Last Month in Music
By Mike Smith
This might have been a column about indie-rock legend Kurt Vile’s Aug. 23 show at Sister, and perhaps, in a way, it still is. My girlfriend Mauro and I had been all set to go to that, but at dinner beforehand, at a Chinese restaurant in the Northeast Heights, as we sat chattering excitedly about the memoir I’ve been writing and the album Mauro’s recording, she started having a panic attack—shaking and crying and breathing hard. She had had some really stressful weeks, and the events of those weeks churned to the surface and boiled over.
Because of this, we decided not to go to Sister and spent the evening walking through darkened neighborhoods behind the restaurant—leaning against trees, because that’s like medicine; making out in a field by a school; talking on a curb; and then driving to the mall, to the only bookstore open at 10 on a Friday night. Mauro said she felt a bit better, so we drove Central back toward the Heights, looking for a bar along the way, and soon found the Caravan East—a low-ceilinged cavern of a country-western club, straight out of a movie—with woody '70s décor: its name in lights behind a stage; and Double Shot, a local classic-country band, playing live. They were good, too, and fun—a five-piece with pedal steel, electric guitar, bass, drums, acoustic guitar and vocals, playing worthy covers of Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings and others. “She’s a good-hearted woman, in love with a good-timin’ man,” they sang, and a smiling crowd of men and women danced the two-step or line-danced to every song. From a little table toward the back, we watched two sets from Double Shot, with a good DJ set in between, and Mauro and I joined in dancing at the end, totally faking that we had any idea at all what we were doing.
Spider-shadow-ghost hip-hop. Quasimoto by way of Radiohead. The sort of music a stranger might whisper in your ear, in your bed at night as you blink awake, uncomprehending. Hot-breeze-after-midnight music. Dark-lot music. A voice from a true underground.
Afterward, around 1am, we walked to a food truck near the Caravan and bought tacos. Three young people—two guys and a girl, all heavily tattooed, talking and moving frantically, tiredly—sat around a plastic table strewn with drawings. We sat at a table next to them after the girl said she liked the Nani Chacon painting on Mauro’s bag. Her name was Green Eyes; the guys were called Omen and Playa One. Green Eyes talked intelligently about perception and hinted at a past trauma. Omen talked about not being evil despite his name, about living without electricity. “Omens can be good,” he said. Playa One talked about being locked in a closet half his childhood, being molested, gangs, missing his mother and shooting up to feel love.
Playa One said, “I rap, man. I’ll show you!” And Green Eyes said, “Yeah, he’s really good! He’s signed to a label!” And Omen said, “He is!” And then Playa One strode to a swath of asphalt near the food truck and began swooping and diving around in a smear of dull brightness in the parking lot, grabbing at his ankles, bending backward and forward, crumbling and un-crumbling, swaying like a tree in a storm, providing percussion with the sounds of his feet scuffling against the pavement and the sharp rasps of his breathing. He rapped—about living on the streets, being an angel, being abandoned—low, half-mumbled, half-intoned hip-hop. Spidery, I thought. Ghostly, Mauro thought. Spider-shadow-ghost hip-hop. Quasimoto by way of Radiohead. The sort of music a stranger might whisper in your ear, in your bed at night as you blink awake, uncomprehending. Hot-breeze-after-midnight music. Dark-lot music. A voice from a true underground. I could tell there were parts of his song only he could hear, but I could sense the absence of those parts, could feel a strange, half-audible/half-implicit polyphony of presence and absence, sound and silence, notes and rests and rests. When he finished, and the night was once again quiet, that quiet seemed only like the next song, and it was. A song that was not a song. At a show that was not the show, that was other shows, and other things.
Every time I think I know this city, something proves me wrong. I don’t know anything about it, or about anything. The five of us talked for another half-hour, and then Green Eyes and Omen shouldered heavy bags and walked off across the empty street into the darkness. Playa One slumped into a chair and told us how much Jesus meant to him—how much he loved him. Across town, maybe, Kurt Vile finished packing up his gear, and his former crowd discussed how great the show was, over last call in five different bars. Mauro and I said goodbye to Playa One, whose real name was Tomás, got into my car, and drove home.
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