The Dame offered a window to the musical world

By Matt Jordan

Our world got a little smaller and a lot darker last week with the closing of Lexington’s last real music venue. During its short run, The Dame hosted such internationally known bands as De La Soul, the Zombies, Guided by Voices and Neko Case.

It was a gift while it lasted. And though it might not be down for the count, The Dame has shut its doors in the name of urban development.

The Dame first entered my life on Nov. 20, 2004. As an 18-year-old freshman at UK, I was elated to learn that a young band I was obsessed with called the Arcade Fire would be performing that night at a little club just about a mile from my new home in Kirwan Tower. After walking the unfamiliar path to downtown, I found the club and stood in line with the rest of the ruffians.

As a fresh-faced young pup from the tiny town of Elizabethtown, Ky., I discovered how exciting even a city as moderately sized as Lexington could be. It seemed that everyone was smoking and wearing leather. It seemed that the venue was infinitely cool, covered in fliers for bands I never dreamed I might see. It seemed that there was no end to what this city had to offer.

Unfortunately, it seemed that I had to be 21 to enter The Dame.

I left that night without any protest or attempt to sneak in, unable to see one of my favorite bands. For the next few months I tried not to torture myself by looking at who The Dame had booked. Eventually I realized that I couldn’t stay away for too long, no matter how hard I tried.

When Iron and Wine took Band of Horses (then just called “Horses”) out on the road, they made a stop in Lexington to play at The Dame. Though the weather was that special Kentucky kind of bad weather, I decided that I had to be there. For three hours I stood outside The Dame, head cocked to the right, straining to see the stage. The staff were friendly, keeping the door open as long as they could, and Band of Horses even came outside to give me a free signed EP and chat for a bit after learning that I wasn’t allowed in. It was cold, it was annoying and it was worth it.

I wouldn’t have to wait long before my efforts paid off. In 2005 I found my gateway into the Dame through local music legend Robert Schneider of the Apples in Stereo. I e-mailed him weeks before his show opening for Clem Snide and asked if he might be able to help me find a way inside The Dame, which by now had become a paragon of everything cool and hip in my ever-expanding view of the world. On the day of the show Robert snuck me into the venue by putting me on the guest list as his “cousin,” Matt Schneider. I was thrilled.

A few weeks later I ran into Nick Sprouse, manager of The Dame. During our chat, he said that he noticed that I’d written on my Web site about being snuck into The Dame. I guiltily acknowledged my transgression, but Nick said that when I turned 19, he would hire me to do a couple odd jobs around The Dame in exchange for the ability to watch shows. Naturally I accepted and showed up at The Dame the next semester, 19 years old and ready to be put to work.

Over the next two years I guarded the back door, got water for bands and was a gopher for the engineers running the sound booth. And for my efforts I enjoyed shows by local, national and international bands. I danced to Elf Power while watching the artists’ entrance door; I stared in open-mouthed wonder at Man Man after a day of posting concert fliers; and I had my faced nearly melted off by Mogwai while awaiting orders in the sound booth — I blame that show for my poor hearing.

Working at The Dame afforded me many wonderful opportunities I would have otherwise missed. For a while, that was my sole window into great music that seemed to come so easily to my friends in major cities. I discovered new bands opening for my favorites and I made new friends talking about our favorites.

Now I’m on the eve of my 22nd birthday and feel a twinge of pain writing all this down. For me, like countless others, The Dame was more than a spot for a late-night hang out or a place to go if you wanted to dance the night away to Phil Collin’s “Sussudio” at ’80s night. It was a cultural breeding ground for Lexington that can’t be bought, copied or easily replicated. This one venue drew together punk rockers, bluegrass purists, Latin dancers, indie hipsters and average Joes. The Dame wasn’t Lexington’s melting pot — it was our all-you-can-eat buffet of cultural pickings.

A few weeks ago I was in Athens, Ga., at one of the city’s fantastic bars chatting with some local musicians. When conversation turned to Lexington, they asked me how The Dame was doing and told me about the times they’d played there. They were almost as sad to hear about its looming closure as I was. Some of the best bands in America make it a point to stop at there every time they tour through the area. Kenny Chesney even bypassed his normal spot at Rupp Arena to play an intimate set at The Dame earlier this year — one of only seven small-club shows the award-winning artist performed.

Now, I’m not as naive as I might seem. I know that The Dame is not the first venue in Lexington to book independent music and I know it won’t be the last. But for three years, The Dame made me feel like a part of the world’s music community. Its devotees are not just in dear old Kentucky, but stretch across the world.

So now there’s a hole in my city where a venue should be. There’s no doubt that another mid-sized venue will soon spring up somewhere around town. All we can do is hope that it has half of the personality, culture and individuality of The Dame.