Photography by Sean Carr
“This place is magic,” said one concertgoer at a recent Horse Thief concert, which was held at the newly reopened Tower Theatre in Uptown Oklahoma City. Judging by the enthusiasm of that night’s audience, that sentiment was near unanimous.
Horse Thief is but one of two premier OKC talents that recently brought their A game to kick off Tower’s long-awaited return to glory. Black Future rapper Jabee headlined the historic venue’s Grand Opening on February 18 with a full roster of special guests. Folk rock quintet Horse Thief then followed up on March 3 with its first large-scale show in town since releasing its major sophomore LP, Trials and Truths. Together, the diverse acts demonstrated the exciting potential of the mid-level venue, which stands proudly in OKC’s renovated Uptown 23rd District.
What Is Old Is New Again
Located along 23rd Street between Hudson and Walker Ave, Tower Theatre is impossible to miss with its neon lighting and bright marquee. A newly installed crosswalk allows patrons to park just across the street from the venue in a lot that holds around 80 vehicles. A box office awaits just under the signage in a flourish of overhead lights and fresh paint of golden hues.
The venue’s art deco inspirations hail from the theater’s role as a once decorated film house dating back to the 1930’s. It has reportedly been 17 years since the space last shuttered its doors, which is more than enough time for the theater to have fallen in disrepair. After a series of restorations and, particularly, seasoned management from the same team behind The Criterion, Tower is once again housing music and entertainment in the midst of North OKC’s Renaissance.
Within the 1,000+ capacity theater are a sloped ground floor and a seated balcony, both furnished with red curtains on either side and drink bars at the back. The balcony seats are stair-stepped from the back in a dozen or so rows with standard legroom akin to other Oklahoma venues like the Civic Center and Tulsa’s Brady Theater. The floor level stretches out from under the balcony to reach the front of the stage and may incorporate temporary seating depending on the nature of future events. For both the Jabee and Horse Thief shows, this lower level was standing room only.
Jabee Steps Boldly Into the Black Future
While Jabee had headlined at the much larger Criterion last August, his Tower show on February 18 truly felt like the show of his dreams.
Originally, Jabee was to kick off Tower Theatre’s grand opening last year, but delays found him moving his Black Future album release show to The Criterion. While that show was momentous, it didn’t capture Jabee’s new material or advocacy for community in quite the same manner. He had less time to plan for the new space, and it’s possible that pressure to draw a bigger audience resulting in him refraining from some album cuts and performance elements than might have been misinterpreted. At Tower Theatre, however, he took to the more intimate setting like it was second nature.
Naja Amatullah‘s poetry, which was fundamental to Black Future, opened Jabee’s set as it did at The Criterion, but it felt more intimate and personal when recited against the black-painted bricks of Tower’s less glitzy backstage. After this was a suspended moment of silence that slowly turned into marginal chanting. Then as gospel music cut through the air, black balloons spilled out into the venue, and in a clever move, the music was transformed into a hip-hop sample as Jabee took the stage.
He owned the venue during his skilled performance, riding a confident high as he passionately shared his socially conscious verses to an engaged audience. He even incorporated visual props to add a theatrical resonance to his thoughts on the plight and promise of a historically oppressed people. He even worked in some freestyle at the end that celebrated the night as “Black Future” pennants were given away to all in attendance.
As this blog mentioned in its LP countdown of 2016 (of which Black Future ranked #1), the album “stands for love and togetherness as much as it hails work ethic and fights for justice.” All of these qualities were on full display in his marquee performance, one that Jabee says he has dreamed about since he was a child. Sometimes dreams do come true.
A Long Night of Hip-Hop Festivities
The crowd had thinned substantially by the time Jabee wrapped the show on Saturday, February 18. This was likely due to how late his midnight set started, which appeared to be intentional. Much of the night’s proceedings were buffered by extended DJ sets, and for a show featuring five rappers, this made for a long night. It certainly felt as epic as was intended, but it’s undeniable that moments of filler spread the night somewhat thin.
Fortunately, the featured performers and the overall verve of the crowd carried the night. Before the show, host Malcolm Tubbs kept the audience engaged. At one point, an attempted dance-off even sprang up in front of the stage, complete with a bout of breakdancing to Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta”.
Grand National opened the night, promoting his new album, Eastside Delicacy. Adorned in a jersey and echoed by the occasional airhorn, the rapper and Leo’s Barbecue enthusiast held his own against a collection of chill, occasionally jazzy beats as he represented his neighborhood.
After a buffer of self-directed DJ hype, Soufwessdes then came out to represent the South Side of OKC. His latest effort, Trap Energy, brought exactly what the title promises. Energetic trap instrumentals (as well as occasional sampled gun firing effects) proved a major presence in the rapper’s set.
Zie, fresh off a hyped new single, wore his signature phrase “EAT” in shiny red letters. Though all of the artists worked in moments of crowd participation, the night’s audience seemed most on board with his “Way Too Much” call and answer bit.
L.T.Z came up fourth in the wake of enamored calls of fangirls. Representing North Side OKC, he presented his confident but laid-back approach to hip-hop. He did so with his long-time collaborator, DJ Chips, who he specifically brought to the front of the stage at the end of his set to shower accolades upon for all to hear.
At this point, an extended DJ set then cleansed the palette for Jabee’s historic set.
Although the flow of the night could have been more streamlined, its informal atmosphere rendered it less of a problem than it could have been. It felt like a big block party, and for a grand opening, Tower Theatre couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate christening.
Special Thumbs Gets “Goopy”
On March 3, Horse Thief headlined the second ever concert to take place at the newly renovated Tower Theatre, and with the folk rock darlings came a somewhat unexpected opener–Special Thumbs.
With a social media campaign built around the weird, noncontextual word “goopy”, the experimental freak-pop five-piece led up to the big date not promoting so much its material as its unusual personality.
In true form, Special Thumbs opened the night with “Lady Fingers”, which includes the lines “When you speak, you look incredible / Good enough that I’d swear you’re edible / And even though you’re not, I’m still going to put your fingers near my mouth / And smell them like little flowers in their waking hours”. It’s one of the weirder cuts from its 2016 debut EP (which was praised in this blog’s Big 50 of 2016), but it’s also one of the band’s most tuneful and memorable. Despite eccentricities like the frontman’s heavily manipulated vocal style (made possible by a series of harmonizing and autotuning electronics), the band’s midtempo rock catalogue and dreamlike instrumentation proved to have many similarities with Horse Thief.
Over the course of Special Thumbs’ set, the crowd was wooed by the simmering songs as they gained momentum to the band’s eventual closing number, “Smothered”. Ripe with organ and shouted vocals, this energetic but occasionally abrasive song might not have gone over as well out of the gate, but it did here, to ecstatic cheers from a won audience.
Horse Thief Steals the Show
When the lights and house music dropped out at intermission’s end, clearing the air for indie folk quintet Horse Thief, the fervor of the audience latched on to the empty stage the way it would at any number of large venues anticipating radio stars of the day. A lone guitarist came out to set the soft, glimmering tone, followed soon by the other members, walking onstage with the same modest confidence one might imagine they carried at showcases like SXSW. If one didn’t know beforehand that Horse Thief was a group based in Oklahoma City, one could easily be fooled otherwise.
The band made a point to play all of the songs from the new album, Trials and Truths, intermixed with hits from the previous one, Fear in Bliss. With fog machines and big, bright backlighting, the stage grew as atmospheric as the music. The hypnotic light show paired with the golden vocals and spacious guitars to captivate the audience. Enthusiastic applause and whistles followed each song. A number of attendees even conspired to bring bubble wands and added an extra communal feel to the night as bubbles started to float overhead midway through the show.
By the end, Horse Thief had truly cultivated a vibrant spirit that poured through every note of every song into the souls of its listeners. With its humble presentation, the band’s center focus was the music itself, and it was music that elevated the night to a near religious experience in one of Oklahoma City’s bold new cathedrals of live performance.
Space and Sound
Horse Thief had showcased Tower Theatre in a brilliant video preceding the show date. The video, which was recorded last year during renovations, drifts through the empty venue as the band plays one of its more stripped cuts from the new album, “Million Dollars”. It uses the natural acoustics of the space and a distant microphone to help capture the same reverb from the studio mix, though the band also uses on-stage mics during the recording, so it’s unclear exactly how much of the sound is natural. When the band replicated the performance during its show, the soft balance wasn’t the same, and this unfortunately ended up also highlighting the venue’s most notable shortcoming in its first couple of shows–the live mixing.
Though it may only prove troublesome to audiophiles, the mix during both the Horse Thief and Jabee shows felt somewhat off the mark. Horse Thief’s sound, for instance, occasionally came through the system with an abrasive edge, a quality that was out of place with all other elements of the performance, and Jabee’s mix had some muddy moments, despite working with pre-mixed tracks. Both shows lacked the full venue bass that one looks forward to feeling rather than just hearing at a big concert. It may not be directly relevant, but it’s worth noting the sound booth, which is currently not a booth but a tiny, unfenced console off to one side of the floor space.
These are critical nitpicks, though, as none of this directly impedes the songs and performances, which read loud and clear in the halls of Tower Theatre. The sound is big, but not in a way that overpowers the space. Whether on the front row or at the back of the balcony, it carries across without too much acoustic ricochet. It’s likely that the rich curtains along the walls serve a dual purpose to aid in the acoustics, and if so, it’s a smart and effective move.
A Landmark of Progress
Tower Theatre is more than a great new addition to the growth of Uptown 23rd, and it’s more than simply a solid venue with incredible potential. It’s the culmination of a live music scene stirring in Oklahoma City, one that not only welcomes but beckons a venue as rich and storied as this. Though it’s intended to draw out-of-state acts, it’s telling that its first two shows were played by local artists, and they didn’t feel the least bit out of place. After years of supportive musical institutions like Norman Music Festival and ACM@UCO, it’s great to see a year-round showplace that can accommodate the city’s best and brightest on a stage unlike any in the vicinity. In other words, Tower Theatre is, yes, a sign of the music scene on the horizon, but it is also a sign of how far the present one has come.
This article was originally written for Cellar Door Music Group (cellardoormusicgroup.com). It is archived here with the publisher’s permission.