The Zilker Tent at the Austin City Limits Music Festival is sort of the opposite of the kids’ table at Thanksgiving: it’s where they keep the grown-ups. This is not an accident; the Tent displays clear signs of being intended for an adult audience. It’s the only venue that provides both shade and fixed seating (well, bleachers), and it’s located right beside a line of about fifty portable toilets, for those whose bladders have a higher odometer count. The two days I was there, the week before last, with my wife Jenne, we saw five acts: four of them were at the Zilker Tent. I guess we’re getting older. The music selection at the Tent skews Adult Contemporary, but without the VH1 hokeyness. We saw the up-and-coming throwbacker J.D. McPherson, a jam-rock bluegrass band (sort of Mumford times Phish) called Greensky Bluegrass, and the astounding, nine-piece, Cuban-infused rockabilly screamers, The Mavericks, back together this year after a ten-year hiatus.
There’s a kind of despair which always gets me when I’m at a large event like this, at a game or a fair or a concert. The big swirl of life is just right there, bumping into your shoulders and stepping on your toes. Everything that can happen to a person is happening, within a few hundred feet of you. People die, get pregnant, give birth! Loves are kindled and hearts broken. You see couples carting around children whose ages are measurable in weeks, days; you see a white-haired husband and wife with orange earplugs, nodding along and tapping their feet. It’s brutal how much there is to do in this world, and how little time you really have to do any of it in. At ACL I found myself holding on to my wife’s hand, to her arm, almost like I was seasick, in need of a fixed point.
Yet it is hard, no matter how bad off you are, to remain locked up in your own head-jail like that, when you’re in the presence of the fourth band we saw at the Zilker Tent.
I’m talking about the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Let me tell you some more about the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Actually, first, let’s talk about the way concerts start. J.D. McPherson, for instance, was out on the stage for a good fifteen minutes before he and his band began playing. They fiddled around with instruments, got tuned up. The Mavericks have this great little recorded tune, built around a Spanish guitar riff, which slowly gets added to by other instruments, and the whole thing speeds up as the band makes their way onstage. Jenne and I have seen Bruce Springsteen seven times now, and the Boss likes to make his entrance under cover of darkness, which allows the arena to explode in light and sound when Max Weinberg first hits that bada-boomboom bada-boomboom in “Badlands.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama did something different. They began this show by standing in a line together, on the steps leading up to the stage. They held on to one another’s elbows, looking like a group of elementary school kids waiting to be led out for recess.
“Oh my God,” Jenne said to me. “Are they actually blind?”
And they are, and they sing gospel music, and they wear the same outfit: silver pants and jacket, black shirt, no tie, sunglasses. And they’re backed up by a howling rock and roll band: bass, lead guitar, drums–even a curly-haired and fedora’d hipster boy who was all but sending up smoke the way he played that Hammond B3 Organ. You’ve heard the Blind Boys of Alabama, if’n you’ve watched the first season of The Wire. They’re the band singing Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole” in the opening credits.
These four old men moved smoothly and cautiously onto the stage and began singing the Curtis Mayfield tune “People Get Ready,” each of the singers carrying themselves with that arresting combination of self-possession and unself-consciousness you sometimes see in the blind–that fusion of regality and near-childlike transparency. I thought, how utterly at the mercy of the world are the blind. Which is perhaps why the blind can seem so strangely outside the world, and why the Christian exhortations of the Blind Boys’ music seemed to carry more weight than they oftentimes do: when any person in the world could walk straight up to you and hurt you and you wouldn’t see them coming, then the idea of a Devil seems all the more horrifying, faith in a Lord God Protector all the more assuring, and the moral sovereignty of the Golden Rule all the more vital.
Halfway through the show, a twentysomething kid behind me started shouting, “AMAZING GRACE! AMAZING GRACE!,” like some redneck demanding “Free Bird.” The Blind Boys obliged–the old standby is one of their signature tunes, but some genius had had the idea to strip out the traditional melody and replace it with that of “The House of the Rising Sun.” You will never hear an eerier combination of words and music than when the Blind Boys play that hymn.
Jenne was crying. I had tears in my eyes. The Tent was packed. I looked around, and realized it wasn’t just us older folks. In fact, the crowd was mostly made up of young people–and they were going nuts. It’s easy to forget that youth, for all their flip and dry detachment, want so badly to be moved. They want it more than almost anything else.
I watched the Blind Boys up on their stage, cocooned inside the music they had made by mixing up the voices in their old, frail, sightless bodies with tones, time signatures, and other artifacts of heaven, and for just a second, I felt a click–like we had all hit the same beat at the same time, like we had nodded our heads or tapped our feet or snapped our fingers, exactly in rhythm with the heartbeat of God. I thought, Maybe this is why we have art. To remind us it’s no limitation that we only get one life, not if we fill it with all those strange and beautiful things that other people have managed to make.
Brian Ted Jones was born in 1984 and raised in the towns of Talihina and Red Oak, Oklahoma. He is a graduate of St. John’s College and holds a law degree from the University of Oklahoma. He lives with his wife, Jenne, and their sons, Oscar and GuyJack.