It was a familiar springtime scene in Deep Ellum last weekend, with Main Street blocked off and big stages erected at either end of the Deep Ellum Arts Fest. But the acts booked to play these stages weren't run-of-the-mill talents. They were honest-to-goodness ones, including local favorites The Marfalites, Whiskey Folk Ramblers and The Beaten Sea.
Even better? No one at the street festival was moaning and wondering where these crowds go the rest of the year, because for the first time in seemingly forever there was no question: They're right there—just a block over on Elm Street, as part of Deep Ellum's new-again main drag, where music venues such as Club Dada, La Grange and, perhaps most notably, Trees are thriving.
Credit the bloated crowds to the Deep Ellum Arts Fest if you must, but it was yet another banner week for the neighborhood, which once more stands as Dallas' lone major music enclave now that Lower Greenville has bid The Cavern adieu. (That venue is now a two-story pub called The Crown & The Harp.) And the area's becoming a destination once more too—many thanks to Trees in particular.
A little more than a year and a half into its existence and Trees is breaking the mold that many thought would limit its appeal. The venue is no longer just a haven for the heavy as it had been from the onset when it instantly became a regular stop for venerable locals such as the Toadies and Fair to Midland. The venue's upcoming performance schedule paints a far different picture: In the coming weeks, Trees will play host to the likes of superstar DJ A-Trak; California rapper Curren$y; electronic act BoomBox; retro-poppers Rooney; and the Next Big Southern Rap Thing, Yelawolf—and, OK, Fair to Midland, Dokken and Sepultura too. But that's not the point. This is: Their schedule is as enticing as that of any venue in town.
Seems performers are finally figuring out what the discerning Dallas concertgoer has known for some time—that the sound at Trees, which boasts a system the size of the House of Blues' in a room less than half its size, is among the best, if not the flat-out tops, in town. For a hip-hop act like Curren$y, Yelawolf or the touring tandem of Big K.R.I.T. and Freddie Gibbs that played the room last Saturday, that can make all the difference.
"It's like I've told everyone from the get-go," says Clint Barlow, the venue's owner, basking in the glory of a weekend in which he was showered with compliments from attendees of the K.R.I.T./Gibbs show. "It's just a matter of being here and expanding your database and contact list. Some agents that used to not even take my calls are calling me now."
In other words: If you build it, and can get past the initial growing pains, they will come.
But it's not like Barlow just stood pat and awaited this day. Some shrewd promotional partnerships have also worked out in his venue's favor. The recent spate of hip-hop shows for the most part have been co-productions with Dallas clothing upstart Matrimoney. The rash of mall-punk shows on the venue's docket have come in tandem with Third String Productions, the Hot Topic circuit-focused entity that so dominated the suburban scene just a few years back that it was the envy of every venue in town.
But it's not just the matter of a quick buck, either. These partnerships, Barlow says, are all part of a plan to get younger crowds familiar with the venue.
"The initial crowd we had was older," he says. "Like 25-year-olds to 28-year-olds. Now, we're getting more of the college-age crowd."
Or, sometimes, crowds even younger than that, as was the case with last month's show featuring Nickelodeon star Drake Bell—quite clearly aimed beyond your run-of-the-mill Deep Ellum crowds. But even these shows, which have few drinkers and are no doubt a bar staff's worst nightmare, have purpose too.
"They may not be drinkers," Barlow says with a smile, just as he has so many times in recent months. "But they're all future drinkers."
And that is the lesson to be learned here.
Too often, venues open up in Deep Ellum with some pop, but with very little long-term sizzle (see: every venue that has ever existed at 2812 Elm St., now home to Elm Street Bar, and, in recent years, The Lounge on Elm Street and The Nightmare). Very few venues show significant signs of life past their first six months. But, 20 months in, Trees has shown more life than ever.
"Listen, I want to do be able to do everything here," Barlow says. "I really want to start getting into country music too—mostly because I'm just a fan. But it all takes time. You've got to stay patient. I mean, it's taken us this long just to get where we are."
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It helps that Trees' growth has come in tandem with Deep Ellum, but even that has been by design. Earlier this week, Barlow had a conversation with Deep Ellum advocate and property owner Barry Annino, as he says he does on a fairly regular basis. During their conversation, the two started talking about ways to further capitalize on the neighborhood's positive energy. One possibility: Hiring performers—and not just dudes with acoustic guitars, but jazz players, perhaps—to play for the people walking about the streets.
"The stigma that this is a negative spot to be in has long gone away," Barlow says.
"We're right where we wished we would be," he says, talking about his venue, though he might as well be discussing the neighborhood as a whole.
"We're where we should be," he says. "Maybe even further along."