I feel compelled to post a warning ahead of this that warns the reader about the content and how it will be outside of the norm in terms of concert reviews and this blog. But these things need to be covered, so I’ll just leave this here…
If you’re just here for the pretty pictures: Photo Gallery
It was a beautiful sunny Saturday at a very well-attended Minnesota State Fair, where a 20 yard walk in any direction guarantees an olfactory assault unlike any other, from fried pickles to sweat to fresh baked cookies to sizzling gator meat…the fair really has it all.
Throngs of attendees rubbed elbows and god knows what else squeezing by each other to scope out the crazy food options, rides on the Midway, livestock, barrel racing, all you can drink milk, and on that day, Phantogram.
The Grandstand at the State Fair is heavy on music that most would expect to find there, heavy on Country heavyweights and classic rock, with a decades-old pop or R&B group peppered in. But from time to time, they also include a quality modern music billing, and in this case that was Now, Now, Lucius, and Phantogram playing the “Music on a Stick” series sponsored and arranged by a local radio station, 89.3 The Current (They aren’t huge on electronic, but if indie anything is your jam, then do check them out.).
I opted for a run through the surprisingly impressive arts and crafts buildings over openers Now, Now. I know, it sounds weird, and it is. You know who else is weird? The drummer for Lucius. At times, his face looked like he was trying to hit every extreme facial expression of Jack Black inside the duration of every song. It was crazy and difficult not to get lost in. Thankfully, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig’s collective presence outshined the face-maker with long green velvet trenchcoats over wool button-ups over top of silver bodysuits and topped with white bobbed hair and sunglasses. It’s a good thing it wasn’t one of the really hot days at the fair, otherwise I’d imagine that combination could get quite toasty.
The vocals of Lucius are serene and sweet one minute, boisterous the next, and back again with seeming ease, with the two deftly dropping in and out of harmonies. I’ve lost touch in indie music, and it would seem that’s to my detriment if I’ve been missing music like this. Lucius played through a beautiful sunset and got the growing crowd warmed up and loose for the headliners. Before they finished, they brought out another duo, a local pair of guys who go by the name The Cactus Blossoms. The guys and gals traded verses on “Save the Last Dance” by the Drifters before joining together for the final one.
If you don’t know already, Phantogram’s most recent album was written in the aftermath of a suicide that claimed Sarah Barthel’s sister, and the duo’s best friend. Thus, the title of “Three.”
The male half of the duo took some time away while Barthel clearly buried herself in a busy schedule of touring and recording. The first two times I saw Phantogram, it was an odd, Josh Carter-less trio. Somehow they managed to push through the grief in the studio and created a very powerful album. If grief is an ocean, then Barthel and Carter created a submarine to navigate the surface and plunge into the depths with some frequency. At times they get so far down that you can see neither the bottom nor the surface, just inky black all around, and that’s a perfect summation of grieving over suicide. I know this, because I found myself thrust into that same process three weeks ago when I lost my friend of over twenty years to depression.
When you find yourself going through a relationship break up, all those break up songs gain a certain potency. They speak to you in a way they never had before. You find yourself shout-singing Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” on full blast, pushing through tears. Well, it turns out the same phenomenon applies to songs and especially albums about suicide. I did not take this into consideration when I was arranging for photo passes to the show. I wanted to get out and feel like I could accomplish something that my faceless IT job just cannot provide. I needed to be close to something familiar and preferably loud. Phantogram seemed like a great fit, and they were, until they weren’t.
Thankfully, the standard “you can only shoot for the first three songs” rule applied here, and like Sarah, I was able to bury myself in my work for long enough to get the photos I needed, then I left to find my partner seated back in the stands, not in much better shape than I was.
We broke down there together, holding each other as the music washed over us. I wanted to run away. I wanted to be done, but I stuck around, and I’m relieved that I did. In the subsequent song break, Sarah spoke to the crowd about the meaning behind the album, about losing her sister and best friend, and she went on to carefully note that it’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to know somebody who is not okay, and finally that it is okay to seek help on behalf of somebody who is not okay. In her words, I also heard a bevy of inevitable what if’s, should have’s, and unanswered questions. There’s so much lost and so much left behind, and in the wake of sudden loss like that, those left behind struggle to piece it all together, to make sense of the world again. I haven’t gotten there, my shit’s all still in shambles, but listening to Sarah Barthel push through her speech helped me see that while I will never stop grieving about the loss of my friend, that there is an end to the worst of it. Indeed, she made it through without crying once, which she noted was a first for her.
September also happens to Suicide Prevention Awareness month, so her words somehow managed to carry even more gravity. Prevention, if I only knew it was necessary. I don’t know what it was that made Brian feel like he couldn’t reach out, that help was not openly available to him, but for some reason he felt alone and without hope. Perhaps if he could have known about the massive turnout at his funeral, the range of people who’s lives he touched, the depth of our feelings for him…but that’s just a fantasy, and fantasies don’t bring the dead back to life.
I’ll echo Barthel’s words and tell you, dear reader, that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to get help for somebody who needs it. It’s okay to reach out if you need help, even if you aren’t sure what kind of help. People care for you, more people than you know, I fucking guarantee it. If you need to talk, there are people who will listen. Logic just released an incredibly moving song about the different perspectives of suicide, titled with the number for the Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255), staffed by people who are there to listen without judgement, without an agenda, who will help you get through it. And as insurmountable and hopeless as depression can feel, there is always a way through. You might not see it, and might feel like you’re on your own. But you don’t have to be. You don’t have to take it all on yourself. Please.