If Bob Wills Were Alive Today…

The Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas - photo courtesy of PegasusNews.com

The Old 97s and The Drams
New Year’s Eve at The Longhorn Ballroom, Dallas

There’s something about the Longhorn Ballroom.

Something that hits you the minute you walk through the door. The room just permeates history from every corner and crevice. It’s an awesome place, in the truest sense of the word awesome. For one thing, it’s as big as an aircraft hangar. For another, it’s the real thing.

Any performer who was anybody in country music played there back in the day. Bob Wills owned the place in the 50s and 60s. Later, it was resurrected briefly in the 80s as a live music venue banking on its biggest claim to fame that it hosted The Sex Pistol’s Dallas show just a few short days before that band broke up.

Having seen a number of shows there through the years, I can personally attest that just being on that enormous stage, where so many came before and made history, seems to inspire bands to go above and beyond what anyone would expect of them.

I had all that in mind and more when we went there on New Years Eve to see The Old 97s, The Drams and The Boys Named Sue.

The show was posted as having a 9 PM start time. That conflicted with the tickets themselves, which said the show started at 8. Now I’ve been to enough shows in this town to know that shows don’t start at 8. People are generally still eating dinner at 8 (I know we were). Doors open at 8, but shows don’t start that early.

Still, we wanted to get there early enough to see all the bands and snag a seat. So we finished up dinner and got there as soon as we could, about 9:00.

Bad move on our part.

When we got there and paid the seven bucks to park in the muddy field behind the place, there was already a line of 60-75 (maybe more) people waiting to get in. We assumed those were people paying cover at the door. That was our second wrong assumption of the night. Virtually everyone in line had done as we had and bought their tickets in advance.

After standing and shivering in line for about 15-20 minutes and getting maybe halfway to the door, we were not at all happy to hear The Drams start playing. One member of our party had driven down from Oklahoma for this show because The Drams were his very favorite band, after Slobberbone, anyway. He became even more agitated after we heard them launch into their second song, Slobberbone’s "That Is All." We’d missed the Boys entirely and it wasn’t looking good for even getting to see The Drams.

We finally got in during their third song and there it was. The most honest-to-god-old-timey-Dallas honky-tonk anyone has ever been to. And The Drams were in full early Slobberbone mode, with Scott Danbaum (Slobberbone, Centro-Matic) on fiddle and Joe Butcher (Pleasant Grove, Polyphonic Spree) on pedal steel. They did what they’ve been doing lately, rocking the place in that alt country style. Only more so. And what a place to be rocking. They played a mix of Drams, Slobberbone, and a Budapest One song. But they were opening so they only had forty five minutes to play.

We weren’t about to get in the seemingly endless beer line till they were done but we had one member of our group that pretty much needed to sit down due to some lower back issues, so I did go in search of a chair.

There were tables near the sunken dance floor but those had apparently all been taken in the hour before we arrived. There were some chairs kind of scattered around near the bathrooms in the rear but every time I approached one I was informed it had been taken.

Then I spotted it – a bunch of chairs shoved up against a rear wall! I wandered over, grabbed one, and was told by a paid staffer that he "wasn’t going to be able to let me take that chair." I excused myself, asked him what he just said and was told, just a little more sternly, "Sir, I can’t let you take that chair." Apparently, they couldn’t pay for sufficient bartenders (more on that later) but they could hire someone to stand guard on the extra chairs. Our friend-in-pain did the best she could by kind of sitting on the edge of the soundboard. She wasn’t happy.

After The Drams set me and a friend decided it was time to get a beer. This is where it goes beyond anything anyone has ever experienced at a NYE show. Or any bar anywhere, for that matter.

The beer lines all stretched from one side of the club to the back wall at the south end bar, and from the front of the building to the dance floor on the north end bar. I can’t even begin to describe how imposing they were. We took our place against the wall in one line and decided to stand in shifts. About 45 minutes later, I was about halfway to the bar when the Old 97s took the stage.

Sure enough, they were thrilled as could be to be up there and it showed. They played the best show I’ve seen them play, maybe ever. We finally got to the bar about an hour and half after first getting in line and ordered everything we could carry.

In between watching the 97s, I started thinking about what would happen if Bob Wills were still alive today. I’m pretty sure he would have issues with The Longhorn’s owner, who incidentally, also owns the Raul’s Restaurant next door.

It was his job to see to the beer concession. The bars had been gutted some time ago, so all they had was bottled beer in big ice tubs – which itself was a huge improvement over the first resurrected Longhorn show I attended, Lucinda Williams, back in September.

Then, I waited maybe twenty minutes to get to the bar, only to find out they had sold out of everything but Bud Lite and Corona. This time, they had the full menu of Bud, Bud Lite, Miller Lite, Coors Light, and, for an extra 50 cents, Corona and Shiner Bock. I flipped a coin and went with Bud. They also had the same two overwhelmed bartenders as the September show. Apparently, they hadn’t gotten any faster in the time between.

Here is where Old Bob Wills would have flipped, I’m pretty sure. It’s one thing to take down the fabled landmark Longhorn Ballroom sign, to be sold, one presumes, to the highest bidder. It’s another to make pre-paid ticket holders stand outside while the show they paid a premium to see goes on indoors. But to make them stand in line for well over an hour to get a round of beers (or soft drinks, or a goddamn drink of water) is just too much. I don’t even know how many people I overheard say they were never coming back to this place again. Some were blaming promoter Mike Snider – but after I talked to him today, he assured me he wasn’t in charge of the bar – that was the owners responsibility. He also told me that he had warned him after the Lucinda show that he would need to hire more bartenders.

So I decided that if Bob Wills were alive today he would have waited in line for about 15 minutes, seen that he had only advanced four or five places, then got out of line and walked over to Raul’s, grabbed the owner by the collar, drug him over to the Longhorn Bar, snatched a beer out of someone’s hand, and proceeded to beat the living crap out of the guy to the cheers of the increasingly angry (and increasingly thirsty) customers in line.

Of course, as the sign on the door said, you could bring in a bottle of liquor for a mere ten dollars extra; but if you wanted a coke or even some ice (3 dollars for a small bowl) to mix with it, you had to get in the hour plus line. At least this time they had ice. At the Lucinda show, there was no ice to be had.

Never has the argument for carrying a pocket flask been made so effectively.

So after that nightmare, with beers in hand, it was about a quarter to twelve. The band did the countdown, played some "Auld Lang Syne," and got back to the show.

Like I said, best Old 97s show ever. They played lots of old stuff. Rhett Miller came out for the encore and played "Message For You" and The Ramones "I Wanna Be Sedated" solo. He then brought the band back out for another 3 or four songs, closing the night with "Timebomb."

Awesome show. Awesome room. Worst. Bar. Experience. EVER.

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2 Responses to If Bob Wills Were Alive Today…

  1. Isabel says:

    Thanks for the concert review. Still bummed about missing the show. Especially now that you say it was the best Old 97’s show EVER.

  2. jitter says:

    Yeah, Isabel, it really was.
    They combined the frenetic energy of their early shows with the more full electric force and enhanced musical skills of their late 90s peak. I’ve seen them a couple dozen times over the years and this one topped em all.
    Plus, they sounded a lot like an alt country band again.
    Word is (according to Ken Bethea) their fourth coming record, that they’re in the process of recording now, is the best since “Too Far To Care.” We’ll see, but what I heard monday night was pretty promising.

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