Dallas nightlife tends to get a little unsavory as you venture out toward Harry Hines and Northwest Highway. It would be fair to call Carnaval Night Club off the beaten path. Most people head out that way to peruse the seedy strip clubs and other adult-themed activities that populate the edge of Farmer's Branch. The parking lot, if you can call it that (it's more of a patch of grass beneath an overpass), was barely visible on Storey Lane. Carnaval's towering ball steeple emblazoned in neon lights and art deco marquee are hard to miss once your eyes adjust to the darkness. Last Thursday, Dallas heads found themselves at the rundown theater-turned-nightclub to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a classic Southern rap album, 8 Ball & MJG's Comin Out Hard.
Carnaval's lights look slightly less impressive up close. At least a third of the neon tubes are burnt out. The thick, white glass looks stained with age, and more bulbous than modern design. The cost to fix an antique like that must be staggering. The marquee glows nonetheless as you funnel in, getting carded at the door. Hood-rich high rollers with big dazzling chains shuffled through, en route to reserved tables. Women in minidresses and heels filed in, opening their purses for the bouncer to check. Poster boxes that once illuminated coming attractions to 1950s Dallasites are still mounted to the walls, now hollowed out and barren.
The Circle Theatre was built in 1947. It was part of a shopping center development project, and ran family fare until about 1968 when it went straight porno, opening only on the weekends until closing a year later. After six years vacant, it was turned into a club called "The Old Theatre." In 1975, D Magazine featured it in a guide to local entertainment:
"A rejuvenated movie theater with two dance floors, two bars, and 14 levels. Old movies, slides, and cartoons on the full-size screen. A new feature is occasional live entertainment by local and big name bands ... Weekends are always discotheque with no cover and big crowds."
Through the '80s it reclaimed the name Circle Theatre as a music venue before turning into a very trendy honky-tonk called Cotton Eyed Joe's. It was all the rage during the urban cowboy country revival craze. There was a mechanical bull. Bud and Sissy would definitely have approved.
After a string of music club, bingo hall, and latin nightclub concepts, it became Carnaval in 2012. Rap DJs started playing on the weekends, and there was even a lucha libre match there this year. Lunaface Promotions, a Houston promotions company breaking into the Dallas market didn't quite know what to expect when they booked Carnaval for 8 Ball & MJG's Dallas stop. Local rap fans would be damn well inclined to keep an eye on Lunaface's efforts in 2014, as they plan to bring Gunplay into town next month, as well as Madlib and Freddie Gibbs as we get into the spring.
The D Magazine description still rings true, save a few minor details. Rather than rejuvenated, Carnaval is looking pretty beat these days, and under-kept. While the lofted stadium mezzanine had multiple levels and box platforms, there are not quite 14 of them. The bar area lines main room VIP tables with big cushy white couches, and the two huge elevated wooden dance floors beyond them are ripe with potential for dance parties of all formats and sizes. Upstairs, there are more couches, bottle service tables, and a DJ booth with a small stage balcony overseeing the entire scene.
A seemingly unending string of local support ran from 10:30 to almost 1 a.m. Standouts included the always impressive Tunk, with trusty hype man Rick Blaine. Tunk's powerful stage presence and will to connect with his audience proved itself yet again. He was the first opener to emerge from the mezzanine with the in-house wireless mics to perform at floor show level from the dance floor. Wordlife was entertaining as always, while Johnny Parelli showed some serious lyrical chops, and Kidd The Great brought the house down with his flawless R&B falsetto.
There were multiple technical issues leading up to the headling set, many involving microphones. Should any culture-savvy investors decide to buy into Carnaval Night Club's staggering potential to be one of Dallas' most interesting and accommodating live music venues, an upgrade to the sound system would be at the top of the fixer-upper list.
Backstage, 8 Ball stood in the doorway leading directly out to the booth, MJG at his side.
"We've had a great tour so far. Houston was great, San Antonio was great, St. Louis was probably the livest so far," he said, rubbing a wireless mic in the palm of his hand. They were about to go on, and he was glancing forward, but his eyes wandered behind a pair of shades in the dark club. When asked if it felt like it's been 20 years since the 1993 classic, he fixed his gaze straight ahead.
"Man." After a short but pregnant pause, he responded, "Sometimes."
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Usually when rare, small and late-running rap shows come to town, short sets are to be expected. This was the case when Migos and Pusha T each came though Dallas in the last few months. 8 Ball & MJG, however, pleased hardcore fans with a solid 12- to 14-song set. The duo leaned over the balcony and did their hits, some deep cuts, and possibly their most recognizable track, the Young Dro-assisted "Bring It Back." Fans below jigged and swayed to the beat, throwing their arms, and rapping along every lyric back to them, word for word.
It might have been 20 years since the release of Comin' Out Hard, but last Thursday at a forgotten gem of a nightclub, it felt like 1993 all over again.