The North Oak Cliff Music Festival re-establishes our neighborhood as a nexus of creativity
Step into the Kessler Theater any weekend, and the sound rarely will be the same. Experimental jazz might be on the bill one night, red dirt country the next and a singer/songwriter, blues musician or indie rock band on Saturday.
It’s a musical potluck, but it’s far from random. This feast is carefully crafted by talent buyer Jeff Liles and theater owner Edwin Cabaniss.
There’s timelessness to every act that plays. You won’t catch anything gimmicky or fly-by-night.
“The common denominator is that it’s American music,” Liles says. “The thing they all have in common is that they’re organic, traditional American art forms, the kind of stuff that comes from the heart.”
The Kessler is hosting the first North Oak Cliff Music Festival Nov. 2 as a way to showcase artists who have found a home away from home at the Kessler, as well as to spotlight musicians who call our neighborhood home.
The Bronco Bowl on Fort Worth Avenue brought some of the world’s best musicians to Oak Cliff before it closed in 2003. Whether Dallasites realize it, Liles says, our neighborhood has been the “center of gravity for live music and culture in North Texas” for a long time.
And our neighborhood’s live music scene started to blossom again with Barefoot at the Belmont, the former Brooklyn in Bishop Arts and dive bars offering music with makeshift stages and booming PA systems.
When nightlife started to decline in Deep Ellum some 10 years ago, many Texas artists lost interest in Dallas, Liles says. Many were never able to find another foothold here, he says. The Kessler has brought some of them back, including Carolyn Wonderland and Alejandro Escovedo, who are playing the festival.
“Those artists have really reconnected with their audiences in Dallas,” Liles says.
While the Kessler is our neighborhood’s musical powerhouse, music also is offered from The Foundry, The Texas Theatre, Ten Bells Tavern and other venues, almost nightly these days. And all these years after the heyday of Stevie Ray Vaughan and then Edie Brickell, exciting artists continue to emerge from our humble borough.
“There’s demand for a music festival in Oak Cliff,” Cabaniss says.
This first festival is modest, just one day, from noon-8 p.m., and features two stages, one indoors and one outside.
But Cabaniss reminds us that Austin City Limits Festival started out 10 years ago in much the same fashion. Now that festival hosts thousands of ticketholders for three days every autumn at Zilker Park.
Cabaniss thinks the North Oak Cliff Music Festival could be just as successful, in a venue such as Lake Cliff Park or Kidd Springs.
“The timing is right,” Cabaniss says. “People are in the mood to cross the river to see live entertainment.”
Bobby Patterson has got a million of them.
“2Pac wasn’t nothing but one pock on a ham hock when I started.”
“50 Cent wasn’t nothing but two dimes and a nickel when I started.”
He also has jokes about ugly girlfriends: “I had an onion in there, and it started crying, she was so ugly.” That girl was also a nun, he says: “Ain’t getting none. Ain’t had none. Don’t want none.”
But Patterson’s longevity is no joke. The musician, born and raised in Dallas, has been in the music business as a performer, songwriter, promoter, producer and DJ for more than 50 years. His songs have been recorded by a laundry list of R&B, blues, pop and country artists: Albert King, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Bland, Kenny Rogers and Wilco, to name a few. At a recent concert in Marfa, Robert Plant approached Patterson to talk about his career, “You know, the one I almost had,” Patterson deadpans.
Patterson’s career might not be Led Zeppelin-caliber legendary, but that’s only one perspective.
He spent 20 years behind the scenes, promoting artists such as LL Cool J and the Bee Gees before a 15-year stint on air at KKDA, which ended this past spring.
Patterson started playing in bands as a Lincoln High School student in the early ’60s, often competing in talent shows.
“I would always imitate Chuck Berry, and I would always win,” he says. “I would do ‘Lucille,’ with the duck walk and all. I always won.”
In the mid-’60s, he was one of about seven black people who attended the University of Texas at Arlington, he says. He was a student by day, and at night his band played at LuAnn’s, The Beachcomber, the Blackout Club and other Greenville Avenue nightclubs. He was also a favorite at SMU fraternity parties, he says.
Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan used to sit in with Patterson’s band, when they were still students of the blues.
Since KKDA laid off staff in May, including Patterson, he has focused more on performing. Patterson and his band play as many as four shows a week around Dallas, and they’re often invited to play festivals.
“It’s just a thing to do now. It’s not about the money or anything else except having fun and making people happy and putting a smile on people’s faces,” he says. “That’s something the young entertainers don’t do enough.”
When Aaron Gonzalez was a little boy, he used to get onstage and honk his plastic toy saxophone along with his dad’s band.
“And then he would cry because he didn’t get a solo,” says his brother, Stefan Gonzalez.
The Gonzalez brothers are the sons of Oak Cliff-based jazzman Dennis Gonzalez, and the three of them make up the jazz band Yells At Eels.
The band started in 1999 when the brothers were teenagers. Since then, they’ve recorded three albums and traveled on tour several times to Europe.
Dennis Gonzalez, who has taught in Dallas ISD for 37 years, moved to Oak Cliff in 1978 with his wife, Carol. They raised their family in their little house on Clinton, which they bought for a steal.
At the time, there wasn’t much of a music scene in Oak Cliff, Gonzalez says. But he played locally in avant-garde jazz ensembles, and his career as a free jazz musician, writing and composing songs, took him around the world.
The Gonzalezes have different ideas about rhythm, melody, volume and economy, Aaron says.
“But when we worked all those things out, we found that really, we have a chemistry that we can’t get with anyone else,” he says.
There is no pecking order onstage, they say. They’re a democratic band. And as a band, they are instinctive. They hardly have to look at one another to communicate.
“There’s a certain freedom in our chemistry that is parallel to our family dynamics,” Aaron says.
Aside from Yells At Eels, the Gonzalez brothers also comprise the metal band Akkolyte, with Stefan on drums and vocals and Aaron on bass and vocals. They also have a band called Unconscious Collective, with Oak Cliff-based guitarist Gregg Prickett. Their band Humanization Quartet has members from Portugal, so they only play about once a year.
Stefan also is in Dead to a Dying World, The Young Mothers and Ogrullo Primitivo. Aaron has a band called Deflowered Electric Flesh Bride.
So Stefan and Aaron typically have three or four gigs a week.
All three members of Yells At Eels teach music lessons at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center as well. Juggling all these bands and collaborations comes easily to the Gonzalezes, for whom musicianship is a way of life.
“At this point, not much is off limits or scary to us,” Aaron says.
Dennis Gonzalez says he never thought of his babies as future musicians. And he never overtly encouraged their music careers. It’s not an easy life, after all. There are millions of musicians in the world, and they all want to make a living. But Dennis and Carol always wanted their kids to feel they could do whatever they wanted, even if that was playing a toy saxophone alongside world-class musicians.
Aaron says he thinks audiences have moved past the novelty that Yells At Eels is a family band, and he hopes they are making a difference in Dallas musical culture.
“I think we’re here to open up people’s minds to expression, whether it’s musical or visual or whatever,” he says.
Bluesman Lucky Peterson and his wife, singer Tamara Peterson, were home for nearly four weeks in September and October.
“This is the longest we’ve had off in two years,” Tamara says during an interview at their church, Faith Memorial.
It wasn’t exactly a restful vacation. During that month, they hosted a barbecue, a crawfish boil and then a Batman birthday party for their 4-year-old godson at their South Dallas home.
A Buffalo, N.Y., native, Peterson, 47, is the son of a blues player. And he has been performing the blues since he was 5 years old. He moved to Dallas 25 years ago to play with Bobby “Blue” Bland, and he’s been on the road ever since.
Before the end of this year, Lucky and Tamara will play shows in Germany, Switzerland, France, Israel, Canada, New York and Chicago. Playing and traveling is their life’s work. But in the past five years or so, family and church have taken center stage for Lucky Peterson.
His 2010 album, “You Can Always Turn Around,” includes a cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “I’m New Here.” On the track, Peterson’s voice sheds some of that signature raspy wail in favor of a smoother, sweeter sound: “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone, you can always turn around.”
“I was getting a handle on a lot of things,” he says of his inspiration for the album.
The Petersons joined Faith Memorial about five years ago, after Lucky was asked to play during a service there.
“I liked what I was seeing,” he says of the church. “So we joined, and we’re family now.”
The Petersons have four children, including daughter Lucky, who attends Greiner middle school and also is a singer. Tamara homeschooled the kids for years, and the whole family would go on the road together. But she says she stayed home from touring for a few years so her son, who was in high school at the time, could attend school. But now she’s back at it.
Their favorite place to visit is France, she says.
“Paris is like a home away from home for us now,” she says.
Peterson occasionally plays in blues clubs around Dallas, but he enjoys a much bigger following overseas.
“I have a bigger following everywhere but Dallas,” he says.