Already The Hottest Thing on Cable, The Gas Monkey Crew Sets Its Sights On The Dallas Music Scene.
Around these parts, Richard Rawlings is what is known, colloquially, as The Man.
And, far as we can tell, it's pretty much always been this way. Even before the Fort Worth native became the face of Discovery Channel's “Motor Mondays” thanks to the success of Fast N' Loud — the reality show centered around Rawlings' vintage car restoration shop, the Gas Monkey Garage, a show that's currently the No. 1-rated non-sports show on cable TV among men 18 to 54 — the guy had long made a case for himself as being one of the bigger badasses in town.
By the age of 21, Rawlings had already held down jobs as a police officer, firefighter, paramedic and Miller Lite delivery guy. At 22, he added “survived getting shot during a car-jacking” to his resume. He later started up a printing and advertising company (which he went on to sell to get Gas Monkey Garage off the ground); allegedly set the record for the Cannonball Run in 2007 when he drove his Ferrari 550 Maranello from Midtown Manhattan to Redondo Beach, California, in 31 hours and 59 minutes; and once competed in Red Bull's annual Flugtag event.
But, since the summer of 2012, he's just been one of the hottest personalities on television, is all. And it's there where he can be seen scooping up junked-out classic cars on the cheap, restoring them to better-than-new conditions and selling them to the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Cuban and George Forman, among others — a gig he's since snowballed into another pretty decent side-hustle, in which he acts as the spokesman for Dodge cars.
Oh, and he also grows one hell of a beard.
In the past year, though, he's taken on a different type of re-build, transforming the long-closed Firewater Bar & Grill space in northwest Dallas into Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill, a bustling bar/restaurant/live music hub that's been attracting all sorts of national talent in its first 12 months in business.
And now he's launched another project: He's doubling down on his music efforts and converting the site of the tacky, mostly unpopular former home of Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill into Gas Monkey Live, which he and his team hope will become the city's premiere 2,500-capacity live music venue.
It's a move that just might represent Rawlings' biggest restoration effort to-date.
When Richard Rawlings and his partner Aaron Kaufman are restoring a classic automobile, their strategy is surprisingly simple: “It has to be completely cohesive from the front end to the back end to the interior,” the Gas Monkey Garage site explains. “Every piece has to make sense. And as a project evolves so does [their] vision.”
And when it came to Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill, his first live music restoration in Dallas, Rawlings applied much of that same philosophy. GMBG's interior is more understated than one might initially expect. Simple wood and metal embellishments give the place a surprisingly classy-but-down-to-earth feel. Somewhat more unexpected, the place isn't cluttered up with a bunch of body shop ephemera or other flair. And, actually, that's fairly refreshing, given that some of the bar's closest neighbors are a Chili's, Joe's Crab Shack and the place that officially trademarked the term “breastaurant.”
The venue even sits on a small body of water, too, as a small man-made river that encircles the Technology Boulevard area edges against two sides GMBG and adds to the feeling that a trip to Gas Monkey is a little bit of an escape — while also bolstering the impression that the place is a lot farther away from Downtown than it really is, save for the fact that one can very clearly see the skyline from the spot's outdoor patio.
Still, despite the fact that Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill has hosted acts like Deer Tick, Against Me!, The Sword and The Derailers during its first year in business, gripes about this establishment persists among a sizable contingent in the area bar-owner and show-promoter sets.
Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill general manager Alex Mendonsa gets that — well, to a degree. The Gas Monkey name, he admits, likely turns off as many people as it excites.
“From our perspective, because of the Gas Monkey moniker and because we happen to have a reality show that's based around one of our sister projects, people think it's this big corporate monster, this big corporate beast,” Mendonsa says.
But that, he says, this venue is not. Specifically, Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill is a 19,000-square-foot venue, surrounded by that aforementioned makeshift moat and boasting more seating on its two giant patios than it boasts inside. The space is also home to a huge outdoor stage, where roughly 1,000 people can enjoy a mix of local and national talent that perform on any given night. Another plus? Unlike most every other comparably sized venue in town, GMBG boasts 1,000-plus parking spaces that it never charges its customers to park in.
Still, thanks to the Bar N' Grill's branding efforts and, of course, Gas Monkey Garage's Discovery Channel connection, plenty of North Texans have been turned off by the idea of the place without ever stepping foot inside — because, says local show promoter Jeffrey Brown, the notion that GMBG isn't just another arm of a big corporate conglomerate is kind of hard to shake.
“Business is a cutthroat endeavor and I can never really hate on somebody being very successful,” says Brown, who runs King Camel Productions. “However, Gas Monkey doesn't seem like a somebody. It feels more like a something.”
That's a critique that Mendonsa has heard ad nauseam since GMBG opened last September — and one he says he has to constantly fight until his space's critics actually set foot in it.
“Anyone who we have had at the venue, I think we have converted into fans of what we do,” Mendonsa says. “People are afraid to come because they're afraid they'll like it. They have some preconceived notion in their head that we're this big corporate beast and the Discovery Channel is giving us millions of dollars to flush down the toilet. [To those people we say,] 'Come down and disappoint yourself in the fact that that's not what we're doing, and that's not what we're about.'”
He has a point: Love them or hate them, the Gas Monkey crew has, thus far, managed to succeed in spades in its little entertainment oasis where its predecessors squarely did not.
In fact, they've been so successful that they'l further expand their empire when they open their second, bigger Gas Monkey Live venue on Saturday, October 11.
Alex Mendonsa doesn't seem like the corporate type. The heavily-tattooed arms that show through the Gas Monkey general managing partner's skin-tight, black GMBG T-shirt, 5 o'clock shadow and hip, high and tight cut are a dead giveaway of this fact.
At the same time, he's no stranger to that corporate world, either. Prior to signing on manage GMBG, Mendonsa spent a decade working for House of Blues spaces in Anaheim, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He even had a hand in helping open the Dallas location of the concert venue chain, too.
Around the time Mendonsa got to Las Vegas, former Live Nation vice president Peter Ore was just ending a six-month stint in Vegas where he was helping to open a Live Nation office. While the two never crossed paths in Sin City, Mendonsa says he was very aware Ore's reputation, as well as the high caliber of shows he had been booking.
And, shortly after Mendonsa signed on as a managing partner at GMBG and realized the venue was too large to be just a bar, he decided to book a few shows a month. Immediately, he knew he wanted to bring Ore aboard as his concert-managing partner. The two have been working hand-in-hand ever since.
But the pair's combined 35 years experienced in the industry is just a part of the formula that's helped GMBG succeed where Firewater failed.
“Firewater was a bar and grill,” Mendonsa says. “It had music, but it was mostly local music showcases. One of the things we've been lucky with is the amount of national bands Peter's been able to route through to GMBG, all the different types of music we've put through there. One day, it could be a blues legend. The next day, it could be The Sword. We don't really stick to one genre, which opens us up to an entirely new audience depending on what we have any given day.”
Adds Ore: “They brought in two very professional people who have tons of experience and tons of relationships, and who do it right. It's not like some 18-year-old kid just got bankrolled to do something.”
As much as the duo credits its time working in the corporate world to its success, they also say they saw plenty of things in that realm that they didn't want to replicate at GMBG. Above all, Mendonsa and Ore say they knew they didn't want to treat bands the way they say they've seen talent treated far too often in the past. Money aside, the two acknowledge the hard work that everyone from the smallest local band to big national headliner puts into their craft.
“Working for Live Nation and House of Blues, I've learned a lot,” Mendonsa says. “Along with the things I learned as far as what to do, I also learned some things I don't want to do. If a show is not selling well or if it's not going to be a huge blowout show, the band is going to be bummed regardless because they want to pay a packed show. That's a big enough disappointment as it is by itself. But then I'm going to go back to that band and say, 'You know, your ticket sales are pretty whack, you can't have any beer in your rider and I'm going to cut out your food?' That's just a drag — and ultimately it's not going to bring you any closer to the golden finish line. It serves no purpose. If a band sells 100 tickets or 1,000 tickets, we treat them the same. We love them. We want to take care of them. We want them to come back.”
Gas Monkey's effort to go the extra mile for the talent it books certainly hasn't gone unnoticed.
Says drummer Trey Alfaro, who has performed at Gas Monkey with his band, the Dallas-based hard rock trio The Phuss, GMBG's hospitality began the minute the band pulled into the parking lot.
“The experience I had playing there was amazing, to say the least,” Alfaro says. “As soon as we were going to park the van, we had two pretty well-built guys asking if we were playing tonight. They said, 'OK, park your van over here and tell us what you want to be unloaded.' From the very get-go, we hadn't even gotten out of the van yet and we had guys helping us unload our gear. We're not big rock stars or anything, so we were taken by surprise by that. We've played at the House of Blues before and we didn't even get that kind of hospitality from their staff. That's not to say that the House of Blues sucks or anything, but the kinds of things [Gas Monkey] did for us was kind of awesome. I can't wait to be asked to play there again.”
Echoes Corey Howe, who fronts Dallas bar-rock band the Dead Flowers, GMBG is as fine a place to play — if not more so — than the more traditional venues in long-established entertainment districts like Deep Ellum or Lower Greenville.
“Honestly, from the performance aspect of it, the crew is all really friendly and great,” Howe says. “It seemed like the wanted to be there, which is nice. The sound was spot-on. We never had an issue. Overall, it's a totally comfortable place to play — ironically enough because it's not in a small club in Deep Ellum. It's bizarre for me to be into something that's not that.”
With its unique setup, massive patios and what's generally regarded as one of the best sounding stages in town, there's a lot to like about Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill.
Not everyone's buying in, though.
Perhaps the biggest contingent of North Texans not so enamored by Gas Monkey's hospitality and undeniably top-notch sound are the area's fellow show promoters, many of whom claim that the venue's stolen away artists they've previously built relationships with by flat-out overpaying and out-pricing the competition.
“I've lost at least 15 shows to them because they can offer double pay at least,” says Fort Worth-based Ghostlight Concerts co-founder Jamie Kinser Knight. “Anyone with those contacts and a basically unlimited budget will be able to get any show they want. I know this is just sour grapes because I don't have their budget, but it definitely hurts all of our businesses. The shows would still come here, they just wouldn't be there. I know lots of other DFW venues and promoters feel this way. So many shows are ending up there that we all have history with. Some agent-promoter relationships can weather this, but [GMBG] can outbid everyone. It's not unfair because that's how business works. But it is a struggle for local venues and promoters.”
King Camel's Jeffrey Brown has experienced some of the same issues.
“I don't think anyone steals a show from anyone,” Brown says. “It's a free market. But I do think they are way overpaying a lot of these touring bands. They have a crap ton of money between their owner's previous endeavors. Plus, I'm sure the bar itself makes a shit ton of money. These bands that play there don't really have a choice, either. It's their booking agents' job to make them the most money they can. They don't care so much about the venue or the town. It all comes down to those dollar signs.”
Ore and Mendonsa have oft heard these same complaints, though the pair scoffs at the idea that the venue is using reality television dough to outbid other local promoters while establishing its identity.
“I don't know how we can be overpaying bands when all we do is make money on shows,” Ore says. “We've had a couple of losers, but if a show is successful financially, how are we overpaying for it?”
Mendonsa takes things a step further, saying that it isn't so much a case of GMBG overpaying for shows as it is a case of every other promoter in town simply trying to undercut musicians as much as possible in order to pad their own bottom lines.
“What's terrifying to me is, if we're overpaying in their opinion, then they've been grossly underpaying for years,” he says. “That mentality of, 'Hey, let's all stonewall these bands and pay them as little as possible!' is such a bullshit attitude. These guys are out there trying to make a living and trying to do this on a freakin' gum-stick budget, and, what, I'm going to short them $100? $200? It just makes no sense. That's such a crappy attitude to have. That's super frustrating.”
Still, the image of being a big, soulless, corporate-owned entity that exists for no other reason than to piss off the established figures of the Dallas music scene is one Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill has been strapped with since its inception.
Fortunately, one of GMBG's most humanizing entities is its figurehead, Richard Rawlings.
When Trey Alfaro was recently injured in a hit-and-run accident while riding his bicycle and left barely conscious laying on the side of the road, the local music community was quick to come to his aid. Without health insurance and while being forced to miss a month of work, Alfaro's bandmate Josh Fleming began a campaign to help his drummer raise the several thousands of dollars required for medical bills and dental surgeries.
Brown and Howe each chipped in, organizing benefit shows in Alfaro's honor, the latter of which saw Dead Flowers performing at So & So's in Uptown. Rawlings not only showed up to that gig, says Alfaro, but he personally wished the musician well before giving him a sizable, undisclosed amount of cash out of his pocket to help him through the tough time.
“Dead Flowers were saying stuff on the microphone about how this is a benefit show for our friend Trey Alfaro who was in an accident,” Alfaro says. “So [Richard] got wind of it and was nice enough to hand over some cash to help me out. It was a pretty awesome experience meeting that guy. He was a super nice guy.”
Becoming one of the biggest players in Dallas' live music scene wasn't necessarily the goal when Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill opened its doors in September 2013.
Initially, they really only planned to book around five shows a month or more. But, says Ore, convincing national acts like the X and Hank Williams III to perform at the spot wasn't really turning out to be all that hard. Not pigeonholing themselves into booking any one genre has really helped in that regard, too.
Still, the venue is a destination for more than just live music, and the bar and/or grill aspects of the place — not to mention its ties to Fast N' Loud — really are just as big of a draw.
But when that same crew opens Gas Monkey Live this weekend, they will do so with an entirely different agenda. This time, says Mendonsa, they want to completely change the landscape of Dallas' live music scene while becoming the premiere mid-size venue in North Texas.
“What we have seen is that the live music experience in Dallas needs a shot in the arm,” Mendonsa says. “I don't mean that to be insulting, it's just that it's the same experience no matter where you go. In some particular venues, you're lucky to have a mediocre sound system. Live music fans want to go into a venue and be blown away by the experience. You want to see your band, you want them to sound great. That's what we're going to offer.”
To make that happen, the Gas Monkey crew has taken over the old home of Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill, which is located just a few buildings down the street from GMBG. They've since converted the space into a 38,000-square-foot concert venue that will hold up to 3,000 persons. In the process, they've kept Keith's guitar-shaped bar, but given it a less patriotic paint job. They've also gotten rid of over 60 flat-screen televisions and other would-be distractions from the live music experience.
More importantly, Mendonsa says, the sound quality and other production elements they've packed into the place is on par with or better than venues such as Strauss Square, The Rustic, House of Blues, South Side Ballroom and The Majestic, each of which boasts a similar capacity.
“The amount of production we're putting into the place is going to be unlike anything else in town,” he says. “We're putting in a 30-foot-wide by 11-foot tall video wall on our stage. We have 220,000 watts worth of sound. We have a lighting package that's going to have 78 lights hanging in our rig. These are things you just can't find anywhere else in town.”
And, as a result, the bookings have already started coming. Other than Saturday's grand opening show, which will be headlined by Social Distortion, acts including Gwar, Motley Crue, Say Anything, Saves the Day and Down have already agreed to perform at the venue in the next month. And, says Ore, plenty more are on the way.
“We want to be the most consistent venue in town as well, not just have a show here or there,” Ore says. “We want to make sure there's always something badass going on at the venue. We want to be busy. We want to bring tons of bands through. If a band's not coming through, we want to fly bands in to play. However it has to happen, we just want to make sure our schedule is kickass all the time. A lot of the other venues, especially ones that size, are inconsistent at the business they do. You never know if something good is happening at one of the places. We want to be known as the place that always has something going on.”
The only question is whether the booking will be strong enough to overcome the fact that, like GMBG, Gas Monkey Live is situated in that weird little oasis where I-35, Northwest Highway and Loop 12 all converge — an area otherwise known as Technology Boulevard. But Ore doesn't think that Gas Monkey Live's location outside of Downtown or Deep Ellum will have much effect on crowds. In fact, he doesn't really put much stock into the notion of entertainment districts, period.
Says Ore: “If you don't live in Deep Ellum, then Trees is far away from where you live. If you don't live in Lower Greenville, then the Granada [Theater]'s far. If you don't live in the neighborhood where the venue is, then you're traveling to get to the venue. It's just like that in any other city. Wherever you're going to see a concert is a destination point. At least our destination point is surrounded by 2,000 parking spaces as opposed to trying to find parking in some neighborhood where your car is going to get broken into.”
Plus, let's face it: Location concerns haven't done much to keep the crowds from hitting up Gas Monkey Live's sister bar.
Rather, there's the idea that, with these two Gas Monkey locations, the honky tonk, Cowboys Red River and a recently renovated Studio Movie Grill all clumped together, this area might be in the beginning stages of becoming its own little entertainment district. Should Gas Monkey Live fare well, there's also a chance that this area, too, will attract more bars, venues and the like to its neighborhood.
“We like to think of ourselves as successful businessmen, and successful businesses attract other successful businesses, so there's really no telling what could happen,” Mendonsa says. “Our location is not Downtown. We're not in Deep Ellum. But that seems to be an incentive for people to come and check it out — because it's super easy to get to no matter where you're traveling from in the Metroplex.”
Of all the cars Rawlings has helped restore thus far during Fast N' Loud's five-season run, the rare, '91 Ferrari F40 he and his crew took on during Season 3 is widely regarded as their greatest achievement.
The automobile was thought to be totaled back in 2011 when a joyriding mechanic in Houston drove the car into an iron fence while its owner was out of town, causing extensive damage to the car's frame. Rawlings and his team took a gamble on the car, picking it up for $400,000 and completely rebuilding it from the chassis up. According to Carbuzz, the team rebuilt the Ferrari even lighter and straighter than before, adding “rebuilt turbos, Tubi exhaust, aluminum flywheel, custom Penske Racing adjustable shocks, HRE three-piece alloys and Kevlar clutch pack.” They also reworked the engine so that it now delivers an additional 80 horsepower.
In other words: By the time Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, bought the Ferrari for $675,000 at auction earlier this year, the car not only looked nothing like its former self, but performed even better than when it initially rolled out of the factory.
In many ways, Rawlings' current rebuild looks to be an even greater achievement: It's one thing to take a wrecked Ferrari and turn it into a like-new Ferrari; taking a tacky wasteland in the middle of nowhere and converting it into one of the region's premiere concert destinations is a wholly different feat.
Of course, much like any of the cars Rawlings fixes up and tries to flip, he and his team won't know for sure if their restoration efforts have been a success until they're able to gauge their profits over time.
On paper, though, Gas Monkey Live certainly has the makings of becoming a force to be reckoned with in North Texas' live music scene. All that remains to be seen is whether there are any buyers out there in the area show-going scene.