The three day Austin City Limits music festival blankets Zilker Park like a Wizard of Oz fantasy. The sites look familiar, but everything feels upside down. It’s hard to picture Town Lake’s trail outlining the grounds and the river just behind the stages. Inside ACL, Austin’s city limits seem restricted to the edges of the speakers and the skyline backdropping the stage called AT&T. Dapper found a spot in the crowd in front of a smaller tent stage.
“WaMu isn’t even a bank anymore,” said the woman next to him. She was older than him by a decade at least, thin, with a friendly but tired face. Dapper thought she was pretty and that her cowboy hat made her look a little wild the way Texas women can be. She was referring to the corporation that had sponsored this smaller stage.
“They’ve been around for a hundred years,” she said. “They just got bought out by JP Morgan last night.”
“They better change the name of the tent,” Dapper said.
“Guys in masks’ll show up. Spray paint ‘JP Morgan’ all over everything,” the woman said.
“Then the army, they’ll come put ‘United States’ over that,” said Dapper.
She pulled out her phone to write a text to her friend.
“China will put their name over that. Damn, I sent a text a half hour ago. It’s like all the texts are blocked.”
“Unless you’ve got AT&T.”
She looked him and shrugged.
“Things are so fucked up. I’m just here to listen to some music. What else can we do? This is going to be loud!”
Say the money just ain’t what it used to be …
A cheer rose as an unassuming guy in a baseball cap walked onto the stage. He mouthed “who is this guy”, pointing to the radio announcer MC giving him an unnecessarily adorned introduction. Most of the folks in the WaMu/JP Morgan/USA/China tent probably knew M. Ward already. Dapper did not know, though, that the songwriter had those kinds of chops. Standing on the stage by himself, M. Ward pounded out a rhythm line with his thumb on the low E while the rest of his open palm picked chords with the same expressive intonation that his voice manages. His extended fingers and heavy accents hinted at the kind of self taught virtuosity associated with the ghosts of bluesmen past. And there were the words.
I know when everything feels wrong,
I’ve got some hard, hard proof in this song.
He could have held the stage by himself.
I’ll know when everything feels right,
Some lucky night.
But it was when the band came out, the man and woman taking respective thrones on two kits, pounding the beat like yin and yang timekeepers each playing a part of the whole, their hits sounding so complete, the Rhodes player, the rhythm guitar, the bass. The harmonies. It was when the band came out that M. Ward’s songs began exploding like punches to the chest. It was when the band came out that Dapper began his unraveling.
She said, “If love is a poison cup, then drink it up.
‘Cos a sip or a spoonful won’t do, won’t do nothin’ for you,
Except mess you up.”
As the songs began soaring into the ethereality of pop music, Dapper’s body began to move.
Well he stomped with his feet and he clapped with his hands,
He summoned all of his joy when he laughed.
He sang! He moved
He put his trust in a higher power,
He held his power like a holy grail.
He felt his heart beating with the two kicks on the stage and wondered if, when it stopped one day, people would say,
He was a good man but now he’s gone.
He wondered how so many in this crowd could witness the miracles drifting from the stacks in front of them and stand there so still and withdrawn. It was the curse of Austin that it took more than a day to unravel the Entitlement. But people were swaying, the arms were unfolding, the smiles were beginning to crack the frozen faces as those cloud-lurking Beach Boy harmonies blew through the hipster apathy like a specter,
Now you see her now you don’t,
You think you’re gonna get to know her
Dapper felt the choke of watery eyes as the singer crowed,
I hope my little brother puts a call in today,
I hope he don’t forget where he came from,
‘Cause I lived with many ghosts when I was younger.
Dapper could have written the same. And he and the woman both so helpless at the collapse of their country’s economy happening around them
Hoping that my mind won’t slip,
Sailing on a sinking ship
raised their arms in celebratory agreement that
God it’s great to be alive!
as M. Ward left the show channeling the voice of Austin’s mad ambassador Daniel Johnston.
Dapper floated from the tent. The low end rumblings and occasional vocal echoes from each corner of the park emphasized the feeling of groundlessness. There is something almost hallucinogenic about the sound of bands pulsing from every direction with no aural focal point and Dapper wandered through the disorientation as if he were listening to a hidden 3-D image, waiting for his ears to focus. Mates of State hooked him in with a couple of bouncy pop tunes and a string section. Hot Chip sounded exactly like they do on CD, and somehow the subtle catch of their mellow inflected dance tracks still felt subtle on stage. Their glasses and jump suit wearing shtick might have worked better in a dark club than on a Friday afternoon. Someone in the crowd said, “these guys are dorks!” Dapper cut out early.
He made his way to the big stage. The crowd there was trickling in and waiting. He sat on a couple’s blanket near the front.
“Are y’all as excited about this as I am?”
The girl smiled like she’d just seen an old friend.
“I’ve been waiting for this show for weeks. I came from Lubbock just to see Him.”
She pointed at the stage. She wore thick glasses and low hanging skater shorts like a teenage boy might wear. Her boyfriend was missing a couple of front teeth and wore a sleeveless t-shirt that showed off the anarchist “A” sliced into his shoulder. He grinned at Dapper but didn’t respond.
“I read His blog all the time,” the girl continued. “He’s hysterical. Well, I don’t know if He’s funny, you know, he’s just Him.”
“You’re from Lubbock?” Dapper asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s in West Texas. We’ve got a lot of great songwriters. It’d be a cooler town if everyone there didn’t end up moving to Austin.”
The quiet anarchist nodded and muttered something about dropping acid for the show. The girl stood up.
“Hey, these people better not crowd in here. We’ve been waiting for an hour.”
There was a collective push towards the front. The size of the audience seemed to swell instantly. A roar made its way to the back like a wave as an all white clad David Byrne swaggered to the microphone. The color of his hair matched his outfit. It made him look like an old man but his face looked Photoshopped from 1984’s Stop Making Sense. And his voice had aged even better than a cliché about wine.
The music pulsed over Dapper the way blood moves. Byrne sang, “This groove is out of fashion, these beats are twenty years old.” But the familiar steady kick-snare dance beat that kept a generation of coked up yuppies dancing sloppy in their urban lofts still worked for Byrne’s new Brian Eno collaborations the same way they did when his rhythm section consisted of a clockwork married couple. Hyper-flex dancers in white twisted around behind the man on stage, looking like nurses from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in their really wild off hours. Dapper felt his body pumping with the heart from the speakers and still, the crowd stood still. What is this place? Dapper thought to himself. Who are these people? Can’t you hear it? Water dissolving!
As the set evolved into choreographed chair dancing, frog leaping, and Talking Heads, Talking Heads, and more Talking Heads, Dapper felt the sound washing him down, washing him down. “No need to worry!” he shouted. “Everything’s under control!” And the ice caps in the north began to melt under the heat of the sun, and the financial institutions began to crumble, and the stand offs in the places far away began to stand on again and the cold, cold faces of a hot crowd in Austin began to warm and bodies were moving! He was floating above it and he was joining the world of missing persons and he was missing enough to feel alright. He felt a hand tapping him in the thigh and he turned to see the pretty girl from Lubbock and the quiet anarchist dancing like osprey on the water. They all moved their heads like beaks and stamped at the ground together. Some things sure can sweep him off his feet, Dapper thought to himself.
He swam out of the gates onto Barton Springs road where street vendors selling tie-dyes and marijuana pipes had turned up the speakers. The Jackson Five were singing “she’s a dancing machine” and the dreadlocked sales people were all bouncing like pixies. A large Earth mama wearing a skirt and a One Love t-shirt and a head wrap danced up to Dapper holding a stick of incense and they broke it down between the tapestries and posters. She twirling her enormous hips and him gyrating moving, grooving, dancing to the music. He moved from tent to tent like this and at the end was a marimba band, four giant xylophones and a drum kit and a crowd moving like a One Love t-shirt outside the festival. The people were moving!
The dancing was beginning!
The disintegrating was integrating.
// Notes from the Road
"We’re coming to see HEALTH for the experience, for the kind of intense musical attack that leaves one needing a stiff drink...READ the article