Monday, March 27, 2023 Mar 27, 2023
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Oak Cliff’s Kessler Theater is Back. Now What?

Edwin Cabaniss and Jeffrey Liles have big plans for the Davis Street venue.
By Peter Simek |
photography by Cord McPhail

When Jeffrey Liles came back to Dallas from Los Angeles for local musician Carter Albrecht’s funeral in 2007, he had no idea he was moving back for good. Life in L.A. was going well for him. He was deejaying at places like the famed Roxy and picking up voiceover work during the day. A key figure of the Dallas musical boom of the late 1980s and early ’90s, Liles loved the vibrancy of L.A.’s music scene and the clubs where musicians socialized, tried out new material, experimented, and had fun.

“Last time I was at Largo [in L.A.], Fiona Apple did a whole set of Cole Porter songs,” Liles says, by way of example. Dallas—and the time Liles had spent here, booking bands like Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers before they were huge for storied venues like Trees and the Longhorn Ballroom—was part of the music promoter’s past.

It took only a few days in Dallas, however, for Liles to know he couldn’t go back to L.A. “I didn’t realize until I left that I didn’t have the stamina to go back,” he says. Spending long days in a cramped recording studio and long nights in booze-drenched L.A. clubs was taking its toll on the soft-spoken, dreadlocked Liles. Although he didn’t have money or a job, and even though he had been out of the Dallas scene for more than a decade, Liles came for Albrecht’s funeral and never went back to L.A. “It was scary,” he says.

With his return, Liles reentered a musical world that was very different from the one he left. “I was around when Deep Ellum was at its peak, and there were 10,000 people down there on Friday and Saturday nights,” Liles says. “When I was booking Trees, there were at least a dozen bands in town who could draw 750 people to a show. These days, I don’t think there are but two or three of them.”

It wasn’t just that live music had gone out of style in Dallas. “I think over time the Dallas creative community kind of became estranged from it for whatever reason,” he says.

The question, then: how do you change that?

The opportunity for Liles came when Edwin Cabaniss approached him about being the artistic director for his new multiuse redo of the historic Kessler Theater on Davis Street, in Oak Cliff. Left vacant for decades, the theater had once been owned by country legend Gene Autry and had been hit hard by a tornado in 1957. Cabaniss was turning it into a kind of neighborhood civic center, hosting dance and music classes, office space, a bar, a gallery, room for corporate events, and two stages: an intimate setup in the front bar area and a bigger stage in the Kessler’s main space that could accommodate about 400 people. More important, by combining all of these uses, Cabaniss created a music venue that didn’t rely on ticket and alcohol sales to keep the doors open. The investor dreamed of a music venue that appealed to older audiences, a rock club sans sweat and vomit, where corporate suits and street kids could rub shoulders, and you could watch a show from a luxury box-like balcony space. Cabaniss spoke of places like Largo and the Knitting Factory in New York. Liles had found the venue he believed the Dallas scene needed.

On a Friday night in April, a month or so after the Kessler opened, it’s not quite there yet. Denton musician Robert Gomez plays to fewer than a dozen people in the main room. “I feel like I’m in a David Lynch movie,” Gomez says. “We’re losing money tonight,” Liles admits, but it doesn’t matter. The Kessler is still in a trial period, one it can afford.

As a local comparison for what he wants to do with the Kessler, Liles points to long-departed Fort Worth club Caravan of Dreams. “It is the same size, but it is also a similar sense of aesthetic,” he says. “At the old Caravan, you would see Buddy Guy and Sun Ra. William Burroughs would come read his stuff. That is what we hope to replicate here—kind of that cultural awareness of jazz and organic American roots music that appeals to people on a real spiritual, emotional level.”

It is a risk. Is there really an older, latent audience for live music out there? Will they come to Oak Cliff? The hope is, by keeping ticket prices down, potential audiences will see the Kessler as a low-risk-high-reward proposition and give it a try.

And it is not just the general public that Liles wants invested in the club. He wants to create a relationship between the Kessler and musicians. “I hope they will come here and not look at a show at the Kessler as one of their normal shows,” he says. “We want to challenge them to step outside their normal routine to do something different.”

To start, more than a year ago, when the building was just a gutted shell, Liles invited musicians into the space and recorded acoustic performances.
“We had this opportunity to make the artists feel like they were part of the restoration process,” he says. “I think it is important because those artists now feel like their flesh and blood is in this building.”

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