Throughout its long and storied history as Dallas’ most famous entertainment district, Deep Ellum has seen a tremendous amount of change. Its existence has been a series of ebb and flow cycles, massive booms and even bigger busts. In the neighborhood’s most recent major heyday, the 1990s, Deep Ellum — and more specifically Trees — was a destination for alt bands of all kinds, including the now-legendary shows from Marilyn Manson, Radiohead and Nirvana.
Six years ago, though, when Clint Barlow and his wife Whitney, a St. Louis transplant, first envisioned re-opening Trees, Deep Ellum barely had a pulse. Barlow had grown up in the Dallas music scene, and had fond memories of attending shows at Trees in the '90s. When he first got the idea to open a music venue, he drove through Deep Ellum with Whitney, and happened to notice that the door was open. It turned out to be a pretty fateful move.
“We just kind of swung in to see if they’d show it to us, and when we got there, Whitney said that you could just feel the energy coming off the walls,” says Barlow. “The place was inches deep in dirt and totally filthy because it had been sitting there empty for so long, but there’s something about that room. Everything that’s been played there makes it different, and the atmosphere at Trees dictates itself.” From there, the Barlows set out to recreate Trees in their own way.
Even though Barlow acknowledges that Deep Ellum (and even Trees) will never be what it was in the '90s, he doesn’t necessarily consider that a bad thing. “When this place first opened, I had to say from the beginning that Trees was never going to be the same,” says Barlow. “Everybody romanticizes things from the past and reminisces on their great stories, and at the time it was great. But you’re never going to recreate those kinds of feelings for people. We’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do, and hope that everyone likes it.”
That strategy seems to have worked. Six years and 1,300 shows later, Trees sells out frequently, and offers one of the most diverse slates of music of any venue in the city, much less in Deep Ellum. Now, though, the crowd that’s coming to Trees is decades younger than those who remember the Nirvana and Radiohead shows. “This new generation of fans coming through Trees is totally different, just in their overall way of partying,” says Barlow. “To them, it’s all new and fresh just like it was to us when we were going out in our 20s in 1992. The kids coming out today don’t even know who Nirvana is. I actually heard that the other day and it made me feel old.”
The crowd might be different, but Barlow has made an effort to maintain much of Trees’ original appeal. The venue is still laid out in much the same way that it was back in the day and the iconic tree that holds up the stage is still its most prominent feature. “Sometimes bands come in and complain about the tree,” says Barlow. “But I just tell them that if Nirvana and Manson and Radiohead could deal with it, so can you.” For the most part, though, Barlow says that touring bands across the country are thrilled to see Trees on their schedules, and not just for nostalgic reasons; the crew here is deeply dedicated to making the experience at Trees excellent for fans and musicians alike.
As Trees is continuing into its sixth year, Deep Ellum is seeing yet another Renaissance. Restaurants, retail and businesses of all kinds are moving into the neighborhood, and the Barlows have continued to make their impression on the neighborhood in opening The Bomb Factory, easily Dallas’ best and brightest new concert venue. As a result, a more diverse group of people than ever is pouring into Deep Ellum, and that will certainly come with its own consequences in due time. Still, despite all this change, fans shouldn’t expect to see Trees going anywhere any time soon.
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“I don’t ever think in terms of anniversaries, or that I’ll do this for a certain amount of time. In my head, I hope this can go on forever,” says Barlow. “We’re going to keep doing it until it stops, and hopefully that it isn’t because we screw it up.” Fortunately, Barlow doesn't think they’re on the road to screwing it up, either. He’s effusive in his praise for the crew at Trees, whom he credits with running some of the best shows in the city.
“I think we’re exactly where we wanted to be. I’m happy because we’re doing great business. A lot of things take a while to get off the ground, and in this case, re-booted and regaining everybody’s trust back. That takes time,” says Barlow. “Everyone is very vocal in the beginning, but I think now it’s right where we want to be and I think we’re making people happy. The complaints are getting less and less. If you can last five years in this kind of business, you can last forever. I’m hoping that’s the case.”
TREES 6TH ANNIVERSARY with Body County, DownLo and Mad Mexicans takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday, August 22, Sold out