Live on the Near Southside

by Celestina Blok

Not since the Caravan of Dreams closed has Fort Worth seen a music venue like The Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge, but this new destination spot reaches beyond the Caravan.

Clint Simpson prayed about the decision he had to make: stay in his hometown of Fort Worth or pack up and move his family to Nashville so he could find work. The booking agent just lost his moneymaker, a bluesy quintet named Cadillac Sky that decided to break up, leaving Simpson without an anchor group to represent. Talent buyer jobs were hard to find, especially in a city like Fort Worth where live music venues were minimal and didn’t reach far beyond rowdy country bars and smoky watering holes.

Simpson, 32, was sitting on the patio of Yucatan Taco Stand on Magnolia Avenue a year ago when he saw the sign for the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge hanging on an old brick building just up the road at 1311 Lipscomb St. Bill Smith, Simpson found out, was the godfather of the project.

“I did my best to get a hold of a Bill Smith in Fort Worth,” Simpson said.

Smith, a longtime landscape designer, contractor and builder, put a 16-year lease on the building to open a music venue unlike any Fort Worth had ever seen, one with a restaurant, lounge, multiple patios, including one on the rooftop with a view of the downtown skyline, and, most notably, an intimate show room with an auditorium-style stage and state-of-the-art sound system. When Simpson and Smith finally connected, they compared notes on what components they each thought the perfect music hall should encompass.Bill Smith

A Place to be Heard
Frequently referring to the music hall as a “listening room,” Simpson and Smith agree the Live Oak can best be described as a place for patrons to listen and a place for musicians to be heard.

Simpson says the Live Oak will consistently bring in artists who haven’t had a chance to play Fort Worth. He’d also like the Live Oak to be the place musicians play right before they hit it big. If he had to define the hall’s primary genre, Simpson would call it “roots,” a category that covers everything from blues to bluegrass and jazz to folk music.

“Even more so, our genre can be described as singer/songwriter,” he said. “You will be able to hear the artist’s lyrics. We want to have shows that literally inspire people; where folks can hear lyrics and become touched by them. It’s not a saloon or a dive bar or a place to just have racket going on in the background. We won’t have acts in here that guests will ignore and instead talk about their day. If they want to do that, there’s a lounge and there are patios. In here — in the music hall — you come to listen. Fort Worth hasn’t had that in a long while. We think musicians hone their craft, and they’re pouring out their hearts. If someone is pouring out their heart to you, you’d be listening.”

Creating the Space
Bill Smith once sold paintings on street corners before discovering his passion for landscape design. He says he loves creating outdoor spaces and has worked on construction projects in Fort Worth for 30 years. As part owner of The Usual, the sophisticated drinking establishment just down the street from the Live Oak, Smith had a hand in its design. He’s also built many a stage for area festivals and has long built a rapport with local musicians.

The Live Oak building was an empty shell when Smith acquired it. With 5,000 square feet, Smith had plenty of room to get creative.

All interior wood is mahogany, including patterned ceiling fixtures that portray squares of stripes, milled and crafted by Smith and his cohorts over the past year. The roof is completely new with a new steel structure for support. Colorful pendant lights hanging over the dark wood bar in the lounge were hand-blown by the team at neighboring SiNaCa Studios.

When the overhead lights are dark and the sconces are glowing, the atmosphere is primed to show off Live Oak’s spotlit stage and quarter-million-dollar sound system.

Simpson predicts 90 percent of the Live Oak’s shows will be seated, maxing at a crowd of around 185, and standing shows will easily accommodate 300-plus.

With a lineup card that’s included names like Grammy-winner Jim Lauderdale and, coming Aug. 12, Jenny Simmons of Addison Road, the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge is poised to become a destination for music lovers beyond the city limits.

“There’s a ton of folks my age that were just kids when the Caravan of Dreams was around, so they haven’t experienced a listening room,” Simpson said.

Simpson said there’s a misconception about the Live Oak that anyone who visits has to have a show ticket.

“We’re more like the House of Blues, where the music hall is completely separate from the lounge and patio. You don’t need a ticket to eat or drink here,” he said.

Featuring dishes like chicken-fried water buffalo and walleye fish and chips along with 50 draught beers, the Live Oak is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. Sunday hours currently are 4 p.m. to midnight, but a Sunday brunch is planned soon — maybe even by the time you read this. Executive chef Mikel Steen, who started his culinary career at River Crest Country Club and gained experience on cruise ships and at the Fort Worth Boat Club, says the diverse menu is synonymous with the eclectic diversity of Live Oak’s acts.

“The menu is every bit of what I’ve learned to cook fused all together. It’s just like our music. It’s a whole spectrum of components,” Steen said. “This is a one-stop shop: Have dinner, enjoy the show, finish out on the rooftop, and we just completed your evening. You spent eight hours at the Live Oak, and you loved every minute of it.”