Are We Human, or Are We Dancer? | An Essay on LouFest 6

Brandon Flowers at LouFest | Photo by Jason Gonulsen

And so long to devotion
You taught me everything I know
Wave goodbye
Wish me well
You got to let me go

When I was in high school, I thought I would play soccer for a living. In fact, I was quite sure of it, for maybe something like eight months — I had that needed confidence where the only thing traveling through my brain was, “ain’t no one stopping me.” Swagger, man. You gotta have it.

The only problem was that I really never liked playing soccer. Outside of the World Cup, I can’t even watch it today. Politics, among other things, ruined the game for me, and whenever I see it on a television, or hear people talking about it, a hundred little thoughts immediately rush through my brain — the good times, the bad times, the maddening, frustrating times. All those road trips, all those miles on the car, all those times my dad stopped for coffee at something like 6 AM on I-55 and burned his mouth because it was too hot. To simply play a game I didn’t love.

There is a difference between liking something and loving something, and I don’t do what I don’t love anymore. Perhaps I learned the hard way, and perhaps it’s best to learn the hard way in life — maybe that’s how you know you have an irresistible calling toward something.

I think about what I love when I’m at a music festival.

I think about all the little things that had to go right to not just get me beyond the festival gates, but also the 50,000 who attended LouFest this past weekend, and when I really think about it, well, I’m amazed there aren’t a thousand or so disasters that impede anything beautiful from happening. A music festival is another chance to re-invent, to shed a layer of skin, to live again.

The biggest criticism over this year’s LouFest was the lineup, but instead of me pleading my case of why your favorite band shouldn’t be the only thing that matters, I’d like to share a few moments from this past weekend that really moved me. Let’s start with Brandon Flowers.

You know Brandon Flowers because he’s the lead singer of The Killers, and I suppose that was another complaint — that LouFest booked the singer and not the band. But it was clear from Flowers’ first song — the booming “Human,” which is, of course a Killers song — that nothing was being mailed in. Flowers was dressed in a black suit, looking like he had stepped out of the freshest spa, and was working the crowd by basically just being Brandon Flowers.

But then he sang the lyric that no one is supposed to understand: “Are we human, or are we dancer?”

In 2008, he told MTV, “It’s taken from a quote by [author Hunter S.] Thompson. … ’We’re raising a generation of dancers,’ and I took it and ran. I guess it bothers people that it’s not grammatically correct, but I think I’m allowed to do whatever I want.”

And good for Flowers. There’s really no reason for an artist to explain his or her lyrics, but in that LouFest moment, I understood “Are we human, or are we dancer?” To go your own way, defy the odds, throw your hands up, close your eyes, and live the life you choose. It’s vital, it’s endearing, and it’s beautiful like sneaking out the bedroom window. Sometimes it really is just saying “fuck it, I’m going,” and then actually doing it.

Which leads me to Strand of Oaks, who is led by the best songwriter you still might not know: Timothy Showalter. On his right forearm rests a tattoo: “SURVIVE.” And his songs are about dragging your way through the shit like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. 

Strand of Oaks released HEAL in 2014, and Showalter opened with two of its best songs, the title track and “Goshen ’97.” I’d like to talk about the latter.

For all the people who have lived alone, experienced numerous false starts, and have basically been shit on time and again, this song might be for you. “I was lonely but I was having fun,” Showalter sings.” And then, “I don’t want to start all over again,” which is basically the message of the song: please, please don’t fail on me — not here, not now. The LouFest performance was exhilarating because of one reason, and that was the primal scream Showalter howled at the end of the song. I took a photo of it here, but even that doesn’t do it justice. I mean, the man shrieked in a way that Mother Nature does not during the most violent thunderstorm. It was my favorite set of the weekend.

Lastly, there was the closing band of LouFest, The Avett Brothers, who brought out their kazoos for the first song, which led into “Live and Die,” which led into “Talk on Indolence,”which led into…well, you know what I’m saying: the first four songs felt like one big song.

But it was the fifth song, “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” that got my immediate attention as I was walking out of the photo pit. There were people of every age range dancing in the cool night air while Seth Avett sang the key line: “Decide what to be, and go be it.”

And then I thought to myself again, “Are we human, or are we dancer?”

Choose in life, or someone else will for you.

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