I’ve often heard it said that a band “hits the stage”. For those who weren’t ever sure why, see Gogol Bordello, an interracial myriad of gypsy troubadours who hit the stage literally with anything they could get their hands on.
The motley crew raided the proscenium with such unrelenting intensity that we weren’t quite sure if we were watching a musical act or a looting. The players are a montage of Russian, Ethiopian, Russo-Ukranijano-Romano, Latvian, Polish, and Scottish mongrel emigrants.
I’m unsure if the band’s abrasive energy came from the open bottles of table wine swung between fiddle player and lead guitarist, (and baptizing the audience in between), or if it’s just the standard eastern Euro-Slavic, damn-it-all-to-hell defiance. But the whirling, escalating rhythms and the follow-me-down-the-rabbit-hole enthusiasm of lead singer Eugene Hütz’s ear popping tarantella’s made even the whitest Texan hop from spur to spur.
There was a sexuality to their sound; visceral, penetrating, and at times, downright mischievous. Had we been in Russia’s Red Square, rioters would surely have been smashing bottles over Lenin’s Mausoleum or whipping them into the bubbled-domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
Lead singer, Eugene, had been shirtless from the top, and by mid-set the rest of band was sweating through their clothes. Their sound was plangent and rapacious. Songs seemed to climax one into another into another. It was the best sex you’ve never actually had with 20,000 people you just met.
They jammed straight through the hour but it all felt like fifteen minutes. When it ended, the mob pulled off their instruments, took asynchronous bows, waved spasiba and haphazardly shoved each other off stage. If they had been lovers, we’d never have expected to see them again, and there wouldn’t have been a lick of resentment. When it’s that good, you’re a fool not to just enjoy the filthy sluttiness of it all. In the audience, even non-smokers jones’d for a fresh one.
An exodus began for the next stage, the next act, the next high, beer, pill, out of body transubstantiation. The festival weekend had officially kicked off.
A baseline pulsated from the next stage over where the sliver haired David Byrne took stage. Any concern about aging rockers growing weary was dispelled instantaneously. To the relief of the classicists in the masses, the band played eighty percent Talking Heads tracks with renewed dynamism. During each, a team of ten, tennis white, interpretive dancers frolicked and leaped and jerked spasmatically. Byrne, their alien leader, was proudly in front, asking “How did I get here?”
The second song, the driving, tribal I Zimbra, brought a series of multi-talented musicians to the fore, and by that time, the soundman had thankfully kicked the vocals up a decibel. Houses in Motion was a welcomed set list surprise. Byrne tweaked the orchestration just enough to make it a Danger Mousian experience. Cross Eyed and Painless, too, was searing. Impassioned vocalizations, then shouting as if traduced, “Lost my shape trying to act casual / Can’t stop. I might end up in the hospital / I’m changing my shape. I feel like an accident. / They’re back! To explain the experience.” No idea what it meant, but we totally got it.
Life During Wartime was the third track from Remain In Light, and it had every one singing. This wasn’t no party, nor was it a disco. Nor was it no fooling around. None of us had time for that now, even though this was a party, and all any of us had was time. Time to pass a joint with a group of Austrian tourists, time to sip a Lonestar between sets under a Longhorns umbrella, time to wade in the shallow brook on the other side of Zilker Park. Look out for the snapping turtles.
The band closed with yet another track from the same album, The Great Curve. Byrne flowed seamlessly from cubist guitar riff to complex choreography, saving the hardest steps for last. His smile leaving the stage was as jubilant as the 6 year-old twins, whirling inside matching hot pink hoola-hoops behind us.
Today’s indie-rock scene is saturated with talent. There are so many bands vying for slots at festivals around the country that it’s hard to grasp the fact that Jack White is in not just one guaranteed festival headliner, The White Stripes, but a second, The Raconteurs, and third, The Dead Weather. He writes the majority of music for all three, and dominates the personality of each.
The White Stripes were first, but it seem Mr. White enjoys the opportunity to be part of the fabric of an ensemble. His supporting role in The Raconteurs makes his spot lit solos all the more potent. The show was the hardest slamming of the weekend by a long shot. More so than the Foo Fighters, who were stellar, albeit a tad hackneyed with the we-will-rock-you! antics. Even with Jack’s flew strained vocal cords, at show’s end, the audience felt like it had been shot out of a cannon.
Damian, our group trusty sherpa, calls it a “mu-gasm”: a moment of aural ecstasy that sends your eyes into the back of your head, while your soul bursts our of every open orifice. It is rare, and delightful, and makes you want more. But you don’t mu-gasm
MGMT is another band that’s made its way up through the festival circuit. One that I mistakenly placed in the too-beepy pop category, because of their radio hit, Time To Pretend. But that is the beauty of seeing bands live. Sound becomes dimensional.
In the festival atmosphere, the best bands allow more room for their songs to breath. Spontaneity rules the day. Tracks that clocked in at 4 minutes on the studio release became 9 in front of 20,000. One track moved from MGMT’s post-rock tech laden sound to moments of mid-period Pink Floyd, with dark synthesizer excavations and haunting minor chords, and then into driving blues climaxes the likes of which Black Sabbath would have applauded.
It was during this set that I experienced what can only be called rock ‘n’ roll satori: that vestige of enlightenment where you gaze into a sea of thousands and thousands of like-minded music addicts, drinking and smoking and smiling underneath furling location flags and a sprawling western sky… Something in that fiery pink sunset made me realize that I—all of us– were participating in something much bigger than a music festival.
The experience of seeing a great band in a crowd of thousands can override the broader perspective of where the individual lies within the group experience. There is a historical reality we become one with in partaking in this group act– the act of gathering en masse in order to alter your consciousness with whatever you can imbibe, inhale, and smear on your gums– to mu-gasm– all for the sake of singing and dancing and screaming and laughing and launching your work-a-day surface concerns as far into the ether as possible. By doing this, we are joining in a continuum that has been constant since long before pre-recorded history.
The ancient Greeks may have invented the three-day Dionysian festival for theater in the 5th century BC, but the city of Austin has definitely perfected it for music in the 20th. It is a rare experience to behold, and one that should never be taken for granted.
Words always fall short when trying to capture sound. They just don’t vibrate in the same way. Never has the cliché “you just had to be there” been truer.
There was a curious competing story line to ACL 2008, which was the stock market crash and following bailout buy up. The bad news should have been easy enough to drown out, except that corporate sponsors had their logos splattered across every stage and tent on the grounds, and the news was literally hours old.
Jokes about the Wamu Stage being renamed the FDIC stage faded as even the most stoned music fan realized it was the generosity of corporations like Washington Mutual and Dell and AT&T that make this festival a possibility at all. How much had they actually given, we wondered. And for how many years? How deep would their pockets be in 2009.
The wind down to each day’s Bacchanalian revelry required a veritable information black out back at the hotel. Skip CNN and land us on the nature channel, please, even though squirrels hiding nuts could be a metaphor for the frugality we were all about to start embracing.
Appropriate that we were hammered and high and celebrating throughout our empire’s dramatic downfall. Like Nero, playing the fiddle while Rome burned. Curious as hell what his set list was…