It wasn’t a show. No, not by the normal means of going to see live music. The usual processes were present of course: bands loading in and setting up instruments, a crowd awaiting to hear the music with drinks in hand. But there was a different air to the evening. As if for the few hours from when it began until the bar cleared out, the bands and audience alike were carried into another realm, a moment in time that only long afterwards does one realize that something important has happened.
The bill for the night consisted of a powerhouse of Winston-Salem bands and musicians, all of whom were gathered for the show celebrating Toby Hilliard’s birthday, a staple and important figure in the local music scene. But as the celebration was only the means of bringing a community together, the night lifted into a realm of something entirely more.
Sing-songwriter Tim Poovey, former Autopassion guitarist, began the night’s celebration with a selection of songs that carried with it an intimate commencement. The dance floor filled as people sat along the front of the stage. His cigarette-smoothed vocals rang out in beautiful melodies, gathering the people closer to witness what was to come.
Slowly, the evening built in momentum, gathering more and more force with each act like a storm about to break on the sea. Picking up where Poovey left off, Bjorn & Francois brought their brilliantly composed songs to the stage, carrying a hypnotic tone in their set. And while at many shows a crowd tends to ebb back and forth between watching the bands and wandering off, the crowd remained in place nearly the entire night.
Building like Dante’s seven-story mountain, the Girlfriends raised the crowd even higher towards a paradise that was coming into sight. Blending a raw and gritty style of punk with bluesy guitar and captivating stage presence, the band didn’t let the crowd miss out on their reputation for wild performances. Mid-song, bass player Alex Bond handed his guitar to a friend in the crowd who took his place on stage while Bond smoked a cigarette and danced among fans. The crowd rallied close in the punk-fueled dance that swelled before the performers.
And as the evening carried on and the stage was reset for the final act of the night, the room filled, and all eyes watched as frontman Jacob Leonard slid into his guitar strap. Like a shaman before his congregation, Dark Prophet, Tongueless Monk brought the night’s celebration into full bloom.
The three-piece, experimental-psych band grew to four with Jared Draughon of Must Be the Holy Ghost on bass. Dark Prophet commanded the stage in a way that seems reserved for larger venues. Leonard’s hypnotic presence and dark, dreamlike vocals saturated the room. With its heavy-hitting and highly technical songwriting style, Dark Prophet calls to mind the sounds of Godspeed You Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky, although a comparison seems an injustice for the sounds the four of them created.
Like a people longing for some great moment of wonder, an energy moved among the crowd; some danced in dreamy motion as if experiencing something beyond reality, some kept eyes closed and let the music wash over them, and yet all were bonded together in an almost occult manner, standing before the stage, captivated by the artists performing.
As if allowing those in attendance to enter into the music in a new way, each of the acts seemed to carry the night forward, building upon each other until it nearly became too much.
“The only way I can think of it is like, you have five minutes to live,” said Bjorn Jacobsen, guitarist of Bjorn & Francois, after the show. “Only a few minutes to perform and tell them something, so you’re forced to get to the heart of it all, to marrow of the music. You say, I’m going to let these people into my world and show them something.”
The evening of such diverse, yet neatly crafted music was brought together by Toby Hilliard, owner of local vintage-goods business Elevated Weirdo. Having become an essential personality among the bars and venues of Winston-Salem’s Trade Street, Hilliard’s vision brought not only a solid lineup of bands to the stage, but by the night’s end, brought perhaps a new community of music fans together. Bands whose music somehow forced the crowd to come together in the moment, forgetting about life’s messes for a while. During the show, the usual glow of cellphone screens extinguished. Friends spoke and danced and gave homage to the art that was performed for their ears only.