Out With the Old, in With the Blues

Blues clubs used to rule Deep Ellum. Back when Blind Lemon Jefferson was busking the streets, the whole place throbbed with it, pouring out of bars and brothels. But if the blues knows one thing, it's this: Times can be tough. Over the decades, the blues disappeared from Deep Ellum, making way for today's mix of dance clubs and tattoo parlors, swanky restaurants and that terrifying Coyote Ugly.

But guitarist Jim Suhler is putting the blues back in Deep Ellum. Along with partners Michael Aguirre and Phillip Gunn, the musician has opened a new bar, appropriately called Deep Ellum Blues, at 2612 Main St. The plan is to coax more national blues bands to town and offer a downtown venue for local acts.

On its first Friday night, the crowd of about 150 at Deep Ellum Blues was a wee bit older than the area's pierced and hoodied regulars. How much older? Let's just say they were flattered to be carded. "A blues club attracts an older clientele by its nature," Suhler says. But the question is: Will an older clientele be attracted to Deep Ellum?

"People kept saying, 'Don't put it in Deep Ellum,'" Suhler says. They wanted the bar in the suburbs, somewhere "safe--whatever that means." But Suhler stood firm. "I was convinced Deep Ellum was a good place to go with it. Call it a gut feeling."

For 13 years, Suhler has fronted Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat, and for the past five years, he's toured with George Thorogood's band. This is the first business he's owned, but it's an industry he knows well. "I've been in loads of bars and clubs all over the place," he says. "After a while, you can walk into a place and say, 'That isn't gonna last.'" So Suhler rigged his baby with the things those locations lacked: a solid stage and sound system, a comfortable green room, plenty of tables for the audience. It's a no-frills kind of place, with exposed pipes in the ceiling and plenty of neon beer signs hanging alongside iconic images: a poster of Charley Patton, antique guitars, old 45s, an airbrush painting of Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughn. And, of course, a poster of Jim Suhler. After all, he's been on the Dallas scene for more than a decade--touring, playing and, now, running the show. "Sheesh," he says with a sigh, "I'm getting tired just thinking about it."

Meanwhile, just down the street, another club is closing. The dance club One, 3025 Main St., shutters its doors February 28. "It's just out of gas," says owner Michael Morris. "After 13 years, the nightclub maybe doesn't mean what it used to. Things change. It's just sort of time. If you're in the business of opening these things, you're in the business of closing them."

Throughout the '90s, One catered to a lively, gender-bending clientele that tore up the dance floors and partied in the gigantic bathrooms, which featured their own bars. That scene, as well as its clientele, has aged. "If you were my customer eight or nine years ago," Morris says, "you probably don't do the big warehouse nightclub scene anymore."

Morris says Deep Ellum's continuing image problem--reports of increased crime that have left many clubgoers wary of the area--may have been the final nail, but it's impossible to tell. "We've anguished over this for a long time," he says, "because we felt fairly helpless when the city shut down Deep Ellum to try to control the cruising problem. It took a lot of wind out of our sails. At that point, we thought if something dramatic didn't happen in the neighborhood, this is where we were going."

One is the oldest dance club in Deep Ellum and one of the area's oldest clubs period, along with Club Clearview and Club Dada. "We probably had as solid a customer base as you can hope to have," Morris says, "and it just wasn't enough." This Friday's closing celebration will feature DJs from the past 13 years. The club will still host special events on occasion.

This past Tuesday, Hard Rock Café kicked off Reeltime Audio Music Festival, named for the Denton-based studio that has produced Bowling for Soup, Brave Combo and Element 80, among others. Owned by Eric Delagard, who won a Grammy for his work with Brave Combo, Reeltime Audio hosts a five-day festival of music at the Hard Rock, including Wednesday night's "New Artist Showcase," featuring DV8, and Friday and Saturday night's "Best in Unsigned Locals & Regionals," featuring Fair to Midland, Supercell, Microton and others.

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Sarah Hepola

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