I stood in line for a few minutes before a big friendly tough looking guy with wild hair and soft eyes asked me if I was Kai. His name was Blue and he had the other half of a ticket. I picked up a Macallan 12 and a single cube of ice and followed him to the far front corner of the little club known as the Rickshaw Stop. I appreciated that they’d gone so far as to park a crude bike hacker style rickshaw in front of the place, although I still haven’t seen one in actual use anywhere in the city.
Within minutes of arriving I started to spot the various people I’d seen during the day in the Haight. They were scattered throughout the crowd that was quickly thickening as people were poured in like Kuzu to a sauce. I was either in just the right place that night or this was some kind of regular ritualistic gathering for everyone in the surrounding area.
The first few songs were a great mix of west African style riffs, gospel choruses, folk pop and nicely built psychedelic digressions. The lyrics were about bears seeking honey over the mountains. One guitar player had a beautiful hollow body Gibson and wore a headband under his long hair and beard, syncing up beautifully with the tie dyed American flag draped behind them. The one closest to me looked like Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (He was apparently a guest musician from the Dodos.) They wrapped up the set with a warning and a request for extra water, as though we should be preparing ourselves for what was to come.
The second round started out slowly. Another solid stomp tune got the whole place clapping and moving, until one song ended and the continued rhythmic clapping or snapping became the bed for the next. I found myself swept up in the rhythms and when they stopped, singing out the choruses in harmony with the rest of the swaying, grinning crowd, only to return to bouncing and leaping when the music kicked back in.
The audience and the band began to feed each other in a loop. The exploratory breakdowns grew longer and longer, becoming an evolving dialog between the crowd and the performers, unifying us all until our emotions rose and fell as one. The lush crimson drapery surrounding us made sense and bouncing against the people around me became communion instead of aggression. I felt like I was moving and singing and pulsating with the crowd almost against my will, beyond the point where I was an individual who had a will, beyond the point where I cared to have one.
The band slowly left the stage one by one with the crowd singing, in harmony, “If the window wasn’t dirty there would be so many colors”. Every throat vibrated with this chorus and continued on unbroken until the band began adding small bits of quiet horn or shaker, weaving them in and out and around the chorus that fell and receded against the stage again and again like saltwater waves to the beach outside. No one wanted it to stop and so it continued, rising and falling, some snapping or whistling around it, but none breaking it up or stopping the flow in any way. We continued on like this for at least fifteen to twenty minutes.
In the south, they would say that we “got church”. To some this probably sounds like a cult gathering about honey bears. An American plains Indian would nod in understanding.
Despite being well past 2:00AM, Zikk started IMing with his father back in Texas, who is apparently up at such random hours. Zikk was explaining that he’d been to “church” and his father refused to accept this. “In order for this to be church there has to be an object of worship. I worship the son of God.” Zikk tried to explain how experiencing great feelings of shared love and light can themselves be worship, and the experience can only be called spiritual. The discussion ultimately broke down over a long standing chasm of understanding.
What we call “church” and what we call “culture” are equally interwoven. While there is always room for any large group of people to argue about which music, writing, or art constitutes a given group’s “culture”, few would argue that these are threads from which the fabric of culture is made. For the people in that room, sharing that experience, there is no question that this music and this experience were culture just as much as another might say the same about classical music hundreds of years old, much of which was originally written for liturgical use.
At the same time that this seemed a profound fact to me, I had a corresponding thought: were not these musicians, magicians, scientists of the emotion really just extremely skilled manipulators of the human brain? Trance music, and its power to move people in a deep way has been used by countless cultures and while modern Americans have tucked it away in warehouses and southern churches, it remains no less powerful. As Jill Taylor described at TED, despite being a brain scientist and being able to analyze what was happening during her stroke, she was no less moved by the awe she experienced when she was suddenly enlightened by a severed connection to her left hemisphere.
The bottom line is that if you get a chance to see Akron/Family live, check it out, and when you find yourself in your church, just breathe it in.