Since its grand opening in June, the Live Oak Music Hall and Lounge has fast become a favorite destination for Fort Worth culture mavens. Its food has drawn solid reviews, the patio's pretty good (when it's cool out) to sip beers and chat with friends, and the venue has kept a steady flow of national, regional and local talent on its beautifully appointed stage (although when I was there for Madras a couple weekends ago, I nearly drowned in my own sweat because of how stuffy it was in the main room).
But, despite these early successes, owner/founder/general manager Bill Smith is making a few changes, according to a statement released today. Managers David Bravo and Sherry Kirk have been replaced by the new manager of operations Blake Barker (who previously served as general manager of Scat Jazz Lounge downtown) and the new assistant manager of operations Andrew Hawkes (late of the T&P Tavern). Somewhat ominously, according to the statement, "these staff changes have resulted in implementation of new accounting and organizational procedures."
Smith also took this opportunity to reiterate his position within the venue. "I remain in complete control of operations at the Live Oak and mine and my wife Rebecca's original vision of the venue remains intact," he said in the statement. "The general consensus of the staff is that now we are finally starting to see the fruition of this original vision."
Additionally, rumors were swirling that head chef Mikel Steen had also parted ways with the Live Oak, but Smith's statement says that is not so, going so far as to say that all kitchen staff remains employed. "I plan on growing old at the Live Oak," Steen said in the statement.
On the music side of things, original talent buyer Clint Simpson has left, and in his place, Smith has installed upstart, Fort Worth-based booking agency Blackbox Presents (which, in addition to booking dates for bands like Burning Hotels, Holy Moly and the Phuss, already handles booking shows for the Wild Rooster, the Basement Bar, La Grange in Dallas and Caves in Arlington, along with a smattering of other local clubs). Blackbox Presents owners Aaron Knight and Jamie Kinser will be responsible for handling the Live Oak's talent buying and calendar management, with a focus on "more diversity of genre and ... local and regional headliners."
Interestingly, the Live Oak will also be implementing an "open booking policy," which Kinser defines in the statement as involving "as many local promoters, blogs [and] radio stations as are interested in putting their shows at the Live Oak." The Live Oak recently began hosting themed nights (blues and jazz, mainly) and those will continue under the new set-up, with All Together Now Events (headed up by Nicole Ofeno and Raef Payne, who is a member of the Hanna Barbarians) handling those bookings, as well as the Live Oak's marketing and PR efforts.
And as far as the ongoing construction outside of the Live Oak, Smith said in the statement: "I am happy to announce that the developers are promising completion of the parking lot and underground utilities that will give the Live Oak access to our existing back patio and roll-up door at the back of the main stage allowing us to utilize our top-of-the-line sound system for outdoor productions."
Are these changes positive? Hard to tell, as they haven't fully taken effect yet, but it's always slightly disconcerting when wholesale shuffling takes place not long after a venue opens up. Some of the turnover is natural and even inevitable (the music and food biz is nothing if not transient), but the idea of "open booking" and keeping a focus on "local and regional headliners" suggests a turn away from making the Live Oak more like the adventurous, eclectic Kessler in Oak Cliff and instead, a larger, much more stylish version of Lola's Saloon. (The cynic in me knows it all comes down to the almighty dollar, but perhaps this instance will prove me wrong.)
Booking those regional and national acts cost money, and it takes consistently full houses to make the investment worth it. Booking largely local acts simply doesn't cost as much, but I'm hopeful Blackbox Presents uses this opportunity to do something the Moon's Chris Maunder never got the chance to (at least, not yet): cross-pollinate Fort Worth (and Dallas and Denton) acts with a smartly chosen blend of regional and national acts. For the Live Oak to completely forsake national touring acts is short-sighted, and continues the notion that Fort Worth must remain a cultural island unto itself. But I've raised this point before.
And while I applaud the idea of bringing the community more into the fold, as it were, this move also feels like it's placating those who howled whenever the Live Oak's initial slate of shows was revealed: "But where are the locals? Why aren't they part of the Live Oak from the outset?" The fact is, it takes time for a venue to find its feet and while the Live Oak is well on its way, putting solely locals and local-affiliated acts inside this Near Southside jewel not only robs Fort Worth of an opportunity to see top touring shows that normally bypass the city, but also further saturates an already crowded field of "locals only" stages.
There's a balance that can be struck, between national/regional acts and locals. I'm hopeful the Live Oak will find that balance -- and hold it -- for years to come.