On a recent Friday night in a Lewisville sports bar, a former coach for the Dallas Cowboys beamed as he welcomed one of his favorite singers to the stage. The crowd before him buzzed with anticipation, sensing a unique event before it even began.
The former coach and master of ceremonies was Joe Avezzano and the performing artist was Raul Malo, the award-winning and platinum-selling voice behind the 1990s hit-makers The Mavericks. The sports bar was Avezzano's own Hat Tricks establishment in Lewisville.
In all actuality, while such a scene in the former dart league-intensive bar is surely unique, it's no longer uncommon. Sure, having a world-touring headliner showcase his talents so close to a Golden Tee video game only reads as a what-part-of-this-equation-doesn't-belong type of riddle, but Avezzano and his son, Tony, are making it a regular thing in the North Dallas suburbs. Together, the two have gradually built their bar a reputation as an adventurous booking spot that features everything from rock to hip-hop to country and all points in between. What's most impressive, though, is the artists' willingness to forgo traditional venues for theirs.
The father-son team's hope is clear when it comes to how they want Hat Tricks to be viewed by the music lovers of the metroplex, as word continues to spread about their product.
"We do compete with the Granada and with the House of Blues and even with Billy Bob's as far as the level of booked talent is concerned," the younger of the two Avezzanos says confidently during a recent afternoon lull in the club's action. "So, it's been a point of frustration for me to convince people that, just because we're in Lewisville, it doesn't mean that we aren't a legitimate, first-class venue. We want to have the kids of Deep Ellum drive up for a show—or for them to at least look us up as a real option."
Like the folks behind Lochrann's Irish Pub & Eatery in Frisco, the Avezzanos hope, at least in part, to build a thriving scene in the suburbs. They hope that unlike Frisco, which just saw its scene effectively killed with the announcement that Lochrann's would moving out of Frisco and into the Gilley's complex on South Lamar in Dallas, their scene will have some staying power. And experience is on their side.
An earlier family venture, Suede, located on Lower Greenville, had a similar mission to that of Hat Tricks before it closed a couple of years ago. Several key factors led the Avezzanos to find that specific area difficult to deal with successfully.
"From my standpoint, one of the things that has enabled us to survive in Lewisville is that we don't have the distractions like certain neighborhood watchdog individuals or the Dallas city council to deal with," says the senior Avezzano, known affectionately around the Dallas area as "Coach Joe." "We were made to feel like illegal gun runners while we were there on Greenville. We didn't know it would be like that when we started, so when the lease was up, we got out."
Tony has also noticed a drastic change in the relationship they have with their current environs, as opposed to the city a few miles to the south.
"Here, it's the same two people doing the same thing," he says. "In Dallas, it's you against the system. Up here, it's celebrated."
In recent months, their multi-functional suburban spot, which can fit around 300 people for a show, has hosted a calendar of shows that is not only similar to some of the area's established, larger venues, but that surely rivals many of them in quality. Such a distinction is noteworthy, as artists such as Malo, Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights and Cody Canada & The Departed often fill spaces three times the size of Avezzano's home away from the football field.
The Avezzanos, who bought the bar in 2003 and began booking music there regularly in 2005, aren't shy about the reason they feel they are able to often land bankable acts, even in the face of booking agents who might otherwise prefer their client look for a more spacious venue. The notoriety gained from being a marquee personality on America's Team opened some backstage doors for both father and son and enabled them each to form true, lasting bonds with music stars from each of their own generations.
"I remember when Dad would have Steve Wariner and Charley Pride playing guitar in our living room while Mom would cook an Italian meal for all of us," Tony recalls. "As I got older, I started taking Dad to see bands that I was into and that he wasn't familiar with. When I would go to a show to hang out with one of my childhood friends that was playing in Pat Green's band, we would hang out backstage and get to know artists like Stoney LaRue, who is now one of my closest friends. Same with Cody Canada."
"Absolutely, the friendships that we've made over the years help us book acts that normally wouldn't play venues this size," admits Coach.
Of course, booking a full slate requires calling upon more than just one's stable of musical friends. The business at hand still requires the passionate music fan inside of both Avezzanos to set aside their fandom and crunch the numbers before booking a band.
To be certain, the relatively small capacity of the venue has created difficult scenarios for the duo that functions as a cooperative unit when bouncing ideas for possible bookings off each other.
"For us, there's a fine line between what we really like and what's going to sell," Joe says. "My goodness, we've had Coolio play here! It's just fun, really."
Understanding that a sports bar atmosphere isn't exactly appealing to most artists, the Avezzanos have gone out of their way to give the club an atmosphere that lends itself more to that of a listening room than a smoke-filled den of fist-pumps and high-fives. When the newly added stage lighting shines upon a performer, the stage is the focal point, rather than one of the big screens that show sports on nights without music.
LaRue, a definite member of the current vanguard of what many call the "Red Dirt Scene," often has thousands flock to his Billy Bob's Texas gigs in Fort Worth. As a friend of Tony Avezzano's, LaRue appreciates what Hat Tricks means to him at this point in his career.
"People make the church and bring an electricity to the room there," he says over the phone after Tony speed-dialed him directly from his personal cell. "I'm a person, the fans are people, and it's just cool to have us all connect as people in that intimate of an environment."
Ultimately, though, the motivator inside of the Coach knows that his team's work isn't yet complete.
"We're a player in the field now," he says, "and it's rewarding, but it's a challenge that will never end."