Walking in the dark through a semi-suburban commercial neighbourhood in south-west Dallas, with its crumbling sidewalks and curb-ways, with about 0.4 seconds allotted by the traffic lights for pedestrians to cross the streets, with Hispanic restaurants aligning the road amongst a plethora of auto shops, trying to hear my thoughts above a continuous racket of noisy engines belonging to pick-up trucks, mini-vans, SUVs and even some cars, and expecting to hear gun-shots at any minute, I eventually reached “The Kessler Theater”.
This theater on West Davis Street was opened in the 40s and looks a bit like the drive-through restaurant frequented by Fred and Wilma Flintstone, Barney and Betty Rubble, and their delightful children and obnoxious pet dinosaurs. It seemed a strange place to find “The Staves”, a young, gentle folk trio comprising of the Staveley-Taylor sisters, Emily, Jessica and Camila, from Hertfordshire, one of England’s affluent “Home Counties”. Apparently, this neighbourhood used to be a danger-zone (the one in Dallas, not Hertfordshire). These days, it appears that if you have your wits about you, you’ll probably be okay, but in a state where the law says you can walk freely about with guns at the hip as long as you don’t go into a place that serves alcohol, the young women seemed as out of place as a family of traumatised refugees at today’s American borders.
I was the last in, and the Kessler Theatre was full to the brim, both downstairs and upstairs and surprisingly, they began strictly on time. They stood at the front of the stage, one of them (I know not which) in the middle playing a wide, country music style electric guitar, flanked by a sister on each side tickling some kind of small electronic keyboard; behind them a young American man wearing such an enormous baseball cap it looked like he was trying to remain incognito, kept a soft but constant rhythm on his little drum-kit.
The attention span of the crowd was admirable. During each song they were glued to the three singers, and at the pauses, they either clapped softly, sat patiently in silence or chuckled politely when the band spoke. In fact, this young Texan crowd was collectively the epitome of the immaculate host. The whole vibe reminded me of black and white footage from a mid-60s folk club, where thoughtful college students huddled together silently staring at the poet-singer on the darkened stage, the guys stroking their beards intensely and the gals staring wide-eyed amidst the curling cigarette smoke.
I would advise the Staves to work on their banter however, because it sometimes felt quite awkward and it seemed to me that the energy was getting sucked out of the room. Of course this is not an easy skill to have, but it felt like the environment was growing steadily more stale; short song followed short song with quick applause and growing lengths of silence in between where they swapped or changed instruments.
Also, I made up my mind that they either need to bring in a really solid bass player in order to become a fuller band, or lose the drummer completely and remain firmly in the folk singer tradition. Eventually, one of the sisters was indeed handed a bass guitar, the drummer soared into third gear, and it felt like we momentarily had a proper band up there. With such beautiful voices and intuitive harmonies, the Staves can go far. Some of their songs are wistful, beautiful and extremely well crafted, but a lot of the evening seemed to lack electricity and excitement, which might become a serious impediment for them.
But what they lack in energy they make up for in emotion. Out of nowhere, I found myself contemplating about those lovely times, around two decades ago when I used to carry my first-born baby daughter around in a front-pack, and I suddenly realised there were tears of nostalgia in my eyes. Where the hell did that come from? Why was I crying alone in Dallas? And how did it creep up on me so stealthily? That’s the Staves for you, folks! Most likely their familial bonds and angelic voices trigger such profound feelings in their audience, and perhaps the earlier perceived awkwardness was in fact a sanctuary of tranquility and serenity.
Another soft little number called “No Me, No You, No More”, with a sustained keyboard note and some light acoustic guitar strumming, below three-piece harmonies that sing of love’s end and the death of a relationship, incurred the most rapturous applause from the audience of the evening. Hoping to catch this wave of appreciation, they announced that they were fund-raising for refugees and arising from my plaintive slumber, I enthusiastically started a round of applause which, I noticed, never got beyond half-hearted. And then they left the stage after a mere 50 minutes. The sisters did come out for a two song encore, their voices raised in unison above a solitary acoustic guitar, and they huddled in the semi-darkness together to sing the sublime “In the Long Run”, which could have been written and performed by Simon & Garfunkel, and then ended the evening with the well-crafted “Mexico” which on this tour at least, I choose to believe is a big “up yours” to the current bigoted thinking we have to endure daily in the United States these days. “Take a trip to Mexico, I heard it’s the place to go……”. I did and it is (or was), but that was over two decades ago and is another (much longer) story involving wonderfully warm people, gallons of tequila, starting an impromptu football match with dozens of street kids next to Oaxaca cathedral, the best bus driver in the whole world, an invitation to join a troupe of bohemians in the mountains, unexpectedly being ushered into a small wedding celebration, bus station from Chiapas to Monterrey, countless games of Black Jack and a surprising encounter with mountain nudity. But we won’t go into all that here.
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