Welcome to Local Music 'Mericans, where we'll be meeting some people behind the local music scene who aren't musicians, but more behind-the-scenes folk.
She's helped flood a bar. She's seen fights between drag queens and other bar employees, and been exposed to (not without reciprocation) more private parts of her co-workers than is legally permissible.
Renee Benson-Short bartends in Dallas. You might recognize her from spots like Vickery Street, Capitol Pub, Murray Street Coffee, and, now, The Anvil Pub.
But, as the case with a lot of our downtown 'tenders, there's a lot more to her character and background than first impressions allow.
Born in Arlington, schooled in Denton, and now roosted in Oak Cliff, she's known by a couple of different names in the local scene, "Mama Nee" being the most prolific, as she's earned the reputation of, arguably, being downtown's youngest (she's only 28), and loveliest, old-soul hippie granny.
She also inexplicably answers to "Roo," and, for the one season she spent in roller derby, she was referred to as "Murder City Mary Jane".
A few years back, Renee worked at Dallas Morning News' Quick, first, in promotions, then covering two local beats for the paper (bars and roller derby), and co-hosting a weekly podcast about the local music-and-arts goings-on in DFW. She's also worked as a volunteer at C.A.R.E. (a rescue sanctuary in Bridgeport for large predatory cats -- mainly white and orange bengal tigers), doing everything from spearheading Deep Ellum-based fundraisers for the shelter, to hands-on labor care for the cats, and, helping to build a $60,000 enclosure for six recently rescued mountain lions.
Last year, she spent a stint reporting for Envy magazine as well, covering fashion and music. Nowadays, after getting hitched to her beau (Anvil general manager Jake Short) at the Kessler Theater last fall, Renee's putting all of her eggs into the bartending basket at one of Deep Ellum's coolest new spots.
She may be just another pretty face behind the bar to the wayward layman, but after the jump, you'll see why that perception just mines the surface. And, as for seeking the advice of a local tastemaker, be it on the topics of food, drink, music, or fashion, well... a person could do a lot.
You recently got married at the Kessler? Is that your favorite spot for local music? What shows had you seen there that made the venue so charming to you?
The Kessler Theater was an easy choice for our celebration of love festival, as soon as we thought of it as more than our local music venue. The first time we visited the Kessler was on May 1, shortly after its grand opening. We were instantly won over when we received half-off our cover charge just for rolling up on our bicycles. We were even more impressed as we toured the building to see all of the simple, but impressive, touches they included in the décor and in the remodeling that make the place so irresistibly enchanting. The small stage in the bar/lobby area, the open and sleek main hall--absent of bolted-down "music venue" chairs which allows the theater to accommodate any style of seating or show--and the upstairs room. Oh, how I fell in love with the upstairs room! The single defining moment that made me realize I would never love another music venue the way I loved the Kessler was when we meandered up the stairs behind the bar, just checking out the lay of the land, and we stumbled across a scene that literally got me all choked up. Jacob Metcalf, accompanied by Daniel T. Hall and Petra Kelly on the violin, were standing in the middle of the room, playing unplugged and au naturale, surrounded by a crowd of sitting, lounging and standing listeners just swaying and singing along. It was so simple and so organic that I thought to myself, "This is the way music was meant to be enjoyed." It wasn't until weeks later, after so many frustrating meetings with cookie-cutter wedding venues, that we finally had the light bulb moment of holding our ceremony and reception at the Kessler. Edwin, Lisa, Melissa and everyone else on the staff there was so accommodating, so supportive of our vision and just such kickass people, I know our love fest wouldn't have been the same anywhere else.
When you worked at Quick, you had a pretty active local beat, which you kept up while juggling other work as well. What resources did you use to keep up with the local goings-on, such as listening to local bands?
There are a million web and media resources I used, like the Observer and Pegasus News. Plus, I had bands and venues sending me press kits and news releases, which I realize most people don't have the advantage of, but I found that, more often than not, the best information and the hottest tips came from the regular folks I saw everyday. While it sucks that writing never paid enough for me to quit my night job, it worked out in my favor because my drinking habit was more affordable, and hanging out in local bars, with real local people, seems to be the best way to hear about what's going on around the city and the metroplex. People I worked with at the magazine, the girls I skated with in derby, and the coworkers and customers I met in bars had a solid finger on the Dallas nightlife pulse and their input was invaluable because it was honest, unfiltered and generally lacked the monetary motivation that came with promoters, venues and press kits.
At Envy, you also had a local beat that covered fashion as well as music. Was it easy to cover both? Does our local music scene cross-mesh well with the fashion hipsters?
It was actually easier to cover both because there was definitely an overlap. It seems like lots of local artists, regardless of their artistic outlet of choice, tend to collaborate or, at the very least, drink and smoke together and are genuinely "into" each other's work. The fashion hipsters are at the local music shows, watching the bands play in their newest fashions, being shot by local photogs, who debut their work at the next local art show, where the local bands play... and so on and so forth. It's kind of a curious phenomenon but it makes sense. Creativity begets skinny jeans, experimental music, hangovers and, with any luck, more creativity.
While at a spot like Murray Street Coffee, did you find it easy to hear about new DFW music?
In a somewhat limited scope, yeah. There were a ton of local artists that hung out there, including musicians, graphic and fine artists, promoters, writers and good ol' fashioned music fans. For the most part, I was exposed to indie and experimental genres, more so than the local metal or hip-hop scenes, but it was an easy way to hear the latest on The Dallas Family Band, for example, which was one of my favorite bands/groups/collectives of 2010 and the group responsible for introducing me to the term "busking."
You've been a big fan of Astronautalis for a good while now. Who turned you on to him so early in the game?
He wasn't born here and he doesn't live here now, but the one-time SMU student still wins local music awards, still has a solid following in DFW and is an artist for which I am happy to blur the local lines. I haven't had the chance to see him live since 2009 (I know, I know, bad fan!) but it was one of the most candid live shows I've ever seen. He and Florida-based Bleubird got intoxicated, got silly and then wowed the crowd with some improv-style rapping in which they inexplicably and expertly weaved together phrases drunkenly shouted from the crowd. I owe my discovery and immediate admiration of Astronautalis to my music guru/then-boyfriend/now-husband. He is far more in touch with the music world as a whole than I and I owe almost all of my music knowledge to him.
In closing out 2010, what was the best live music performance you saw this year from a band based in Dallas?
I got to see Mount Righteous at The Cavern in January and since they are one of my very favorite local acts, it was a special treat to get to see them in a stage set, versus the equally enjoyable but somewhat less predicable impromptu street and festival performances for which they are so well known. Their super-catchy, punk-polka, big-band-but-without-all-that-marching-bullshit is just what the doctor the ordered for this music lover who is so over the feeling-sorry-for-myself-doesn't-deserve-to-be-called-rock music, or the equally offensive hey-everyone-I'm-so-hot-I-don't-even-have-to-write-lyrics-or-actually-sing pop music of the day.
I also had the pleasure of seeing Telegraph Canyon, along with a myriad of other Texas-based geniuses, at Denton's NX35 in March. The most fun I've had at a live performance would easily be Scary Cherry and The Bang Bangs. They are the best entertainment for the money. Goth, glam, girls, blood, roller skates, wedding dresses, hair gel, rampant nudity and good ol' fashioned horror pop never cease to please.
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Craziest sight behind a Dallas bar? Don't disinclude any after-hours material, now.
Wow. Crazy shit is just so inherent in bar life, it's hard to isolate any one incident. I've seen an old guy get his teeth knocked out by a crazy bitch half his age, a drag queen have her top pulled off while simultaneously having her weave pulled out (and the employee that fought her kept the push-up insert that flew out as a trophy). I've seen people throw up, fall down and lash out more times than I care to count.
How about on the customer side of the bar? Fights, drama, celebs, anything.
Me! True story. I've definitely caused my fair share of chaos as a customer. Floor dancing, chair dancing, general mayhem, yelling, harassing of employees and fellow patrons... guilty as charged.
Who will be the next famous and successful indie act to emerge from our city, in your opinion?
This is so impossible to answer. I know it sounds like a cop-out response but there are so many talented musicians and song writers in this town (i.e Madison King, The O's, Grant Jones and the Pistol Whip Lassos, Maleveller, Josh Weathers & The True Endeavors, Sleep Whale... I could go on for days) that the people I think should be famous probably won't be. They won't sell out enough, be scantily clad enough, and are too good to be huge. That being said, I think Sarah Jaffe has a good chance to go big. She is so easy to listen to, so incredibly talented and, luckily, I don't think she would have to compromise to make it.
What new local act's record is well worth the money?
I recommend a visit to your friendly neighborhood music shop, Good Records, to talk to the real experts. They are telepathic geniuses that, I believe, can feel what record you need to buy upon your entry into their music haven. While you're there, purchase one of the shirts with the impossibly charming phrase, "You can't roll a joint on a digital download." Indeed, good sirs, indeed.