Scenes From Saturday's North Oak Cliff Music Festival.
The Kessler Theater does not care whether you think it's a hip space. Hell, it does not particularly desire your attendance — not if your attendance only comes once in a blue moon. Buzz, for the most part, is the last thing with which this venue is concerned.
No, this Oak Cliff venue is far more focused on other, more profitable matters — y'know, grown-up concepts like sustainability, professional presentations and taking care of those that care for it back. It is not a space that chases after whatever it is that you happen think is cool this week, but a business built upon well-forged relationships, a high rate of returning customers and generally positive experiences.
Put simply, the Kessler Theater is not really meant for you and me. And, in an odd turn, that's why it's arguably the best-run, most consistent venue in all of North Texas. It is a space that very much knows its role and fits it well.
So perhaps it's not surprising that much of the same from above can also be applied to the venue's foray into Dallas' very crowded festival market. Three years into its operations, the annual North Oak Cliff Music Festival does not aim to beat area concert attendees into ticket-buying submission by tapping the into the hype machine for its bookings. Quite the opposite: Much like the Kessler's own calendar, the North Oak Cliff Music Festival — far moreso than any of its competitors — very much caters to its already-trusting audience base.
Hence the fact that this year's lineup, much like previous years' bills, for the most part read like an excerpt from the Kessler's own concert calendar. Each of the performers on the bill, save perhaps for the headliners (a reunited Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians, whose absence on the Kessler calendar is more a matter of availability than fit), is a regular at the Davis Street venue. Consistency, turns out, is king: It is specifically because this festival boasted a list of performers familiar to the Kessler audience that this past Saturday's offering turned out to be such an indisputable success. Theirs is a model that few entities in town — or anywhere, really — can match: The Kessler does not care to worry about your scene; it has its own and enjoys it fine as is, thank you very much.
And boy does it: The crowd that showed to Lake Cliff Park on Saturday to take in a day-long feast of music, food truck fare and — God help us — family-friendly fun was the type of base that other area fests, most notably the similarly inclined Homegrown Festival, are sure to envy. It was perhaps the most booking-trusting audience the Dallas festival circuit has ever seen: “Even if we don't intimately know all the bands,” you could imagine some of these attendees remarking to others, “we know that we like the kinds of things that the Kessler offers, so we're going to just trust it.”
Trust comes with history, of course, and history comes with time. And though the Kessler, as currently stands, has only been around since 2010, its model and the team behind it — owner Edwin Cabaniss, artistic director Jeffrey Liles and technical director Paul Quigg — hasn't wavered from its aim in that coming-up-on-five-years span. (It helps, too, that Liles and Quigg, as veterans of the Deep Ellum scene from that neighborhood's '80s and '90s heyday, have reputations stretching far beyond that.) As a result, the people know what they're getting here. And they approve.
They certainly did on Saturday. And, even at the peak of the unseasonably warm day's heat, they had reason to: With the sun beating down from above and threatening to wear out its welcome, the festival's so-booked South Dallas Funk Revue encouraged the crowd not to fear sweat, but to embrace it. So the crowd, inspired by the sheer energy and glee shown by the '70s-sprung, still-kicking city treasures that are Bobby Patterson and The Relatives, stepped into the heat as opposed to seeking shelter in the shade. All too happily, the crowds followed along to The Relatives' instructions that they get low and sway from side to side. With little concern for embarrassment or the condescending judgment of their fellow attendees, they hopped up in down in hopes of earning Patterson's attention and getting called up to join him on stage.
All day long, the inherent trusting nature of this festival bred this kind of fully participatory environment. Following the Funk Revue, Sarah Hickman's side-stage offering was similarly intimate — even before a blown P.A. system forced her performance to become an on-the-fly acoustic affair. Coming across more like a camp director than the onetime Official State Musician of Texas, she laughed off the children who ran through her carved-out performance space on the grass in front of her stage on their way to the nearby playground and flirted away with fellow festival performer David Garza, who sneakily joined in on her offering as he would so many others throughout the day.
Next, Denton folk-rock heroes Seryn, in a final area showing before the entire six-piece follows guitarist Nathan Allen and moves to Nashville for a spell, stood as perhaps the most distant act of the day — but only in the sense that this enamored-with-most-things crowd was blown back by the band's intricate and surprisingly impactful arrangements and, for seemingly the first time all day, was only once (once!) asked to actively clap along and join in on the action themselves. Maybe that was fitting: As dusk set in, this audience maybe needed a moment to catch its breath. Yet even as it did so, one imagines it also collectively whipped out its cell phones and made notes in its calendars that Seryn will be performing an album-release show for its sophomore LP on December 30 at the Kessler.
Because, and this was abundantly clear of Saturday's audiences, the North Oak Cliff Music Festival attendees don't mind reliving the same thing twice. Or waiting for it, even: After eight years of waiting for Edie Brickell and her old pals in the New Bohemians to reunite, an extra 45-minute stall as the band lugged all of its gear on stage didn't really seem to be all that big of a deal to this crowd. The pristine weather, having settled comfortably into temperatures in the 70s at this point, didn't hurt matters, either; coolers were simply reached into and cans were cracked open, butts were further cozied into lawn chairs and all of the young whippersnappers on hand just kept running around, guaranteeing an easy bed time for parents just a few hours later.
And when the Glory Days off Yore finally returned with a wave and a smile from Ms. Brickell and her “boys,” they did so seamlessly. The groups' soft-rocking, jammy sounds just washed right over the grounds and its inhabitants mercifully — and with at least some semblance of self-awareness: “Here's a song we used to play in the clubs 30 years ago,” Brickell announced at the start of her band's set, laughing at herself the entire way. “Wait till you hear the lyrics!”
There was no time for serious questions like, “Was this band always so sonically inoffensive?” or “Surely this band once had more of a pulse, right?” Rather, like bath water, the music just sort of waved back and forth, with a jubilant, singalong-happy crowd up front swaying along in kind. The moment was 30 years old and leaking onto Elm Street from the stage at Dada, but also very much in the now and reverberating gently throughout the streets North Oak Cliff.
It was pleasant, to be sure. Nostalgic, no doubt. Balls-out? Hell no, but that wasn't the goal. No, the aim here seemed mostly a reassurance that, as Brickell sings on her band's other hit, everyone here was a part of everyone else's circle of friends.
No, it wasn't dangerous — not even in the slightest. But given Oak Cliff's historic (if now easily dismissed) reputation as a hotbed for dangerous activity, that's something to be considered carefully. As is the very-whitebread Brickell's on-stage exclamation that she loves Oak Cliff, while also acknowledging that, though born in this neighborhood, she never really spent much time here in the past.
That's just the Kessler for you. It works on its own terms. It carves out its own niche. And, without question, it's thriving.
Which is actually pretty punk rock when you think of it.
Don't care? That's OK. Nothing's ever good enough for anybody else, anyway. And being alone? Sometimes that's the best way to be.