Midnight Thunder

Midnight Thunder

Midnight Thunder at Billy Bob’s, Fort Worth

I had the distinction of only attending one school from 7th to 12th grades. West Mesquite was originally built to be a high school, but for the first years of its existence it housed junior high grades: 7th, 8th, and 9th. It was a junior high because the damn place was still under construction, and therefore lacked the facilities needed for what was supposed to be a state-of-the-art high school (a high school student deserves a fresh lunch, but a junior high kid can make due with food trucked in from another campus, for example).  If you had an older sibling, you could elect to go to Mesquite High with them for 9th grade, otherwise you stayed at West Mesquite for your freshman year. No one knows why the superintendent did this, but somebody thought it was a good enough idea that it stayed the norm for years. My compadres and I started West Mesquite in 7th grade, and sometime during our 9th grade year, it was decided that West Mesquite was far enough along in construction that it could finally grow into a high school – the following year, instead of being bussed into downtown Old Mesquite, I just kept trekking across two major thoroughfares to West Mesquite. My classmates and I became the first ever graduating class with a mere 144 out of a possible 160 walking across the stage at Reunion Arena to receive the first ever West Mesquite diplomas.

Trust me: that sounded way cooler than it actually was. As a result of some school bureaucrat’s decision, I spent most of six years with the same kids I’d already spent most of five years with – most of those kids I didn’t like, and most of those kids didn’t like me. If school is a prison, then imagine my time at West Mesquite as having been given the maximum sentence for a really petty crime; in my case, not having enough money to purchase a house on the north end of town. A few of my closest friends and my first love were at West Mesquite, so it wasn’t all bad; but it does say something that most of my closest friends and the love of my life weren’t at West Mesquite. And if I hadn’t married into one of the first families of Mesquite and inherited a lovely home just a few blocks from the original high school, I sure as hell wouldn’t be living in Mesquite now.

Jimmy on drums

Jimmy making it look soooooooo easy…

Jimmy moved into our neighborhood in the 3rd grade and did what most of my friends at the time thought was impossible – he hit it off with the cool kids.  Jimmy could speak Spanish before he ever took a Spanish class, could play drums though he never took band, and loved Elvis when everyone around him was into KISS – he was also tall, good-looking, and played football in a town that worshiped football. While the rest of us arrived as the wretched refuse, Jimmy came into an atrociously cliquish elementary school as a visiting prince who just never returned home. Jimmy played football with Paul and another friend, Michael; Jimmy’s long-time girlfriend was the best friend of one of my best friends, Felisha; so Jimmy and I knew who each other were, but we weren’t friends ourselves. Even after I was asked to join Paul, Michael and Jimmy’s band as a singer, I still never really got to know Jimmy – friends of friends was as close as we ever got.

When my brother decided to go after his musical dreams, I supported him all I could: designing his band logos, creating band flyers, and showing up at his gigs (I’d have given my left testicle to sing with his crew, but his lead guitarist didn’t want a fifth member dividing the paycheck). One of the earliest gigs for his then-named band, Dick Whiskey, was way the hell out in Fort Worth at the Harley Davidson dealership. The Lady Fair and I hopped into the Mustang and scooted out to the South side of Cowtown to find my brother’s four-piece band was a five-piece for the day: Dick Whiskey was now sporting a keyboard player. When Pauly, Margaret and their Harley showed up, Pauly grinned and said, “I’ll be damned – I know him!” I trotted up behind my guitarist as he shook hands with David Fox, keyboard wizard.

Diamond Dave Fox has been a mainstay of the Dallas music scene for decades, flying solo and filling in with professional bands all over the metroplex. David can do it all: sing leads, sing back-up harmonies, write and arrange songs, perform Rock, perform Country, and make anyone look and sound good – and if that wasn’t enough, he’s just one hell of a nice guy. When my band got asked to perform at a benefit for my brother, Kelly’s lead singer’s son a couple of years ago, Fox was one of the first calls Pauly made after telling Kelly “Yes.” David showed up, set up, and without any prior rehearsing proceeded to help make The East Texas Garage Band the hit of the show. The last couple of years, David’s spent his time getting an online radio show up and running when he’s not out touring with Doug Stone and Sonny Burgess.

David Fox performs alone, in a two-piece, and with a five-piece Country Band named Midnight Thunder; the drummer for Midnight Thunder is my old classmate, Jimmy Bell.

Tell me it’s not a small world.

With two buddies in the band, I needed to go see and support Midnight Thunder – wasn’t happening. Nearly every time the band had a show, I was tied up with my own gig or down for the count sick or saddled with some kind of family obligation. The temp job I was holding down in far South Arlington was maybe 20 minutes from Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, where the house band that week was Midnight Thunder – this would be my best and easiest chance to see the band ever. I sent Jimmy a Facebook message asking when the band went on – if I could get out of Fort Worth at a decent hour, even better.

Jimmy didn’t answer, though that wasn’t his fault – he was working a day job before doing the band gig that night, and burning the candle at both ends didn’t include checking his Facebook account. I got the word the next day Billy Bob’s house bands start at a very nice 8 pm; I also got a phone call from Jimmy asking if I could come see him at his day job, and would I bring my song list. I had plans to meet up with Paul and Margaret that Saturday, but I could swing by before joining my peeps for lunch – I grabbed Kristi, my lyric books and the set list from my last gig and went to visit Jimmy.

Jimmy smiles easily and often; he also talks a mile a minute when he gets excited, so it’s hard to word in edgewise sometimes. Jimmy was very excited this particular Saturday morning: Friday night’s show had not gone as well as he would have liked, our friend David Fox had lost his voice – would I mind coming to the show tonight prepared to do some emergency singing?

Oh, Baby. Twist my arm.

John and Diamond Dave, getting it done...

John and Diamond Dave, getting it done…

The only time Jimmy stopped smiling was when he stressed nothing was written in stone – he’d need to talk to David and the other guys in the band, and even then I might not sing; I assured Jimmy I was coming to the show period – getting to sing would be a bonus, but I was coming to hear my two buddies perform in one of the best venues in town. Jimmy’s smile got even bigger, then he promised my Lady Fair and I would be on the guest list for the show. Kristi and I then headed to meet Paul and Margaret for a day of books, guitars, microphones and Margharitas, not necessarily in that order.

Fort Worth is 45 minutes to an hour from the ancestral home of my wife’s people, so we got gussied up and heading for Billy Bob’s a good 90 minutes before showtime. Normally, this probably would have been far more time than necessary – I hadn’t taken in to consideration it was the first day of the Fort Worth Stockshow, a three-week long Cowtown institution that fills the stockyards with hundreds of out-of-towners and literally brings in millions of dollars to the Fort Worth economy, especially the night life. Getting to Fort Worth was a breeze – getting to the stockyards was going to take a machine turret mounted on the hood of my Mustang. Thankfully, Billy Bob’s is the first thing you hit when you finally pull into Rodeo Drive, so our odyssey ended with less fuss than it began.

Jimmy’s girlfriend is another high school classmate of ours, the very sweet and very lovely Jamie – sweet and lovely Jamie was at the will-call window making sure my tickets were in place when Krist and I arrived, a nice bit of serendipity. Jamie was in choir with Pauly and me back in the day, and again, while we knew a lot of the same people, we weren’t what you would call friends; unlike some people I knew in high school, though, Jamie had always been sweet and generous whenever I was around, so I had nothing but warm feelings towards her. I was thrilled to see Jamie.

Jamie helped escort us back to where the band would be playing and ended up introducing me to Mike McConathy, Jr. Mike was a former member of Midnight Thunder who’d gotten the call David was under the weather, could he come lend a hand? So he put in a full day at his day job, took a quick shower, put on his do-rags, grabbed his guitar and headed to the stockyards without a second thought. I’d only just met the man and already I knew he was my kind of guy. I got Kristi a beer, and then Jamie took us to see Jimmy, who was waiting on his stage shirt to arrive. Just as Jimmy was headed back to the stage, David came around the corner to say “Hi.” Diamond Dave had been gargling since he woke up that morning, had downed about a pint of cold medicine that afternoon, and drank a couple of cups of coffee just before meeting me and the Lady Fair – he wasn’t 100%, but he was good enough to handle the show with Mike there backing him up. I wasn’t going to be needed – I reminded him of what I’d told Jimmy hours earlier: I was there to see the band and support my friends. Singing would have been just a bonus, it had never been the motivation. David smiled and gave me the same bear hug I’d gotten from his drummer.

Jamie took us to where the rest of the band wives, girlfriends and family members were seated, directly across the dance floor from the bandstand. Then the show began.

Country is not my preferred genre of music – I’m definitely a Rocker. I dig me some Pop, I dig me some Alternative, I’ve been known to lose it to some Dance tracks, but my first love is Corporate Rock: Journey, Foreigner, Loverboy, and all the stuff my guitarists listened to while waiting for Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes to come on KZEW. The Country tunes I do like tend to either be more towards Southern Rock, a la Garth Brooks, or Rockabilly, a la Hank Williams, Sr. Whatever the genre, though, what I really appreciate is just flat-out musicianship: good playing, good singing, good harmonizing, good intros and good outros; and without a doubt, Midnight Thunder is one fantastic band.

Dancing at Billy Bob's

Boot scootin’ at Billy Bob’s…

The bass player is David Norris, whose family owns Norris Family Music in Mesquite. David started out as a drummer, which in my opinion is a leading factor in why is bass playing is so excellent – rhythm is in his blood. I heard bass notes with the drums, countering the drums, a half-beat behind the drums but in time with the vocals – just an amazing display of musical dexterity, made even more impressive because he never broke a sweat. David also sings well enough to front his own band if he chose.

Mike McConathy, Jr. plays rhythm acoustic, a nice addition to the lead guitar and keyboards, helping fill in the cracks of their great wall of sound. His high, sweet vocals would be reminiscent of an Irish tenor if it wasn’t for the Country twang, a twang that instantly brought authenticity and credibility to the Classic Country tunes he was singing, tunes he was singing well enough to front his own band if he chose.

Jimmy Bell makes drumming look so effortless, it’s easy to overlook he’s doing more than just keeping basic 4/4 time – he’s drumming Blues and Swing, Southern Rock and Country, and he’s bringing just the right amount of fills and flourishes to accent what the vocalists are doing up front without distracting from the overall sound. Jimmy may be the perfect drummer.

The lead guitarist, John Allen, is the damndest thing I’ve ever seen. As David explained, John was just days away from attending college on a Quarterback scholarship when he accidentally grabbed an electrical line and literally blew his right arm clean off. His friends refused to let him get depressed about his situation, going so far as to fashion John a prosthetic arm with a built-n guitar pick. You read that right – a prosthetic guitar pick. He’s a one-armed guitarist, and one of the best damn guitarists I’ve ever heard. If I hadn’t had seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it – as it is, I did see it and I still have to keep pinching myself to remind me it was real. Simply amazing.

Put those four men on stage with David Fox’s already excellent keyboard and vocals, and they could do no wrong. When the three tenors launched into The Gatlin Brothers “Broken Lady,” I literally got goose bumps. Any thought of Kristi and I leaving after the second set went out the window – we stayed the entire night, spending the third set just off stage, where my Lady Fair took pictures of the band and I waited to see if I’d get called up to sing a tune with my friends. I had so much fun, I didn’t even mind when that call never came – that is how good Midnight Thunder is.

Looking forward to seeing the band again soon. And hopefully David and Jimmy now know they can call me if they need an extra voice anytime, anywhere – I would consider it an honor and a privilege to sing with Midnight Thunder.

Here’s John and David doing my favorite original tune, David’s Lime Twisted Gin:

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