working blue-collar jobs intermittently between national and European tours with various bands. Bartending is the occupation that allows him the freedom to continue the creative life. Prior to working at Rubber Gloves, Best was a bartender for several years at the Barley House in Dallas. And this is a sentiment that Danbom, the aforementioned keyboardist for Centro-matic and Sarah Jaffe, agrees with wholeheartedly.
Even though Danbom has acquired a highly respectable status in the mid-level world of indie rock, he says that he never was consistent enough with playing music that the money he earned was enough to pay the bills, so he is grateful to be able to tend bar during the months of the year that he's not out on tour.
"There have been times where I've basically been gone for three or four months at a time," he says. "So it's not like I'm really working other jobs except for when I get home. I definitely had to quit a few jobs because of that." Having to quit the two bartending jobs he now has is not something he really has to worry about anymore, and it seems that his current situation is right where he wants to be (assuming, of course, that he won't make millions off his music anytime soon).
Danbom moved to Denton in the early '90s to get a music degree at UNT in jazz studies, and it was during that time frame, when the area music scene was largely dominated by space rock, that he met Brent Best. The two admired each other's abilities and often played together in various projects.
"Around '94 or '95, I started seeing Brent Best play, and that was a totally new thing for Denton at the time," he says. "That was the time that the space rock thing was emerging, and it was a cool time. I think the Argo was about to open, and we would play Jim's Diner a lot, which was a fun little place to play. Rick's Place was kind of expanding into more bands. But anyway, that's when I got to be a big fan of [Slobberbone]."
It was also during that time that Danbom would make the acquaintance of a young Robert Gomez. As he was ending his career at the UNT jazz school, Gomez was just beginning his. Danbom remembers seeing Gomez's band at the time, The Latin Pimps, playing around the Fry Street area.
Neither of them got their degrees, but not for a lack of talent. Rather, they both simply found themselves being pulled in the direction of the money-making circuits, Danbom with the various rock bands that he would play with, and Gomez as a session musician playing jazz guitar for various artists.
In the early aughts, Gomez moved up to New York and found some fantastic opportunities playing with music icons like Tico da Costa and Phillip Glass. Eventually, though, Gomez moved back to Denton after a six-month stint playing guitar as a union musician for a travelling circus. He said that he loved the benefits of that job, but the fact of the matter was that it sucked up all of his time, and he felt that the creative side of him was being neglected. Now back in Denton, he is one of the illustrious mixologists at Paschall Bar, the uber-stylish third-story watering hole owned by the boys from Midlake, above Andy's on the Denton square.
He doesn't really get nervous anymore when he plays, even for the massive shows like his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live two months ago. He buys his own health insurance at something like a $5,000 deductible, and says that there is absolutely zero correlation between his job as a bartender and his life as a noted musician. It's a lifestyle that works for him.
On a Friday early afternoon, Gomez was opening up the bar at Paschall, slicing various citrus fruits and filling troughs with ice.
"The thing is that a lot of people don't have health insurance even if they do have a 'desk job,'" he said. "It's a very sad time that we're living in. I mean, how many jobs have insurance? It's a dwindling number. So it's bad for everybody. It doesn't matter what you're doing. Whatever you do, it's going to be hard. Say I wanted to work a desk job. Say I wanted to be an accountant. I mean, that's going to be just as hard as making it in the music business. So you might as well do something that you love."
A customer walks in, a young girl that Robert knows. They exchange pleasantries and she says she needs a drink, that it's been that kind of week. She orders a michelada, and Gomez takes his time with it, serving it to her with showmanship, and she seems delighted at the presentation of the frosty glass filled with beer and tomato juice, artfully adorned with salt, lime and a cocktail sword balancing on the rim, supporting three green olives.
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"Pretty!" she says, and smiles. So does he.
As Brent Best is introduced by Will Johnson, he walks up onstage and the entire crowd cheers heartily. Best and Centro-matic fire off several songs including "Only In My Double Mind" and "Fidgeting Wildly." Best's guitar solos are dirty and brilliant, reminiscent of J. Mascis. He is still the ultimate showman, playing and undulating to the screams of his guitar right beside Danbom, who is antithetical in his stoicism, barely moving as he delivers precision background vocals and keyboard riffs.
As they come onstage for the encore, I scan the adoring crowd and think, "Yeah, I'd never want to give this up, either."
Coupled with that thought is the realization that I'm damn glad these guys keep tending bar in order to support the life that best suits them, just east of the square in Denton.