With Alejandro Escovedo Upstairs, the Best Shows in Town are Laid Back Jams at the Belmont Hotel
Friends and hotel guests enjoy a show at the Belmont.
Charlie L. Harper III
It’s a random Tuesday in Oak Cliff, and the lobby of the Belmont Hotel is jumping. Celebrated rocker Alejandro Escovedo has come downstairs from his apartment on the hotel’s second floor and is playing an acoustic version of his hit “Always a Friend” with Austin songwriter Jeremy Nail.
In the corner, Nik Lee, one of the members of the rotating collective of talents known as the Texas Gentlemen, is running sound. The laughing, chattering audience is a mixture of local musicians, friends of the band, and lucky hotel guests who checked in next to a sign that read, “Quiet please, recording in session.”
“Paul Cauthen will be here soon, and he’s coming in hot!” someone tells Jeff Burns, one of the hotel owners, who laughed at the notion of the recording artist stopping by after another show.
Not a single ticket was sold to this unadvertised show, because it’s not that kind of vibe. It’s the second live podcast of “The Belmont Sessions: Songs and Stories with Alejandro Escovedo and Friends,” a new project at the ultra-hip, restored 1940s motor inn.
And it’s also a microcosm of the world that hotel owners Jeff Burns and Jordan Ford hope to cultivate at the Belmont. “One of the coolest nights I’ve ever had is when Billy Gibbons ran into Joe Ely in the lobby on a Friday night,” Ford said. “But I also got the pleasure of reacquainting myself with a guy named rayLand Baxter on a Wednesday morning. It’s been that way since before we took ownership, and we hope to just grow it.”
On any given night, Burns said, the hotel is comping roughly five rooms — give or take, it’s a fluid number — to musicians who are recording in town, visual artists who are showing their work, and other creatives looking for not just a place to stay, but camaraderie with a community of the like-minded.
“It doesn’t just include musicians,” Ford said. “We also host and work with local museums and galleries to put in contemporary artists, photographers, designers, stylists. They come and call the Belmont home, if you will.”
The rest of the 64-room hotel, purchased by Burns and Ford’s group just over a year ago, operates like any other hotel — typical rates, a bar, a pool, 24-hour food, a restaurant on site.
But that’s really where the similarities end.
Escovedo is the only full-time resident, but several other artists, including recording artist Jonathan Tyler, a North Texas native, often stay there for months at a time. The Texas Gentlemen, often accompanied by other musicians passing through Dallas, play regularly by the pool with the Dallas skyline dancing behind them. The Belmont Sessions podcast is hosted from the lobby, which is often filled with singing until the wee hours.
Six months ago, Burns said, pointing to a couch on the hotel balcony, a group of people were chatting and laughing and enjoying the night air. They included an eclectic who’s who of songwriters and up-and-comers: Lucinda Williams, members of Deer Tick, Robert Ellis, Hayes Carll and Allison Moorer, among others, Burns said.
“They were all sitting right over there, playing songs, telling stories all night, doing their own thing,” he said.
The hotel is partnering with fashion designer Billy Reid to host and curate a tribute on Oct. 21 and 22 to the life and work of late celebrated songwriter Guy Clark, for the release of his biography, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark.” Events include an in-store book reading at Billy Reid, a night at Adair’s Saloon, a brunch and an intimate story-telling evening on Saturday night at the Belmont.
Burns and Ford, music and arts aficionados who have some background working with artists in Austin years ago, acknowledge that the hotel, with its sometimes rowdy atmosphere and offbeat brand of guests, is not your typical guest accommodation.
Even the bathrooms get mixed reviews: Tagged one morning at 3 a.m. by famed graffiti artist SeMeN SPeRmS, the loo is alternately slammed in reviews and featured in awed selfies on Instagram.
“We know we’re not for everyone,” said Burns, who is on the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame board. “What we know we are is something unique and different for Dallas.” Namely, he said “the soul and vibe of never knowing what or who you’re going to see.”
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Modern Electric Sound Recorders, the recording studio where The Texas Gentlemen is the house band, is in a loose partnership with the Belmont owners and funnels many of its recording artists through the hotel.
“They’re creating something more than lodging,” said Jeffrey Saenz, owner of Modern Electric. “They’re creating something special that people might be interested to travel to be a part of, and I think that’s really cool.”
The hotel recently sponsored the Texas Gentlemen to go to the legendary Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island and organized a showcase in which the band played with Kris Kristofferson, Joe Ely and Terry Allen. “It’s really interesting to me to think of a hotel in Dallas that is so invested in its local music scene that they’ve sponsored a group of guys with a tour bus to go to a folk festival in Rhode Island and be like, ‘Hey, man, this is what we’ve got going on in Dallas,’” Saenz said.
Comparisons have been drawn to the storied Hotel Chelsea in New York and Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. But outside the obvious, few hotels across the nation are actively trying to support artists by encouraging them to come and stay, at rates that don’t bring in much profit.
“I don’t know if there’s a great comparison there; I’d be flattered if there was,” Ford said.
Seven years ago, Burns said he and Ford considered buying the Chelsea, which was home in its heyday to such personalities as Sid Vicious and Andy Warhol and — yes — Alejandro Escovedo. “It was the most fascinating hotel tour I’ve ever been on,” Burns said.
The atmosphere at the Chelsea grew in much the same way as that at the Belmont: Organically, without much strategy or planning, according to the owners.
“The Chelsea was not a beautiful hotel, but what made it great was the folklore of those who lived there,” Burns said. “At the end of the day, you can throw a lot of money at something and try to be really cool, but what makes it great is the art in motion, and what’s moving inside the space. So what we really try and do is create an environment where our guests can create the vibe for itself, as opposed to trying to have the nicest furniture and newest fixtures and say, ‘Come and look how cool we are.’ I think what makes us truly unique is that it’s not pretentious and it’s not overly thought out. We are not too precious.”
Escovedo recalls living in the Chelsea, of course, as well as the reason he moved out.
He was coming home from work one day in 1978 when he saw Sid Vicious, who was his friend as well as his upstairs neighbor, dragged out of the hotel in handcuffs, followed by the body of Sid’s murdered girlfriend, Nancy, in a body bag a few minutes later.
“That killed the vibe,” he said, and he and many of his friends moved out of the hotel.
In a much calmer time and place now, Escovedo doesn’t want to go anywhere at the moment. He came to live at the Belmont when he and his wife, Nancy Escovedo, “temporarily” relocated to Dallas in September 2015 so Nancy could work on the set of Queen of the South, a TV series filmed in Dallas.
An Austin friend, Liz Lambert, who owns the iconic San Jose Motel on South Congress in Austin, hooked him up with Burns and Ford, who spearheaded an effort to set up a long-term stay in a suite at the hotel. They made art prints showcasing the couple and their talents — including one featuring a curling iron, a nod to Nancy’s profession styling hair on TV and movie sets — and stocked it with books and other things that made the Escovedos feel at home. “What a gift that is,” Escovedo said. “How often does that happen?”
The kitchenette is equipped with a hot plate and convection oven, but the owners plan to put in a full kitchen for them while Escovedo is on tour next summer. Burns counts it as the hotel’s commitment to their storied guest. “It’s such an honor having them here,” he said.
The Escovedos' love of living at the hotel is a big part of the reason the couple now lives there full-time, deciding during their stay to permanently relocate from Austin after three decades there.
When not on tour, the couple likes to walk across the street to the noodle shop for lunch and buy health food at a little store nearby, and swim in the pool during the day for exercise.
In the afternoon, they work together or write or create their projects in their bright, sunny apartment. And in the evenings, the hotel staff and friends they’ve made in Dallas set them up with their nightlife — a show at the Double Wide, an evening at the Kessler.
“I know eventually we’ll have to leave, but they’re going to have to pry us from here,” Escovedo said, laughing. “I love it so much. It’s become a family.”
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