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Fire in the Night, Music in Bone-Deep Bassnote Throbs

Reveling among the multiform delights of Art Outside

By Wayne Alan Brenner, 1:31PM, Mon. Oct. 29, 2012

Bark & spark in the smoky smoky  dark
Bark & spark in the smoky smoky dark
by Shelley Hiam

I want to tell you about the men and women with the live fireworks exploding off the tops of their heads.

Yes, and I want to tell you about fire-dancers twirling balls of flames in swift choreography with eerily costumed dancers who wear stilts on their hands and their feet; about the exotically decorated bicycles that light up the night with giant wheeled butterflies and a ghost-pale, many-ridered rattlesnake that stretches almost a city block; about the scattered array of canvases being painted by laidback artists who work in the glow of spastic lights and hammering bass from the nearby dome in which DJs pump trance and dubstep and, hell, maybe even lime-green jazz into a throbbing, jerking mass of scantily but brightly clad and sweating humanity.

I want to tell you about that and more, but first I need to make a little confession.

Listen: I don't do live music.

I mean, I don't go to see it, as they say.

And already, with that they say, with a stubborn insistence that one would more certainly go to hear live music – right? – I brand myself as a different sort of freak here in the freak-loving Live Music Capital of the World.

And who doesn't go to experience live music, let's say, in Austin, Texas? What sort of gormless fool would that be, d'you think?

Or, at least, whose life doesn't more or less revolve around the whole going-to-experience-live-music-as-often-as-possible thing?

Mine, okay? My life. The life of the man who's more into listening to sonic brilliance or even just pleasant tunes in the privacy of his own room … but who is, nonetheless, about to regale you with the (largely music-based) wonders of Art Outside, the festival of audio and visual and performative arts that happens once a year up there in the tree-studded, camping-ready wilderness of Apache Pass.

But why would I even go to such a thing in the first place?

That's a valid question, friend.
And it's answered right here.

And so, up to Apache Pass I went – with Chronicle photographer Shelley Hiam and her beau, the computer wizard Brandon Watkins, along for the ride. Well, not just "along for the ride," especially since we traveled in separate cars, but because I wanted some good company. More to the point: So we could bring this fierce photo gallery back for you to see.

Art Outside?
Art Outside.

Holy shit, it was a terrific time.

After too much stop-and-go traffic along I-35 on a Friday afternoon, after swifter passage through the barely urban hubs of Hutto and Thorndale and Thrall, I finally pulled into the Apache Pass grounds. Apache Pass: It's like Austin's Zilker Park on meadow-enhancing steroids and set down in the middle of Texas nowhere. I grabbed my press wristband from the check-in tent – Thanks, Tara Lacey of Giant Noise – and went to park my car, a Toyota Echo that's black and sweet but doesn't have a license plate that says KWLSKI, in the camping area several hundred yards away.

In the Echo: A sleeping bag borrowed from opera singer and frequent camper Emily Breedlove; two slightly different bags of HEB bulk trail mix; two tall bottles of Smartwater; a couple extra pairs of disposable contact lenses (in case the ones I had in my eyes were compromised or destroyed, thus turning me into a taller, male, balding version of Helen Keller with slightly better hearing).

Wandered back to the check-in area, met up with Shelley and Brandon, and hearkened (with a ragtag group of other, exclusively web-based, journos) unto the welcoming spiel of Art Outside's Media & Artist Liaison, Marcus Swagger.

"You have any problems during the festival, just ask for Swagger," our pre-departure email had advised. And now here was that very Swagger himself, looking kind of like the Risky Business-aged Tom Cruise had been cast as Shaggy in a live-action Scooby-Doo movie. He told us the sorts of things we could expect to experience, described the festival's various aspects as 1) awesome, 2) amazing, 3) awesome and amazing, and 4) sick. He effused, fielded mid-spiel interruptions from other festival staff who needed various liaisonal situations attended to, and held on tightly to the small curly-haired white dog wriggling in his arms.

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Me, indicating the dog: Who's this?
Swagger, happily scritching the dog's head: This is Mr. Gadget.
Me: Ah, a Bichon Frise?
Swagger: A lotta people think so, but, no, he's a Maltey-Poo.

[Brief pause while I suspect Swagger of having voiced a baby-talk version of "Maltese," but realize he means that Mr. Gadget is, in fact, a Maltese-Poodle mix.]

Me: Oh, cool.

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Next, a ride with another journo (and the aforementioned Mr. Gadget) in Swagger's electric cart, the Media Liaison pointing out the various epicenters of creation: The Deco Dome, from which the heaviest DJ-fueled music will emanate; the New Movement Theatre, where stand-up comedy and spoken-word harangues will spill onto the comfy-chaired audience; the Art Gallery, stocked with various examples of painted or sculpted surrealism and psychedelia – some of which, it turns out, would greatly improve even fancier, non-festival venue walls; the Folk It Up Stage, for more intimate, less techno-redolent performances; the Nouveau Stage, where the sort of bands featured might be tossed roughly into some alt-rock/alt-blues/alt-punk category until some alt-indignant musician breaks his Stratocaster over the head of the erstwhile pigeonholer. And, scattered among those major sites, smaller outcroppings of active philosophy promoting eco-awareness and do-it-yourself lifestyles and what the yogacentric population likes to call "conscious living." And, of course, the Marketplace: A long dirt-floored avenue of brightly festooned booths hawking art and jewelry and clothing and artily bejeweled clothing.

There's a lot of art, alright.
And it's all outside.

It's a little past six o'clock on Friday evening, and this thing is still building up steam: More tents are being erected, easels being placed, the grills of foodcarts being fired up. Kids are running everywhere – it's a very kid-friendly event. It's a very people-friendly event, with performers and random wanderers smiling and dancing and greeting strangers as they pass. There's a sort of hippie sunshine vibe that's so earnestly threatening to erode my Hardwon Carapace of Cynicism™ that, having been deposited in the midst of things by the ever-in-demand Swagger, I head for respite in the Artists' Lounge behind the Nouveau Stage – where it's been promised that media types can wet their whistles with coffee and beer and, perhaps, the sweet nectar that comes of the festival's Drambuie sponsorship.

(In Heaven, they say, everyone enjoys the sweet nectar of their own, personal Drambuie sponsorship.)

There is coffee a-brewing in this lounge beneath the immense white tarp that's poked skyward by several gigantic tentpoles. There's coffee and beer (Lone Star and Stoney's, specifically) and bottled water and a bowl of some grain-based party mix and a basket of granola bars and another basket of fresh fruit. And there's this young guy behind the makeshift counter: Brett Gallion. He's an Art Outside volunteer, putting in some hours in lieu of shelling out the admission fee, never been to this festival before although he'd also done the volunteer thing at last weekend's Austin City Limits Festival. He's got a poi, one of those juggling-balls-attached-by-string rigs, that he practices with while the coffee's still dripping.

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Go ahead, friend him on Facebook: Brett Gallion

Tell him Brenner sent you; he won't know what the fuck you're talking about.

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This longhaired Gallion's a biology student, usually; right now, though, as a new band starts warming up on the adjacent Nouveau Stage, he's pouring hot java and telling me there's gonna be a whole Drambuie set-up in the other lounge, in the Artists' Camping Area, around 8pm.

Turns out that my Chronicle comrades, Shelley and Brandon, have set up their tent not too far from that lounge; turns out they can walk to it in about, oh, eight seconds.

"This is great," I say, sipping Drambuie, walking with my friends in the just-past-8pm shadows of the Artists' Camping Area. Shelley's got her own clear plastic cup of whiskey; Brandon's downing a cold Stoney's between puffs on his cigarette. Other people are walking by us, singly or in groups, through the growing darkness: People with glowsticks, people with facepaint, people with tulle fairy-wings strapped to their backs. "I'm liking this whole Art Outside thing."

"Yeah," says Brandon. "Yeah, this is pretty cool."

"Oh, man," says Shelley. "I think I'm gonna get a lot of great photos here. What was the name of that thing you said you're supposed to see tonight?"

"Who Said Vaudeville Was Dead," I say as we re-enter the main festival area. "It's at one-thirty in the morning, on the Folk It Up Stage?"

We walk past some grassy staging area beyond the Art Gallery. Well, no. We start to walk past some grassy staging area beyond the Art Gallery, but there's a crowd gathering there in the darkness, a crowd illuminated by flickering light, and we pause to see what's up. What's up is a performance by Flam Chen: Fire-dancers and stilt-walkers and aerial acrobats, performing in synchronized rhythms, enacting some vague movement-enhancing narrative – and it's a beautiful, riveting spectacle. We move in close, Brandon killing his cigarette, Shelley adjusting the lenses on her Canon 50D, figuring we'll spend just a few minutes checking out the action.

We don't leave until half an hour later.

"God damn," I swear as we walk away. "That was ... " I rummage my mind for a decent adjective, recalling Swagger's four descriptives. "That was awesome," I say. "That was amazing."

"Yeah," says Brandon. "Yeah, that was pretty cool."

There's a guitarist and a drummer unleashing something loud and passionate under the bright lights of the Nouveau Stage. There's some comedian cracking wise about Facebook in the New Movement Theatre. There are cyclists circling nearby, flaunting the gossamer animal-themed vehicles of the Austin Bike Zoo. There are painters applying acrylics to spotlit canvases beneath the surrounding trees. There are random people messing around with jugglesticks and poi in the shadows. There's also a growing hollow spot in my belly that the Drambuie and coffee and grain-based party mix aren't having much effect on. "Anybody else feel like getting something to eat?" I say.

We go in search of food.

What we find that looks most enticing, carnivores that we are, is a trailer called Foghorns over by the Folk It Up Stage. Whether it's called Foghorns, plural, in honor of those booming noisemakers used to keep ships from crashing into a reef or a shore, or Foghorn's, possessive but with a missing apostrophe, as if run by a certain Warner Brothers character, I forget to ask as Shelley and Brandon and I are greeted through the vendor window by a cheerful woman named Cameron Dodson and place orders for a cheeseburger each – the last burgers available that night, as it turns out.

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Me: How's business?

Cameron: Business tonight is fantastic. It's just Friday night and we've actually sold out of our hamburgers – and I brought 100. So we're going to make a run tomorrow to get some more supplies. I thought, "Let's just buy 100 and see how it goes," and we've been rocking.

Me: And the fest's not even as packed as it's gonna be tomorrow, right?

Cameron: Yeah – wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow night will be crazy.

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We stand there near the Foghorns condiment station, three Chronicle staffers vigorously masticating, introducing bread and cheese and the grilled flesh of however many cows to the wonders of peristalsis. The bass from the Deco Dome a hundred yards away thumps invitingly on. Four cyclists roll past in single file, each bike festooned with multicolored bulbs of light that dangle from stiff wires on a pole rising from the back fender, glowing like swarms of fireflies as they ride through the dark. Two young guys in tie-dyed T-shirts walk by; I hear one saying earnestly to the other, "No, man, you really have to consider this aside from the political standpoints …" before the sound of their conversation is as lost to distance as they're lost to the shadows.

I swallow the last of the meat and bread. "I don't know, y'all," I say, "maybe it's just 'cause I'm hungrier than I thought? But that burger was fucking incredible."

"I think so, too," says Shelley, wiping grease from her fingers with a paper napkin. "That was definitely a great cheeseburger."

"Yeah," says Brandon. "Yeah, that was pretty good."

We wander away beneath the stars, drawn toward the Deco Dome by the gravity of that thumping bass. A guy who goes by the name Psymbionic is set up in there now, the pocket program tells me.

Psymbionic's doing mystic ninja things with his turntables and knobs, causing the crowd packed inside – and the brownian overflow around the dome's front – to shift and sway, to shimmy and shake, to move as if the tall ginger wraith of a DJ with shoulder-length dreads is feeding Tesla's own current directly into every gotta-dance muscle in their bodies. Shelley and Brandon and I stand along the outside, looking in. People are milling around us, jockeying for better viewing position or insinuating themselves between the dome's support struts and into the main action in front of the stage while the mechanized light panels and instruments shimmer and pulse. Shelley snaps photos. Brandon lights another cigarette. Psymbionic, dreads flying as he moves, does that thing to the bass where the sawtooth waveforms of sound are chopped way down and – oh, holy Jesus Dubstep Christ, I move into the dome to meet the beat upclose & personal and spend the next twenty minutes or so dancing like maybe a fifty-year-old man in other than top shape shouldn't.

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"You dance," my friend Sylvia once told me in the mid-80s, when we used to go out to clubs a couple nights every week, "like some weird combination of David Byrne and Molly Ringwald's character from Breakfast Club having a petit-mal seizure."

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I eventually stumble out of the dome and back into the less packed part of the crowd. The weather's chilling down, but I'm covered with a thin film of sweat and feeling toasty in just a loose button-down and jeans. I'm looking around at the dancing people, the patterns of Psymbionic-synched lightflashes, the artists at canvases along the perimeter, and wondering where my friends have wan –

"Hey," says Brandon, appearing from a turbulence of shadow and light. "we're over this way. There's some fireworks going on."

And, over there, on a stage in a meadow all by itself, between the main festival area and the road that runs from the Apache Pass entrance to the camping areas, fireworks are indeed going on. And, as we move closer – there's Shelley, Canon at her eye, among a big crowd gathered in a rough semicircle – the dubstep from the dome is overridden by some canned dance track from this new stage from which also emanates tiny rockets that burst like electric daisies above us, this stage upon which men and women in heavy gear are placing enormous, baroque hats on their heads. What they're going to do, these industrially hatted performers in groups of two and three, is have one of their gang light the rockets that are loaded deep inside the hats and then sort of dance around while fireworks are propelled from just above their crania to explode against the darkling sky.

Lunatics, right?

And the crowd loves it, cheering as the first group leaves the stage with their headgear emitting fire and smoke. Three stocky, middle-aged men are waltzing goofily around on the grass, their heads spilling fountains of sparks, the fiercer rockets' red (and yellow and white) glare shattering darkness beyond the stagelights while the big amps blare forth, thank you Internet, "Oppa Gangnam Style." One chorus of "Heyyyyy, sexy lady" later, and the men are really getting into it, shaking what passes for their groove things, stomping in fractured rhythm between the stage and the audience. And now – what the hell? – what is that? – there's a … a dog? Yes! Holy shit! There's a dog! Some big brown hound that's not part of the show is running rampant among the fire-hatted men, barking at sparks, trying to bite the sparks, maybe trying to protect the men from the sparks and from the noise and light on their top-heavy noggins. Now there's some young guy running after the dog, trying to grab its harness as it circles and dodges among the still-dancing trio. The crowd is shouting, laughing. Another man jumps into the action, trying to corral the excited animal. Finally, with a sudden lunge, the first man grabs the dog's harness and leads it away as the song reaches its end and the helmets fizzle their final sparks.

The crowd applauds happily and cheers as the next group – two women, this time – steps off the stage with their infernal haberdashery going nova while Run-DMC's "Walk This Way" rocks the smoky meadow. More pyrotechnic shenanigans ensue.

And so it goes until all the performers are done, the music silenced, the flames extinguished, the stage returned to darkness and the crowd disintegrating as its constituents move toward whatever next commands their attention. Over in the Deco Dome: Hobotech. On the Folk It Up Stage: Peter Fhury. On the Nouveau Stage: The tub-thumping, psychobilly elegies of Strung Like A Horse.

"That was some crazy shit," I say as we wander.

"I think I got some good pictures of the dog," says Shelley.

"That," says Brandon, "was fucking hilarious."

Unsure where to go next, we stop near an artist's set-up beneath a tree and watched some guy dabbing acrylic onto canvas. We see the Minor Mishap Marching Band heading our way along the main trail; they're next up on the Nouveau Stage. This seems, I suggest to Shelley and Brandon, a perfect time to finish acquiring our bodies' Recommended Daily Allowance of Drambuie.

We sit in the artists' lounge, drinking booze and coffee, listening to Minor Mishap do their brilliant thing about a dozen yards away. We sit there, watching people come and go, talking about everything and nothing for over an hour. Just, you know, chilling. Until it's time to trek back to the other side of the festival, where, just up the little hill from the Foghorns food trailer, the Folk It Up Stage will soon be taken over by the old-fangled tunes and terpsichore of Who Said Vaudeville Was Dead.

And eventually WSVWD do take over the stage, and it's one hell of a fine show – with Jessica "Vaude Villa" Ryan going all boopy-doo with the Helen Kane, with Minor Mishap rising like musical zombies from the grave, with Ballyhoo Betty eating fire and snorting nails, with special guest Luna Tart singing her broken heart out and Iconic Fire turning flame into whirling balls of sublime choreography, with, finally, cups of sangria for the delighted audience.

After which, your Chronicle trio figures it's time to crash.
And so – Shelley and Brandon to their tent with the air mattress,
and Brenner to his sweet black Echo – they do.

And that was just Friday.

And, well, here endeth this already overlong blogpost, dear reader.

Saturday's memories will be left unwritten for now,
merely added to the skullbound compost pile of things-I'll-use-in-a-story-sometime.

Art Outside?
Art Outside.

Maybe next year I'll see you there?

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