WHITNEY AND CLINT Barlow never planned to have their lives revolve around the concert industry. Initially, their plan as newlyweds was to open up a restaurant in the north Dallas suburb of McKinney. “We had architectural plans done and everything,”
Whitney, now 33, recalls about that long-forgotten spot, just about a decade removed from the moment when she and her husband, now 45, ditched those earliest dreams they had of opening up an eatery. “We had all of this ready to go — and then we came down here.”
It was the late ’00s, and the “here” in question is Deep Ellum, the historic Dallas entertainment district that, frankly, had seen its better days. A full decade removed from the vibrant neighborhood the area had been in the ’80s and ’90s, when music venues lined the street, Deep Ellum had devolved, the victim of some well-intentioned city ordinances — ones meant to curb some of Deep Ellum’s more dangerous elements. Ironically, those mandates ended up smothering the whole scene, leaving just a handful of businesses open and operating along the city’s most famed streets.
Things weren’t looking so hot for the ’hood. Then, one day, the Barlows took a fateful drive down to the neighborhood to check out one of Clint’s old haunts, a renowned Dallas club named Trees, where a sold-out 1991 Nirvana show was once famously cut short after Kurt Cobain started brawling with a bouncer, and where North Texas acts such as the Toadies, Tripping Daisy and others had cut their teeth — including groups Clint had himself played in as a drummer before he scored his long-running gig of manning the kit for Vanilla Ice’s live shows.
“It was Clint’s idea,” Whitney says, who was working as a bartender at the time. “He was just like, ‘I want to show you this place.’ So we went down there, and then out comes this guy, who just happened to be the landlord. He let us in, and we walked around inside. There were holes in the ceiling — you could see right up into the sky. And I could just immediately feel it. We just both were like, ‘Yep, this is what we’re doing now.’”
And how. It’s crazy to think what the future might’ve held for Deep Ellum had the Barlows not taken a drive that afternoon. It almost certainly wouldn’t be the arguably more-vibrant-than-ever entertainment district it stands as today, where crowds are again filling the streets on a nightly basis, where parking is once more damn near impossible and where music is again found around every corner.
Make no mistake, the Barlows are owed some thanks for that return to form. After fully renovating and eventually re-opening Trees in August of 2009, the couple grew that venue into one of the most successful independent rooms in all of North Texas, drawing upwards of 275 well-attended shows per year to the almost-forgotten Deep Ellum streets.
Their model proven, they then doubled and even tripled down on their strategy of opening revered old Deep Ellum stomping grounds, first by pouring $7 million worth of upgrades into the 4,383-person-capacity the Bomb Factory — opened back up in March 2015 — and turning it into one of the premier rooms of its size in Texas, then opening the 1,100-person-capacity Canton Hall — adjacent to the Bomb Factory — in the old Deep Ellum Live space in November 2017.
Between their three state-of-the-art venues, the Barlows are now responsible on any given night for more than 6,000 people flowing into the four-city-block stretch that separates their spaces. Better yet, as the Barlows’ empire has grown, the gaps between and around their establishments have been filled with various bars, restaurants, retail shops and other businesses looking to cash in on the suddenly cool again Deep Ellum reputation.
Another entity looking to cash in on the Barlows’ vision? The concert promotions conglomerate AEG, which in October 2018 announced that it had struck a deal to become the exclusive out-of-house booking partners for the Bomb Factory and Canton Hall. For the Barlows, that deal means added security and less risk in their calendars. For AEG, it means getting to work with, and not against, the demands of the artists it’s booking to venues all across the country.
“The deal is a no-brainer for us,” says AEG Live Southwest marketing director Ryan Brandon. “Everyone [we work with] wants to play the Bomb Factory.”
So what’s next for the Barlows? In a twist of fate, their next move is the one they initially meant to make first. This year, they finally plan on opening that restaurant they planned to open all those years ago. This time, though, they’ll be doing so in the Deep Ellum neighborhood they’ve helped being back to life — simply by believing they could.
“We never felt scared,” says Whitney, who also helps shape the direction of the neighborhood through her position as a member on the board for the Deep Ellum Foundation, which advocates for neighborhood enhancement and development. “We were always confident about it. Everyone thought we were crazy and that we couldn’t pull it off. But whenever that’s happened, we just look at each other and say, ‘Well, if we lose it all, we’ll get it back.’ We just believed in all of this. So we just went for it.”
2709 ELM STREET
DALLAS, TX 75226
SIZE: 7,500 sq. ft.
A SAMPLING OF WHO YOU’LL SEE HERE: Houston rap legend Bun B, pop-punk hero Jeff Rosenstock, emo icons Cursive and Austin psychedelic favorites the Black Angels.
Since re-opening in 2009, Trees has reestablished itself as the beating heart of the Deep Ellum music scene and the room that every up-and-coming act in town hopes to one day play. Yes, once you’ve played Trees, you’ve really made it. Well, until you outgrow the spot, anyway. These days, the Barlows view their eldest child as a launching pad — the spot where the acts who’ll one day play Canton Hall and the Bomb Factory are able to hone their chops. The most intimate venue in the Barlows’ portfolio, Trees may also still be the most cherished among fans and performers alike. Up-and-coming pop and hip-hop darlings revere the crisp sound of the space, whereas legacy metal and punk acts appreciate the grit afforded the room by its rough, exposed-brick patina. Fans, meanwhile, appreciate how close they can get to those on-stage talents.
2727 CANTON STREET
DALLAS, TX 75226
SIZE: 11,000 sq. ft.
A SAMPLING OF WHO YOU’LL SEE HERE: Esteemed indie rock outfit Grizzly Bear, chillwave pioneer Washed Out, the reunited Houston rap outfit Geto Boys and singer-songwriter Kurt Vile.
The youngest member of the family, the versatile Canton Hall has a more finished look than its siblings — and for good reason, as the long-vacant Deep Ellum Live space was never envisioned as being just a concert hall. Rather, it was opened up in 2017 with the aim of becoming a flex space for events of all stripes. Says venue co-owner Whitney Barlow: “It was important that Canton Hall was built out appropriately for private events and for concerts of all genres. We really thought about how to design it so we could capture both, and with more of a refined feeling. Y’know, Trees feels like Trees, and if we ever tried to clean it up or slick it out, it just wouldn’t feel the same. But we made Canton Hall more of a blank space with high-end finishes, and we can dumb it down or class it up as needed.”
THE BOMB FACTORY
2713 CANTON STREET
DALLAS, TX 75226
SIZE: 50,000 sq. ft.
A SAMPLING OF WHO YOU’LL SEE HERE: Rock god Robert Plant, Dallas-raised indie rock heroine St. Vincent, breakthrough East Texas country star Kacey Musgraves and independent hip-hop innovator Chance the Rapper.