A guy came up to Dapper dancing wildly. He was high on psychedelics.
“I’ll be at the kiddie stage later,” the guy said. “I’m getting a drum circle started. It’s gonna kick ass! You should come.”
Dapper wished him luck.
It was beginning to get hot early on the festival’s second day. Any time under a tent at ACL is restorative, even before the heat begins sucking sweat from pores like a dehydrating vampire. Dapper ducked into the WaMu stage as The Lee Boys were chanting “I can feel the music” over bottom heavy funk made dirty by a pedal steel guitar. Dapper felt it too and began shaking his body with each gut thumping guttural call from the seven string bass getting pounded by a slap happy big man on the stage. They were all big men. The veteran guitar player, the vocalist yelling “Praise You God,” and most of all, the drummer they called the Big Easy, all bigger than life singing hallelujah songs to the WaMu tent revival.
“We’re a big family, we’re all a big family here,” yelled the guitar player. The crowd cheered. “Collared greens, fried chicken, we need us a family dinner.” The crowd agreed. The vocalist chimed in, “and family supports it self. They buy our CDs!” The crowd was less enthusiastic, but the funk went on.
Dapper was feeling the spirit and brought it with him outside into the Texas swelter where Man Man was heating up. No mentions of God were coming from the neo-glow war paint tribe on the stage but their experimental electro wail project seemed tapped into the same concept, like an ecstatic fire ritual around a blaze of computer technology. Dapper ripped off his shirt and danced in circles like a desert spirit caller when someone passed him a peace pipe that made the broken synthesized hooks and cacophonous but repetitive drum breaks melt into something reminiscent of a time when sounds, rhythms, and smoke signals were the only forms of mass communication. Man Man was weird and twisted and Zappa-esque, but the difference was this beat, this rhythm, this beat that grabbed onto Dapper like a rip tide, flipping him, twisting him, pulling him skyward, dropping him to the ground and flying over him with soothing chaos like the colors echoing from the faces of the bearded guys making the music. They were experimental in their sound and fundamental in their soul.
It was getting hot, really hot. Sweat was stinging Dapper’s eyes; back to the tent, to cool off. There was a band there from Senegal. A sparse crowd, too. Dapper was surprised at the low turnout. If a festival in the center of Texas is going to fly a band from the coast of Africa to play an afternoon slot on a side stage even though no one in Austin knows who they are, there must have been a reason.
Two men stood in front of Dapper wearing green baseball caps that read “Senegal” on the back. He tapped one of them on the shoulder.
“Are you from Senegal?”
The two men turned around and smiled. Their teeth looked like pearls on a black dress, huge and bright against deep toned skin. They both nodded looking tall with pride. Dapper resisted the urge to ask, “Do you know the guys in the band?” It’s an odd piece of human nature that assumes everyone from the same place knows each other. They turned back to look at the three brothers known as Les Freres Guisse taking the stage.
The band all had the same pearl on a black dress smiles as the guys standing in front of Dapper. One of them picked up a see through guitar, an electric fret board with the shape of a frame outlined in metal. He said hello to the crowd and Dapper said hello back. Immediately the three brothers broke into honey dipped harmony that interwove sound like air was weaving a giant bread basket to hold all the notes. The people moved their feet in time to the drummer’s left fist thumping a giant gourd while his right hand sang each skin tap with hits that flowed through the music like the taste of fresh fruit. The guitars’ gentle triplets swayed like women’s hips and the songs danced out from behind the pearls like secrets told under the sheets. Dapper felt his heart draw open its blinds as the Senegalese family sang lyrics in a language he didn’t speak but somehow seemed to understand perfectly.
“Some people say we play blues music,” one of them said. “But I tell them, this is where blues music came from.” And it was true, except this was music before it was turned blue by the chains of Colonial Slavery. It was the sound of liberation. It was the sound of Dapper’s dancing becoming the sound of Senegal’s dancing with Texas becoming the sound of possibility for a world where faith in a higher power has become synonymous with belief in an unlimited Gross Domestic Product. These brothers somehow turned the art of joy into a song. When the drummer hit his gourd so hard it split in two, the crowd gasped. He laughed and pulled another giant shell from beneath the kit and continued the way a heart might just skip a beat because of excitement.
“You’re country’s music is some of the most beautiful in the world,” Dapper told the man in front of him. Perhaps another generalized assumption about a country, but pearls are often found in the same sea. “Thank you,” said the man, shaking Dapper’s hand while the band broke into a chorus of “Nelson Mandela”. Dapper considered how strange it would be to sing such a hopeful song about an American political leader. “Mandela” bellowed through the crowd like a peace mantra in a way that “Bush,” “Cheney,” or “McCain’s” harsh syllabic finality could never ring. It occurred to Dapper, though, that Obama, at the very least, might sound good in a chorus.
Dapper’s open heart led him off the grounds, down to the campus of the University of Texas. He’d been invited to a taping of the Austin City Limits television show—the impetus for the three-day festival’s name. He met a friend outside of the studio where they were sitting against a wall waiting in line. His friend had recently had a vision of a goddess.
“She was beautiful,” his friend said. “At first, I was freaking out a little. It all felt a little too intense. I felt like I was floating out of my body. She was there, though, kind of guiding me along. She just kept whispering, it’s all just thinking, ride with it and I knew I could trust her. She was beautiful.”
“Who was she?” Dapper asked.
“She was the Mother of Creation.”
The friend stood up. He began singing:
You say I’m CRAY-ZAY!
The doors opened and the line went inside. Dapper and his friend rode a capacity elevator the three floors up to the studio. There were long tables filled with rows of free Shiner in plastic cups. The tables with the honeycombs of cups looked like giant beer pong games. His friend grabbed one cup for each hand and they sat in the second row.
There is a fake tree in the back corner of the ACL studio. A camera perches behind it on a raised platform. On television, it appears that it is shooting the stage through leaves in a park. It is really just a small piece of a tree, though, enough to create the illusion. Behind the band, there is a façade of the city skyline. Dark, non-descript buildings contrast with bright images of the school bell tower and the Capitol building. On television, this shadow contrast creates a perspective transformation of two dimensions to three.
The towering room was filled with dry ice smoke to soften the appearance of the lights. The seats surrounding Dapper and his friend filled up first because they were the best view and, also, the most likely to get seen on television. Two women sat next to Dapper. One leaned over to him.
“Best seats in the house,” she said. She was probably his mother’s age and had a Tennessee belle accent that Dapper thought sounded sugary cute at any age.
“Because they’re next to us?” he asked.
Her face warmed a little and she gave him a tap on the wrist.
“Watch out, now, my boyfriend’s the sound engineer.”
Dapper’s friend had already downed the two beers and was showing it. He leaned over Dapper and started spitting the kind of polite game reserved for friends’ mothers.
“He must be pretty trusting to let a couple of fine young ladies like your selves sit all alone over here.”
The other woman chimed in. “Well aren’t you a sweetheart.”
“I’m very mature for my age,” Dapper’s friend said. “And charming. I’m going to get another two beers for myself. Would you two like any?”
The ladies declined. Dapper’s friend tripped climbing over the couple in the row in front of them.
The house lights went down and bulbs in the fake city skyscape went on. The studio audience cheered while Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse strolled onto the stage looking like lounge show undertakers draped in black overcoats. The rest of Gnarls Barkley followed. They tore into their set, Danger Mouse playing simple chords in repeat on a church organ, Cee-Lo singing like a fallen preacher, and the band looking like Saved by the Bell nerds translating tricky album production into a live show. A boom camera craned around the stage like a curious emu checking out the action without getting too close to get eaten. At each song’s end, camera’s whirled onto the audience and Dapper always played it cool, cheering like a fifteen-year-old girl whose boyfriend Chet just scored the winning touchdown for Riverside High. He made sure not to look at the camera so that they would look at him screaming his brains out.
Ha ha ha! Bless yo’ soul.
By the time the band made it to their obligatory crowd pleaser, Cee-Lo’s voice had turned from its aged-sipping-scotch liquid croon into a rail drink rasp. He’d blown his voice pretty hard and had stripped into a soaking undershirt. The lights, so elegantly laced over the band like a television smoke screen, now made the sweat drops leeching on the man’s bald head look strange and large like make-up on a corpse. The towering ceiling and calculated sound dampeners that turned each note crisp and intelligible for at-home audiences had ulterior effects that noticeably dropped the energy dead at song’s end. Without the hums, buzzes, and feedback distortions that link one number to the next, the band couldn’t rely on the momentum they’d built through the show. The singer seemed strained to compensate and his lungs were taking a beating. Still, by the time he was screeching I remember when, I remember when Dapper was on his feet with the rest of ACL, moving in rapturous enjoyment of Gnarls Barkley’s guiltiest pleasure that chased the band like a specter of one hit wonders lurking around each recording they’ll ever make.
You say I’m CRAY-ZAY!
After the show, the Tennessee woman invited Dapper and his friend to see her boyfriend’s sound room. It was filled with tiny television monitors and a giant digital sound board that looked incomprehensible like the Tibetan language. They watched playback of the show, thanked the crew, and pretended to look lost and confused as they left trying to “accidentally” walk into the taping’s after party. The staff pretended to look helpful and oblivious as they clearly guided Dapper and his friend out of the doors.
They walked out onto the campus. They sat on the quad, staring at the giant Texas state Capitol building.
“What would you do if it all collapsed?” Dapper’s friend asked.
“If what collapsed?”
“All of it. This country. All of our lives.”
“Jesus, it’s not that bad.”
“We’re like 7 trillion dollars in debt. Shit’s collapsing. People just keep thinking someone’ll fix everything. What’s keeping it from all falling apart? This is gonna be worse than the Great Depression. I’ve thought about it a lot. I’d shoot someone if they attacked me.”
Dapper lay back in the grass and looked at the moon.
“Just because it’s not the best case scenario,” Dapper said, “it doesn’t mean it has to be the worst.”
“Yeah, but are you prepared, Dapper? What if it does?”
“Look, man, what are you scared of? Are you scared for the world, or are you scared to die?”
“There are worse things than dying.”
They were quiet. The sound of the cars on Guadalupe blended with the crickets in the campus trees. The capitol dome lit up in the sky the way it did in the studio façade. Dapper started singing.
You say I’m CRAY-ZAY!
“What the fuck would you do, Dapper?”
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More