Several months ago, a new place called Nightrocker Live blipped onto Bar Tab’s radar. Unfortunately, the bar/live-music venue got off to a rocky start: Zoning issues complicated the grand opening and indefinitely postponed a handful of previously booked shows — a few of which seemed like good opportunities to check the place out. Writer Enrique Lopetegui suggested we visit Nightrocker when psychobilly band the Flamin’ Hellcats were to play there. I misheard him, which started a running joke about rescuing flaming housecats from burning buildings, calling the Humane Society on Nightrocker, etc. … Not even a week later, Enrique informed me that Nightrocker was “done … over,” and I felt like we’d missed out on something.
The same week, a friend forwarded me a flyer advertising a “Second Chance Prom” taking place at the Thirsty Camel, a recently reinvented bar in the Yard shopping center in Olmos Park. Formerly the Prestige (an often-empty magician-themed karaoke lounge), and the Hideout before that (an often-empty gay bar), the Thirsty Camel doesn’t have much of an act to follow. Billed as “San Antonio’s most upscale underground bar and lounge,” the unfortunately named Thirsty Camel caters to a crowd one doesn’t see much of in Olmos Park — the retro/goth/industrial set.
This past Saturday, two of my favorite vixens flew in from California to attend a friend’s 50th birthday party. Monica DeArmond, who often gets compared to Beyoncé by uncreative admirers, and Leila Reynolds, who could pull off Kim Basinger for Halloween without trying too hard, are dear friends that I’ve known since the ’80s. After catching up over margaritas, I convinced them to accompany me to the Thirsty Camel.
As soon as the car doors opened, both girls started laughing. “Oh my God. I feel like we’re at Changez!” For those who don’t remember (or are under 30), Changez was an all-ages, industrial-themed nightclub in an industrial-themed neighborhood near the airport. In heels, Leila sprinted across the parking lot. By the time Monica and I walked through the door, Leila was dancing to Ministry’s “Everyday Is Halloween,” accompanied only by a fancy laser light show. Walking around, I noticed vast improvements from former incarnations — a quiet patio, comfy leather sofas, and an impeccably stocked bar. “This place would be great for a private party,” I suggested to Monica. Her response: “Well, you wouldn’t have to worry about anyone crashing it.”
At this point, Leila had decided that she wasn’t leaving the Camel until she heard “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode. Since she wasn’t having instantaneous luck pleading with DJ Nightcrawler, she began campaigning for the cause. “Will you please go ask the DJ to play “Personal Jesus?” she begged one of 10 or so people sitting at the bar. Obnoxious? Maybe. But it worked. After making extremely creative use of the dance floor, Leila came trotting over to us, asking, “Where are we going next?”
In an odd turn of events, I got a text from a friend that read, “Come to Nightrocker.” Evidently, the place had reopened. When I informed the girls — who were getting progressively and playfully out of control — where we were headed, Monica started laughing hysterically. “What’s up with these bars names?! They both sound like something out of Fraggle Rock.”
Pulling into the parking lot, Nightrocker Live looked totally unfazed by zoning issues. The bar’s logo was projected on a vacant building across the street, and a small group of friends were gathered in a smoky parking-lot pow-wow. Inside, we ran into a few people we knew, including musician Chris Smart (who spins at Nightrocker as DJ Smartypants), and artist Alex Rubio (who curates Nightrocker’s “Midnight Gallery”). The place wasn’t packed, but the crowd was quality, and everyone seemed to be enjoying what Nightrocker’s all about — live music. Austin’s F for Fake was onstage when we arrived, and SA’s Puppy Jet followed. Friends of both bands sat on sofas lining the walls, making the venue feel like a noisy living room. Drinks were cheap and strong, encouraging the girls to continue acting silly — at one point they may have been wrestling on a couch.
We spoke briefly with owner Roland Fuentes, a former Taco Land booking agent who’s currently a local contact for the concert promotion company Live Nation. He seemed pretty excited about getting a fair amount of spillover from SXSW, and has an interesting lineup booked in the weeks to come (check the Current’s calendar listings). It’s quite clear Fuentes has a knack for pulling in live talent, and he’s got something the Thirsty Camel doesn’t have yet: a following.
We hope the Camel doesn’t follow the trend of its predecessors and become an often-empty retro/goth/industrial bar. Although we didn’t see any, more than one person I spoke to for this article cited “bored cops” as a good reason to stay away from that stretch of McCullough. The next time you want to feel like you own the dance floor, speed over to the Camel — sober, at 29 miles per hour. As for Nightrocker, it’s off to a promising start, and there were no flaming housecats in sight. — Bryan Rindfuss