A Study In Contrasts, Part One

Hank Green Dallas Poster

I wish I could get away with doing this kind of venue poster… ’cause this rocks!

I am still looking for a daytime gig. Lately, my search has been hampered by my schedule: I walk into a job interview, and good manners dictates that I warn my prospective employer that if they hire me, the first thing they have to do is give me a couple of days off. Without pay, of course – no entitlements here, I don’t expect to be paid if I don’t work – but the dates I need off have been on my calendar for weeks, and I can’t bail on contractual obligations. This is the kind of confession that makes for awkward interviews – I’m glad that last week is now last week and firmly in my rearview mirror.

Last Tuesday, my wife and I had a concert date in Dallas. Last Thursday, The East Texas Garage Band was the opening act for the now-named Crater Rally out in Mt. Enterprise. Last Saturday night/Sunday morning at 12:30 am, The East Texas Garage Band was the closing act for the now-named Crater Rally out in Mt. Enterprise. So last week was one extremely busy week.

The first half of the week:

My lovely Lady Fair and I are big fans of John and Hank Green, collectively known as The Vlog Brothers. Long story short, years ago they attempted a social experiment on a then unknown new media platform called YouTube: they would only communicate to each other through video chats (video blogs, or vlogs for short) for a year; no phone calls, no emails, no letters – just over YouTube. Vlogs had to be less than four minutes (unless explaining something academic) and messages had to occur everyday, or the offending brother had to perform a punishment, usually picked by the viewers. Back when nobody knew what YouTube could be used for, this concept was revolutionary; given the parameters, Hank and John were forced to be as original and creative as possible. Their experiment soon became one of the Must Watch channels of the fledgling media platform.

John went on to become a very successful writer of Young Adult novels, with two of my favorites (The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns) being adapted into fantastic movies. Hank took his knowledge of the World Wide Web and YouTube in particular and started producing new content, my favorite being the web series The Lizzie Bennett Diaries (a retelling of Pride and Prejudice using only vlogs to forward the story). Nearly a decade later, they still chat to each other via YouTube – still under four minutes, still can’t miss a day, but now only on Tuesdays and Fridays – and it is still Must Watch for me and the lovely Lady Fair.

Hank Green

Hank Green, photo courtesy of US News

During the initial run of The Vlog Brothers, John convinced Hank to give songwriting a try, which resulted in the wildly entertaining Accio, Deathly Hallows,” a song about how Hank wanted author JK Rowlings to hurry up and finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows so he could read it. That video of Hank singing his first song ended up being so popular it appeared on YouTube’s landing page, netting The Vlog Brothers thousands of new fans. Soon, John and Hank had dubbed this community The Nerdfighters, with a simple and glorious mission statement: we were here to stop world suck. To that end, they organized a charitable institution, challenged the Nerdfighters to make videos promoting their good cause of choice, and gave money to the charities with the most votes during the annual Project for Awesome. Last year, twenty charities collectively received over $1 Million in donations from Project for Awesome and The Nerdfighters.

It kind of goes without saying… my lovely Lady Fair and I are proud to be Nerdfighters.

Over the years, Hank’s songwriting has morphed into a singing career. He writes and sings delightfully goofy and rocking songs called The Universe Is Weird and I Love Science.” When he isn’t busy producing and starring in videos and running the Nerdfighters’ warehouse of swag (known has the DFTBA Warehouse, DFTBA being the initialism of The Nerdfighters’ motto, Don’t Forget To Be Awesome), Hank records songs, produces CDs, and every so often goes on a tour. Somehow, the stars aligned just so, and Hank and his merry band of musical cohorts decided to visit the middle of the country, with stops in Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

I saw that one of the stops was Dallas. I saw that the date was on a Tuesday night, before my lovely Lady Fair’s day off on Wednesday. I still didn’t have a job to wake up for. The tickets were stupid cheap. I told the lovely Lady Fair, “This is too good of an opportunity to pass up. I don’t care if we are broke as hell – we have to go. This might be our only chance.” Just so happened my Mother-in-Law felt bad she hadn’t taken me out for dinner on my Birthday, and wanted to make amends – she bought the tickets. The show would be in Deep Ellum, which meant we only needed to drive about twenty minutes to get to the club.

Deep Ellum is an amazingly eclectic area taking in Pacific Avenue, Main Street, Elm Street, Commerce Street, and Canton as they lay West of Exposition Avenue and East of the 1-75 overpass. Deep Ellum comes from the mispronunciation of “Deep Elm Street” by the early African-American and European immigrant residents in start of the 20th Century. Henry Ford’s first Model T factory was in Deep Ellum, stayed there until the 1930’s. Adams Hats housed their headquarters there for a time. In the 1920’s, Deep Ellum was the place to take in Jazz and Blues, with Robert Parker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, and Leadbelly Ledbetter as frequent performers. From the 1980’s to its heyday in the 1990’s, Deep Ellum was the place for new music, with 57 bars and nightclubs hosting local and up-and-coming bands. The Toadies, Old 97s, Tripping Daisy, The Butthole Surfers, and The New Bohemians could all be found honing their craft in venues like Trees and Club Dada 20-25 years ago. A reputation for being crime-ridden and dangerous almost put the area out of business when the recession of the 2000’s hit; and by 2006, most of the bars and nightclubs had closed – here in the last few years, however, there’s been a small renaissance in Deep Ellum, with new music venues seemingly opening up every week. Storefronts, restaurants, coffee shops, tattoo parlors, art galleries… the area just has a groovy, arty vide that appeals to folks who prefer to be just a bit left of center. A musical buddy of mine took in the music scene in Los Angeles, Austin, and Deep Ellum, and decided to relocate to Dallas – out of the three destinations, Deep Ellum had the highest concentration of venues, thus more opportunities for a musician to make some cash.

Harry and The Potters

Harry and The Potters, photo courtesy of their website

I wasn’t surprised Hank Green and his tour landed in Deep Ellum. We got there about an hour before the venue, The Door, opened at 7 pm. Before long, my introvert wife was chiming in on the conversations around us, because one must always chime in when someone asks “Which house were you sorted into?” regardless if they were speaking to you or not – it is a moral imperative. One of our line mates, a Potterhead who may or may not have pre-loaded before heading to the gig, talked about how he and his cohorts had a couple of songs up in YouTube, songs they had shot at various location guerilla-style. Once we got inside and settled, I made it a point to catch the young man’s attention and ask him more about his side-project indy band, which he happily gushed about. Later in the night, after visiting the bar more than once, my new friend came and found me – after raving about how good all the bands were, not just the band he was here to see, he pulled me in close. “Can I ask you a question?”

I put my hand on his shoulder and leaned in so I could hear him. “Sure. What’s up?”

“Why haven’t you offered to take me home yet?”

I stared at him for a second, then gestured to my lovely Lady Fair with my chin. “Because my wife is sitting right there beside me.” His eyes didn’t register what I had said. “I just don’t swing that way.”

His eyes welled with disappointment. “That’s all you had to say.”

I kept my hand on his shoulder and leaned into his ear. “My oldest friend in the world was as queer as a three dollar bill. I went to my first gay bar at 18, didn’t make it to my first straight bar until I was 21. It’s all good.”

He looked miserable. “Then why can’t I find someone? I drive to Memphis just to have breakfast, I have seven brooms on my wall ready for Quidditch – where are my gay nerds?” He looked at the ground, swaying a little. “Why am I alone?”

I looked him in the eye. “I don’t know. I thought you were fascinating the minute I met you, and I would love to know you better. It will happen for you, but it will happen when you stop looking.” I put my free hand on his heart. “All I can tell you is, in the meantime, you’re gonna have to learn to love you.”

I kept his gaze as I watched to see if that sunk in. My new friend pulled me into a light hug and kissed my cheek before wandering back off into the crowd. My lovely wife looked at me with her patented WTF? look. I shrugged. “I was just hit on.”

Driftless Pony Club

Driftless Pony Club, photo courtesy of their website

She laughed and made a comment about only being seen as a beard for Gay Guys. I just smiled and said, “Watch your step – evidently, I have options.”

Other than Hank, the only other band I had heard of before was Harry and The Potters, Probably the best known band of the mostly unknown music genre of Wizard Rock (Wrock for short). Wrock is bands and songs based on the books and movies devoted to Harry Potter, pure and simple. Draco and The Malfoys, The Moaning Myrtles, The Whomping Willows – all Wrock Bands. Harry and The Potters are known for putting on amazingly fun shows, as videos of their gigs at LeakyCon can attest. Their mastery of the audience coupled with their surprising musical skills made for an incredible set.

Driftless Pony Club is Craig Benzine’s band. Craig is better known as Weezy Waiter on YouTube, another early pioneer of the platform. Back when you could count the number of original content creators on YouTube on one hand, those content creators often contacted each other, helping promote each other’s endeavors, and thus a core friendship developed. Craig is often on Mental Floss’s YouTube channel, substituting for John Green as host; he also hosts the Government addition to Hank’s educational web series Crash Course. Drifless Pony Club was new to me, but I enjoyed them immensely. Craig stated that Weezer was a big influence on his songwriting; listening to the band perform, though, I got the feel of more of a marriage between Kings of Leon and The Knack, and in the best of ways.

Rob Scallon Andrew Huang

Rob Scallon and Andrew Huang, photos courtesy of their YouTube channels

I’d never heard of Rob Scallon or Andrew Huang, two musicians with their own very popular YouTube channels. After hearing them perform, however, I am rectifying that, as they were both incredible. Scallon played an 8-string guitar with a heavy reverb and major delay, creating almost hypnotic instrumental melodies; Huang took a sampler and looped the sound he made from balloons, boxes of quinoa, and cans of chickpeas to create backing tracks for the songs he sang. Both blew me away.

Hank was surprisingly sweet and awkward. It still amazes him that the skinny kid who planned on growing up and going into ecology and web design is singing original tunes in front of screaming crowds, and it shows – he is extremely polite and almost embarrassingly humble. Watching him perform with his backing band, The Perfect Strangers, is to watch pure joy; he doesn’t just dance on stage – he POGOS to his infectious, ridiculously catchy songs tinged with the punk and ska influences of his high school days. With seemingly thousands of words crammed into every lyric, his songs can only be described as Nerd Rock, and honestly, I am now jealous as all get out he gets to perform Nerd Rock and I do not.

Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers

Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers, photo courtesy of Shelley Jones’ YouTube channel

The most amazing part of seeing Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers was how my lovely wife and I felt being in the crowd, standing in line, then finding our place in the club, and eventually joining the masses near the stage: we felt at home. Welcome. Wasn’t uncomfortable being in a crowded venue, didn’t feel out of place surrounded by kids half our age. Everywhere we looked, we say Harry Potter neckties and DFTBA t-shirts; quotes from The Fault In Our Stars and the Titansgrave web series; and most of all, we saw people being un-ironically enthusiastic about the fun they were experiencing watching their favorite bands. Nobody was trying to be too hip for the room, nobody was trying to be too cool for the proceedings: everybody was loud and dancing and just loving being in the moment. Everybody was nerding out.

This was the sensation that the lovely Lady Fair – and, to and certain degree, I, too – had been missing at my band’s shows. We’re not Bikers – we’re Nerds. We’re proud to be Nerds. For the first time in a very long time, we were with our people – this was our tribe, and we could be who we are with no worries. We left the club exhausted but invigorated… our feet were tired, but our hearts and souls were full.

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One response to “A Study In Contrasts, Part One

  1. Pingback: A Study In Contrasts, Part Two | Operation: Rock Star

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