If it seems like things are kind of slow around these parts these days it's because, well, they are. Painfully so, actually. Sure, they'll pick up shortly enough—Denton's four-day NX35 Music Conferette kicks off next week, followed perhaps too quickly by SXSW and all the extra spillover goodies that annual PR lovefest brings through our region. But, hey, maybe this calm before the storm is a good thing.
After all, some of us need to sleep from time to time.
Not all of us, though.
Stephanie Houston's sleep schedule's been out of whack of late, she says. For the past few months, she's been adjusting from her 9-to-5 lifestyle as the marketing rep for a medical staffing company to her new night-owl gig as the owner of Deep Ellum's latest music venue, La Grange. But it's been a nice change of pace, the 36-year-old says, even as she struggles to juggle her roles as nightclub owner and mom.
Odd, then, that it's the latter role that led her to the former. It was while her son was attending local music school Zounds Sounds that she was struck with the idea of opening up her own venue. Her original inspiration: Finding a place for her son to get some gigs. She had some luck—even scoring her son's band of tweens a gig or two at the House of Blues—before she decided that, hey, maybe it'd be cool to run her own place. And, on a drive through Deep Ellum to check in on Club Dada in the wake of its closing, she found what would eventually become her new spot a few doors down the road.
"I just happened to park right in front of the place," she says. "So I called the number on the window and the landlady was right across the street and she came over and showed it to me. It was one of those things where, as soon as I saw it, I knew."
Knew what? Well, that 2704 Elm St. had a whole bunch of potential. Immediately, she thought of her days as a student at the University of Texas in Austin, where she worked at various clubs on 6th Street and spent her off-work hours in places like La Zona Rosa and the Continental Club. It just made sense: Deep Ellum appeared to be making something of a comeback—why not capitalize on it by bringing some Austin (read: Americana) flavor to the mix? For four months, she, her fiancé and co-owner Rob Schumacher, and a small crew toiled away to prep the place. Their original aim? Opening by Texas-OU weekend. They missed that mark by two months, but it worked out regardless. When La Grange finally opened on December 30, it benefited from a happy little coincidence: The Toadies just so happened to be playing Trees across the street that same night, bringing with them a whole slew of ol' Deep Ellum hepcats just itching to see what else was happening in the neighborhood these days. On opening night, La Grange was packed.
Eight weeks later, the crowds haven't really let up. That's mostly because of another happy accident: The big-ass projection screen Houston had installed behind her venue's stage. It wasn't supposed to be as big as it is—close to 20 feet across, measured diagonally—but it's afforded La Grange quite the bargaining chip, Houston explains, allowing it to open up its booking to everything from bands looking to incorporate video into their set to companies like Reel FX looking to host screenings.
"That's been our secret little weapon," Houston says with a laugh.
Come summertime, the venue's not-so-secret weapon will come into play—the garage door of windows that opens up to the street. It's already been a useful tool on the few nice nights her club has seen.
"It just sucks people in like a vacuum," she says. "And it gives the club more of that Deep Ellum edge. That's what people want—to walk around Deep Ellum, hear music and see bands."
Crowds won't, however, be seeing as many local bands at Trees over the next few weeks, unfortunately. For the past few months, Mark Schectman, host of The Local Show on KDGE-102.1 FM The Edge (and a sometime Dallas Observer contributor), has been hosting weekly, free-to-attend, all-local bills at the recently reopened, storied music space. The goal there—the stated one, at least—was to find a local band to open this summer's annual Edgefest concert, in a sort of battle of the bands, fan-voting competition. The first round of the battles, which saw 44 bands play at its weekly shows, came to an end last week and fans are now asked to go online, vote for their favorites of the 13 weekly winners from the showcases. The top five vote-getters will then return to Trees on April 1 for a final round of competition.
But that's as far as Trees is going in its commitment. And, for Schectman, that's quite the blow. Since taking over the Sunday night on-air slot at the station, the guy's become a full-on sucker for local music, bless his heart. And he doesn't want to see the shows end. Trees, meanwhile, citing lack of profit on these nights, doesn't want to see it continue. Now Schectman—assuming the marketing folks at the radio station are still on board—hopes to find a new home for these weekly shows.
"If I have my way, it will return at some point this year," he says.
Out in Oak Cliff, Kara Howell's made her own way. Since moving from Denton and into the up-and-coming neighborhood, Howell's been trying to find a way to celebrate the odder musical and artistic undercurrents that her new neighborhood boasts. She found a place willing to celebrate the misfits with Tradewinds Social Club, a neighborhood dive not far from her home. Now, she hosts weekly video screening nights as well as performances from Oak Cliff bands and DJs. The goal, she says, is to emphasize "good bands" over "bands that are just incredibly popular." She admits that many of the shows she's booking are ones that other venues would outright avoid—but she's also proud of that fact.
"We welcome all these weirdo types that have nowhere else to go," she says, before noting that her own acquired taste of a band, Darktown Strutters, was able to pack the place for its first performance there.
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Meanwhile, her band's last performance took place at Oak Cliff's Kessler Theatre on Sunday, as part of a benefit concert held for Great Tyrant bassist Tommy Atkins, who died last week. It was only the second show so far held in the new space, set to open with a string of free shows come March 20. The Kessler's artistic director, former Observer contributor Jeff Liles, says the spot owned by Edwin Cabaniss also will boast a secret weapon come its opening. "It's completely flexible," Liles says, describing the theater's movable stage, which affords bands the option to play in either a standard or in-the-round setting. For local acts looking for variety in their performances, that's pretty much a wet dream. Good thing too: For now, the 375-person-capacity venue's show schedule is almost exclusively filled with locals. That'll change in time, though, Liles promises.
"I just want to get us to the point where we've got this thing on auto-pilot first," he says. "And I want to give everyone in Dallas two or three months to figure out how to get here first."
Once that happens, Liles says, the rest is easy.
Or, at least, easier than trying to find some time to sleep.