Great Taste, Less Lame

With Clematis Street sputtering, Ray's Downtown barely holds on as a beachhead of hip

The pool room in the back was uncharacteristically, uncomfortably full, every tattered couch occupied, more 20-somethings pacing, drinking, smoking under the fluorescent bulbs and graffittied ceiling.

Rocking Horse Winner, a chiming, melodic band with a winsome frontwoman, was on the stage, spinning out its stunningly simple, pretty pop song "Elementary." Earlier, singer Jolie Lindholm had breathlessly informed a fan that she'd also done some singing with Dashboard Confessional — the new project from Boca Raton singer/songwriter Chris Carrabba. "He already has this huge national following," she reverently reported. "He's gonna be superfamous!"

Up next, on one corner of the stage, under a single white light, Carrabba played a set of songs on an acoustic guitar. At the time, "emo" music was in the process of defining its canon and marking its territory, and it was clear that Carrabba had grown to become the genre's bellwether. The cross-legged kids on the floor fidgeted with anticipation and awe.

Hands-on: Carbone's little corner of the world
Hands-on: Carbone's little corner of the world

Carrabba was performing with just a small PA system, and Lindholm joined him onstage for one song, but the sound had strangely filled out somehow. At first, it seemed like some prerecorded magic was at work, but suddenly, the real answer became apparent: The crowd, the young women in particular, had been singing along to every single word of each and every song. With a smile that belied his own amazement, Carrabba would move his face away from the mic, stop singing for several lines — and the audience would fill in for him.

Afterward, Grant Hall, the stunned promoter that evening, counted a stack of bills and mused, "Was that wild or what? It was like being in church!"

The strange scene repeated itself two or three more times, with Carrabba's flock hovering near their savior to glean lyrics or guitar lines, getting as close as possible to the songs of heartbreak and regret that seemed to have been penned exclusively for them. But the legendary shows — Carbone remembers 350 in paid attendance one night — quickly outgrew the confines of Ray's. Now Carrabba belongs to the world (he's currently recording a new record with producer Daniel Lanois of Peter Gabriel/U2/ Brian Eno fame).

"Dude, it was amazing," Carbone said at the time. "It was really weird, like a cult. He'd stop singing, and they're still singing his songs. I was blown away. I've never seen that, especially not in my club. I haven't seen that for the Rolling Stones, for God's sake."

Other successful national pop-punk acts, including Sum 41 and the Offspring, with teenaged throngs in tow, also stopped by Ray's on their way up.

To his credit — or downfall, depending upon how you look at it — it wasn't just the moneymakers that fascinated Carbone. A jazz aficionado and harmonica whiz himself, he appreciated musicians who knew how to really rip. Not long after the Dashboard Confessional explosion had moved to bigger stages, a truly innovative force adopted Ray's as a place to let its freak flag fly.

Pygmy's music, Carbone rhapsodized, occupied a sacred space somewhere between Miles Davis, the Band, and Rage Against the Machine. A fivepiece whose members loved to wear blazers, suit jackets, and dress shoes onstage, Pygmy boasted Cuban, Dominican, Peruvian, and New York blood. That tangle manifested itself in free-jazz freakouts with maddening time signatures, chord changes like slalom ski courses, and live shows that lived up to the chaos.

"Our venue," singer Edward Adames affectionately called the club. "Whenever we write a song, we think, 'What's it gonna sound like at Ray's?' We love playing there." The owner, he explained, "completely understands us." "Every time they play," Carbone said, "I walk out from behind the bar because I never know what they're going to do."

With band members scattered throughout Miami-Dade County (North Miami, Kendall, and Westchester), a trip to Ray's ended up costing Pygmy dearly in gas money, and its difficult avant-prog never was good for more than 50 or so fans at a time. The band eventually broke up.

Crazy Fingers, a Grateful Dead cover band that had a Wednesday-night residence at Ray's, threw in the towel a few years ago when other, more popular venues beckoned.

By 2003, Ray's sparse crowds were symptomatic of the general decline of Clematis Street. Shootings and fights had cast a pall over the eastern end of the thoroughfare, and walking around at night suddenly didn't seem like such a good idea, especially when the newly minted McMall called CityPlace — a clean, well-lighted place for the young urban bourgeoisie to get their spend on — was built nearby.

"It doesn't do anything for me," Carbone sniffs, "but then again, I'm different." As bad as business had become, it was going to get even worse.

During the Second World War, the City of West Palm Beach — like many others along the Eastern Seaboard — was under strict blackout regulations. Young partiers could still find posh hotels on Clematis Street where floor shows, singers, or ballroom dancing awaited, but going down to the water for a smoke was sure to bring an angry policeman, warning that enemy aircraft were homing in on the tell-tale orange glow of the cherry.

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