Monday, January 02, 2012

Five Days in Ft. Worth, Day Two


Home for the holidays, this travel journalist approaches her hometown with the fresh perspective of a traveler.

DAY 2

Quick, what's the first thing you think of when you think Texas? Cowboys and country music, right? Of course you do. Everyone does. Or possibly the theme from the TV series Dallas (the first time I went to London, locals made a point to tell me how much they loved that show). They wanted to know if it was really like that? 

But that's not the Texas I grew up in. No one I knew looked like Patrick Duffy, unfortunately.  

The corner of Texas I grew up in was filled with neither cowboys nor country music. It was filled with classical music from all of the ballet classes I took as a child, and later, by The Blues as a teenager. Good Texas Blues in the vein of Stevie Ray and his predecessors. It's one of the handful of things I actually miss about the culture there when I'm between visits. 

So on day two of my five days in Ft. Worth, I get out and get my fix. 

I start by grabbing dinner with my mother and friends, because tonight calls for fortification. 

Benito's isn't authentic Mexican food. It's authentic Tex-Mex, which is a slightly different animal. 

It's been in a one-story corner shop on Magnolia Avenue in the Fairmount/Hospital District since before I was alive, and I think most everyone in the kitchen has been too.

The salsa is melt-your-brain hot, as always, and the chicken soup, which includes a full half-chicken is worth the flight from L.A. alone. In all the years I've eaten here, I've only had one meal that wasn't up to snuff, and that isn't tonight. 

I order my old standby, cheese enchiladas, which come characteristically with chile con carne, a Tex-Mex standard. The meat sauce is rich and fattening; I can feel my cholesterol shooting up nearly instantly. But damn, it's good. And good for absorbing whatever I'm about to imbibe. Which starts with a frozen margarita swirled with sangria. 

The place is always busy, but it's large enough that there's rarely a wait, and the crowd is friendly. It's a tradition of mine, since I was raised on this style of Mexican (I think a tortilla was the first solid thing ever stuck in my mouth once I had teeth). 


Having paid homage to the Tex-Mex gods, we take off for a temple of another kind of cultural worship: The Blues Bar. 

I refer to the tradition of Blues throughout Texas and the South in religious terms, because the men and women who play this stuff live and breathe and perform it with such conviction that you get the idea that there is something intangible taking them over when you witness it, as with any real art-form. 

And the great thing is, you can swing a cat and hit any little dive on any given corner in Ft. Worth where you'll find pretty darn good locals who have some serious chops. Which is fortunate, because no one wants to hear the Blues if it's bad. 

My little group starts at Keys Lounge, a notch-above-dive bar in a utilitarian neighborhood called Wedgwood East. It's not much to look at, but we're not here for the scenery. 

Keys is wedged into a run-down strip mall which seems to lend itself well to playing the blues. It's open Wednesday through Sunday nights and they charge a minimal cover on Friday and Saturday. People can still smoke in bars here, which I always forget about when I'm away, and I have to adjust to the air quality for a few minutes.

The acts are usually relative unknowns who tour the region regularly and the music is solid, ranging from traditional Blues in the electric Texas style to Rockabilly. Tonight's a jam night, with locals and semi-pros rotating out every few songs, playing old standards and generally just doing it for the love of the music. 

There's a big dance floor, which is always in use, and neighbors and Blues fans mingle and dance and drink out of Mason jars. The crowd is largely made up of blue collar, middle-class baby-boomers, unless they bring their grown kids in, like me. I only spy a couple of other people my age in the place, which makes me hope somewhere people younger than me are still being exposed to this American art. 

Drinks are cheap, strong, and big (Mom orders a White Russian and it comes in the afore mentioned jar), and everyone circulates past your table at one point or another and says hello. 

Our last stop is the new incarnation of a Ft. Worth Blues institution. 

Tucked in the shadow of downtown Ft. Worth, 
J & J Blues Bar was, for decades, such a stalwart member of the blues scene in town, that it basically was the scene, at times. 

It was known for great regional acts, but it also had feathers in its cap because men like Kenny Wayne Shepherd would occasionally show to sit in on the twice-weekly jams when when they were in town playing larger venues. 

It started going downhill in the mid 2000s, musicians started favoring other bars, and it closed its doors a year or so ago. 

New ownership came in and breathed life back into the place, renamed it NOS Bar, changed very little else about it (except for removing the ancient, dusty collection of women's bras hanging from every inch of the exposed metal rafters), and threw the doors open again a couple of months ago.

I've been coming to this bar since I was 15, and it's nice to see it kicking again. Although it is off to a slow start. My mother, a huge fan of the Blues, has been invited here tonight by some members of the band, who are friends. They're solid musicians and again, the drinks are strong and cheap. There are even a few new bras hanging from the rafters. 

The only drawback I know of tonight is that two of the large doors are left open and it's a little too chilly for that, but on hot, sticky, Texas summer nights, it's perfect. 

The bar could still use a few more bodies coming in, but it will take some time for the community to realize that it's back. There are a few preppy college kids at the bar, beside a few middle-aged cowboys in Ropers and Wranglers, and all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors in between.

It's great to be back in the place, with The Blues. 

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