Editor's note: Doug McGrath is a music contributor with four decades of experience as a member of the Dallas music community. This week, he shares his five favorite music venues in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Music fans who lived in Dallas-Fort Worth during the '90s might recall it as a golden era, with clubs hosting shows seemingly every night starring local and national acts. These days, Deep Ellum is as much a restaurant hub as it is a place to see bands, but DFW's live music scene is far from dead. There are plenty of places to catch live music, and there's nothing that compares with the spontaneity and good feeling of seeing musicians do their thing live.
I've played, attended, or worked hundreds of shows, as the light guy, sound guy, door guy, club manager, and bass player. I've been in front of the bar and behind. One thing I've learned is that no single factor makes or breaks a venue. There are intangible things like the vibe of the place, and tangible things like the stage or bathrooms. As a concertgoer, it's how well you can see the band, how they sound, and how the bar staff treats you. Some places just get things right.
Here are my favorite DFW music venues, in alphabetical order:
Caves Lounge (Arlington): One thing I love is a dimly lit dive bar, and Caves Lounge, along with its neighbor, Sunshine Bar, are two of the best around. Caves edges out Sunshine Bar for being both a tremendous dive and for having a huge back patio. Patios factor into my enjoyment of a music venue, both as a musician and a concertgoer. Here you'll see killer bands plop their gear down on the floor, play right in your face, then hang out with you on the patio. That's a fun night. Being located between Dallas and Fort Worth has to be tough, but these two venues (which share a parking lot) give you a great reason to visit the mid-cities.
Ridglea Room (Fort Worth): Part of a trio of semi-connected venues that includes the large, venerable Ridglea Theater and capable small venue Ridglea Lounge, Ridglea Room is the medium-sized room in the middle, and a favorite because it's a great place to play. It has a wide, solid stage with plentiful monitors and fresh carpet; more than enough sound equipment for the size of the room; and great intelligent lighting with a pro in-house light guy. The stage is also tall, so everyone in the room has a good view. Ridglea Room will make your band look and sound good. Another plus: There's a ton of free parking and no horrific Deep Ellum-style traffic. Bands have an easy load-in through the back doors, with a dedicated security guy and space to stack gear before and after the show.
The Bomb Factory (Deep Ellum): The injection of life that occurred on Canton Street when Clint and Whitney Barlow reopened The Bomb Factory is one of my favorite Deep Ellum stories. The Bomb Factory is a giant, versatile space that hosts the largest shows in Deep Ellum, as well as special events that make effective use of its stellar lighting, sound, and video screen. The staff at all of the Barlows' venues (which also include Trees and Canton Hall) can't be beat, whether you're a patron or a musician, but The Bomb Factory hits nearly every measure of a great venue: huge stage, unobstructed views, great bars and bathrooms, large merch area, killer sound. The only thing it needs is a larger patio.
Three Links (Deep Ellum): Three Links is the home of punk rock in DFW. If you're a regular here, it's like the Cheers of Deep Ellum. Insiders call it "HQ" (headquarters) for a reason: Even when your destination is elsewhere, Three Links is where you pregame or postgame. Don't let its diminutive size fool you: Three Links pumps out a lot of sound. They make traveling and local bands sound good, and the big garage door in front lets everyone passing by hear it. The patio is the place to be between bands (or all night), and their playlists are the best jukebox in town. These guys also have a heart, raising money or donations for charitable causes and hosting potluck dinners, video game tournaments, chili cookoffs, spelling bees, and benefit shows.
Trees (Dallas): When it opened in 1990, Trees dominated the Deep Ellum music scene for 15 years until it closed in 2005. Some of my favorite musical memories took place at Trees, like when the Flaming Lips performed their famous headphones experiment (and in quadraphonic sound) there in 1999. When the Barlows reopened and revamped the place in 2009 with killer sound, lights, and A/C, Trees got a new lease on life. They book a great variety of big national and local shows, and the staff is always on point, making it a great destination whether you're playing on its stage or just enjoying the show. I'd like to see them open a second bar more often, or do more with their patio and upstairs, but that doesn't stop you from having a good time.
The following are also great bars/venues:
Double Wide (Dallas): With its convenient patio and kitschy bar, Double Wide is a great place to hang out. Be sure to try their proprietary drink concoctions like frozen Yoohoo Yeehaw. A cramped stage and venue area could make it a tough fit for some bands, but the staff always makes the space sound good.
The Tin Panther (Fort Worth): In late 2017, Tin Panther owner and lovable service industry veteran Tyler Stevens rethought a defunct bar to create a fun, functional space in a great location not far from Fort Worth's revitalized Seventh Street drag. The decor is great, and they have an advantage over other nearby music venues in the form of a large free parking lot.