I'd been hearing rumors about the Live Oak opening off of Magnolia for a long time, and, to be honest, I didn't pay a lot of attention.
A lot of restaurants and bars have been opening up lately (and a few closing), and I just figured this was going to be yet another trendy bar that occassionally shoves a few tables out of the way for live music. I couldn't have been more wrong, as I found out when the place opened last weekend. Pulling up, I had no idea what to expect. There is still construction all around, and the entrance to the place seemed more like the back door of the DMV than a music venue. Once inside, though, it was a different matter entirely.
Backwater Opera was on the stage performing was they call "chambergrass." It's bluegrass, with a classical feel. They threw in a bit of gypsy jazz here and there as well, and I could have listened to this stuff all night. The musicianship was phenomenal. A lot of weird fusion bands don't really work on anything but a novelty level, and that's initially what I feared here. But the music was enjoyable on any level you cared to approach it from. Their last song even reminded me a bit of New Country, by Jean Luc Ponty. The Denton based act consists of Robert Sherwood (mandolin, vocals, guitar), August Dennis (bass), Marisa Korth (vocals, guitar) and Carlo Canlas (violin, vocals). I can't wait to hear more from them.
The hall itself is one of the nicest I've been in. It's an upscale venue with amazing sound and superb stage lights. We also get a real, grown-up sized stage, and a room with functioning acoustics. Honestly, this reminded me of an above-ground version of the Scat Jazz Lounge, only better. The place was filled with actual tables and chairs, and I was just barely able to grab the last empty one at the far side of the room.
The headliner for the night was Hot Club of Cowtown, which is a western swing/jazz outfit out of Austin. The musicianship of this band is astounding, better than anything I've heard in the genre. The instrumentals were frantic and precise, and the vocals were authentic. They also ventured into gypsy jazz territory occasionally, and I appreciated that greatly. The band consists of Elana James (violin, vocals), Whit Smith (guitar, vocals) and Jake Erwin (bass, vocals).
If you're a fan of western swing, you're going to love these guys, but I'm really not. While Backwater Opera completely stood on its own merits, not so with Hot Club of Cowtown. When you take away the nostalgia factor from the western swing, it just loses something. That's often true of bands that perform a nostalgic genre, and I've felt the same about certain rockabilly, roots, and bluegrass bands -- or even some purveyors of my beloved blues and jazz. I always find myself asking if I would like it minus the historical context, and in this case I just wouldn't. (They are about to embark on a national and internationl tour, so you're next chance to see them in Texas won't be until August 30 in Austin.)
I am a fan, however, of The Live Oak. Fort Worth just seems like a brighter place knowing it's there, and I look forward to many incredible shows in this place. Owner Bill Smith -- the father of Casey Smith, who runs the terrific The Where House -- told me that he feels his whole life has been leading up to this and he seemed as proud as a new father. Funkytown has needed a real grownup venue like this one for a long time -- and near Southside is the perfect place for it. Telegraph Canyon will be there next weekend, and if you're smart you will be too.