When Marquis of Vaudeville puts on a show, they do more than perform a set with a merch table strategically placed nearby. No, the alternative rock group transforms the performance space into a steampunk fantasy of Alice in Wonderland or a Wonka-esque factory filled with sweets and sinister secrets lurking in the shadows, creating the fantastic and the impossible.
After a successful U.K. tour, the band is happy to take a breather in the familiar surroundings of their Texas home.
The name Marquis of Vaudeville is a tip of the hat to the type of performance the band wanted to create for audiences. To evoke the style of vaudeville — a form of theater popularized in the U.S. during the late 1800s and early 1900s, where audience members, regardless of social classes or wealth, could pay a flat price to see a wide variety of entertainment under one roof — the band takes the feeling of old-world escapism, along with the customs and styles that filled the streets during the dawn of the 20th century, and introduces it to a modern screen-obsessed culture.
“When we put this thing together, that was the idea,” says Toby Lawhon, lead singer of Marquis of Vaudeville. “When we put on a show, we didn’t want it to be a mere show; we wanted it to be an experience. We wanted it to be a very immersive experience and for people to walk away saying, ‘I’ve never seen that before and will probably never experience it again.’”
For the rock band’s 2011 Alice in Wonderland-themed show, A Clockwork Wonderland: Through the Aether and Mysterium, the Curtain Club in Deep Ellum became Wonderland for one night. A team of 30 volunteers and band members decorated the venue from 7 a.m. until doors opened that night. Before the variety acts took the stage, actors dressed up as Alice in Wonderland characters and walked through the crowd, further engrossing attendees to the steampunk-inspired immersion.
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Lawhon recalls the success of that first themed show; the line to get in wrapped around the building, and the only way to enter the club was another person leaving. After the response from the first themed show, Marquis of Vaudeville continually tries to up the bar.
“We did a show called Unlucky 13,” Lawhon says. “And what we did there was, we did that at the Church and Lizard Lounge. It was a show that we created to defy superstition. So if you came, you had to walk under ladders and you had to break mirrors.”
The band’s visual style makes them a popular attraction at fan expos and a welcome addition to annual shows such as A-Kon, the massive three-day anime convention. The themed shows can take between six months to a year to plan, and even with that level of planning, there's oftentimes curveballs. When performing at A-Kon, Marquis was told they had only three hours to create their Clockwork Wonderland show in a scheduled ballroom, a seemingly impossible task that required a completely different plan to approach what was previously a 12-hour job.
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Lawhon has been in the Dallas music scene for nearly two decades, and having seen many trends come and go, he would like to see more core rock bands rise to prominence. Marquis of Vaudeville is an alternative rock band, a style that’s seen a decline since its white-hot presence in the late '90s and early 2000s, but he posits a new trend is only one song or band away from changing the culture’s musical gaze.
“I think the music scene needs something to break that defines something edgy and raw,” Lawhon says. “I don’t think there’s anything like that right now. You look at when the Beatles broke. Music was different back then, but that was something new even though it’s been done underground. There were bands that they emulated, a lot of the American blues bands, and even Elvis. You look at when Nirvana broke. There was so many cool bands that were out there and doing it and were just as cool, but that changed music when 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' hit the scene.”
Marquis has no problem finding an audience, whether on a crowded block on a Saturday night in Deep Ellum, or the many cities they played in the U.K. during the winter. Lawhon notices the audiences are different in England, where even if the crowd wasn’t familiar at the beginning of the night, they were quick to stop their individual conversation and give full attention to the stage. For Lawhon and his fellow band members, exploring the countryside and cities filled with so much history inspired the group to come back home and get to work.
“As an artist it’s about doing something that’s genuine,” Lawhon says. “Doing something that’s from the heart, and it’s not corporate. It wasn’t pieced together by some marketing team. That’s what we set out to do. We just wanted to do something genuine, something that was completely unique. You can say that now there’s nothing new and there’s nothing unique, but there is a way to pull from your influences and put a spin on it and say, ‘OK, here we are. This is what we do.’ And it be refreshing.”