The light shed by the setting sun was very pretty. I talked to a lad in a striped shirt who was tossing a fish he'd caught back into the water. The bass, alas, looked rather the worse for wear as it floated belly-up down the muddy river.
Presented by Merge Records and the Coalition to Protect NC Families, the bill featured Bob Mould, David Cross, Stu McLamb, Tig Notaro, acoustic Superchunk and poet-actress Amber Tamblyn.
With an hour to go before the concert, I walked back up to the buildings that comprise the Saxapahaw Rivermill, including the Saxapahaw General Store, which operates what is surely the state's fanciest short-order grill ("your local five-star gas station") while doing a retail business in local meat and produce, including organic, pastured raised chickens and pigs who had been fed organic, locally milled feed.
As I nursed my beer and nachos in The Eddy Pub, I read my print copy of the Sunday New York Times opinion section. I only mention this because there was an essay about the Pirate Party, an emerging political movement that was founded in Sweden in 2006 and is gaining traction elsewhere in Europe, especially Germany. The party arose from a fairly narrow preoccupation with Internet neutrality and copyright laws, but it has grown into a broader coalition of libertarians, anarchists and points in between (including a few neo-Nazis, evidently). In Germany, the Pirate Party is poised to surpass the Greens as the third-largest political party. Here, of course, the title of "third-largest" political party is a non-existent one. And the idea of a fourth party overtaking a third party is crazy talk.
Also on Sunday, but reported in a different newspaper, there was a story about Occupy Raleigh breaking camp. Whatever Occupy Raleigh did, it didn't move the goalposts to the left; meanwhile, Republican redistricting ended the careers of several notable Tar Heel left-liberals. It's little wonder that Amendment 1 has dominated discussion of the May 8 election: Give or take a county commissioners' race or a state senator or two, it's a pretty weak slate of conservative Democrats who are queuing up for the opportunity to strengthen incoming Republican governor Pat McCrory's grip on the state government.
Another thing that happened Sunday: Vice President Joe Biden declared support for same-sex marriage on a Sunday morning talk show. A day-long controversy ensued, with the inevitable back-and-forths. The upshot was that the White House declared that Biden's comments did not reflect a shift in policy. But wait a second: I thought we were being told that Obama had our back.
Turns out that a close reading of a statement by a campaign field worker reveals that while the president is opposed to divisive ballot measures such as Amendment 1, there's no indication that he favors marriage equality. He certainly didn't see fit to squeeze in a mention during his speech to college students in Carmichael on April 24. Nor was the issue mentioned in an email sent Monday from Obama's North Carolina State Director Lindsay Siler.
I finished my beer, paid my check and reflected on how right-wing elements had once again succeeded in driving a wedge between educated whites and the black and white working class, between the secular and the religious, between young and old, between townies and ruralites, between cool people and squares, between craft beer and Budweiser, and between artisanal food and the KFC Double Down.
When will the Pirate Party arrive?
In the meantime, it seems that there's little to do but fight, and the brave people in North Carolina who are fighting Amendment 1 have been doing it largely on their own, but with a little help from their friends.
There was a nice turnout in the Haw River Ballroom. The $80 tickets were sold out, according to Alex Miller, co-chair of the Coalition to Protect NC Families, while additional $35 mezzanine tickets were sold at the door. After the concert, Miller reported that an estimated $18,000 had been raised, with all proceeds to benefit the Coalition.
I asked Miller about Tuesday's vote.
"Amendment 1 will be voted down," he said. "Narrowly, but it will be voted down. The fact that this amendment has driven turnout more than the Obama-Clinton primary four years ago is a testament to how aware North Carolinians are. We've found through every poll and all our experience and our anecdotal evidence that the more aware and the more educated the voter is about the amendment, the less likely they are to support it."
As an evening's entertainment, the benefit was a mostly low-key affair, sometimes under-rehearsed, with political polemics kept to a minimum with the understanding that no one in the room needed to be persuaded.
There was also a sense of resignation—no upbeat promises of victory on Tuesday, just exhortations to talk to neighbors and bring friends to the polls. "No matter what happens Tuesday," Mac McCaughan of Merge/Superchunk said defiantly, "we're going to shut it down."
Amber Tamblyn, last seen in these parts in the film Main Street, took the stage for a pair of angry rant-poems declaimed over McCaughan's guitar noises. The first was a rap demo she'd done in mockery of a confused come-on she'd received from the actor Tyrese Gibson (backstory, audio and lyrics here), while the second should have been in a Robert Altman film about Hollywood. She was bounding off the stage after about six minutes, but she was the livest wire of the evening.
McCaughan stayed on stage and was joined by Jim Wilbur, his fellow guitarist in Superchunk. The two played a tight set of a half-dozen songs, finishing with "Throwing Things," the 20-years-young closer from No Pocky for Kitty. The lyric provided one of the night's several fitting epitaphs for the campaign for marriage equality: "You're throwing things down at me/ I'm starting to climb but I'm starting on my knees."
Tig Notaro, a comic who's appeared on The Sarah Silverman Show, among other lines on a varied résumé, gave the evening's most polished set. Eschewing direct commentary on the evening's raison d'etre, most of her routine was taken up with a Groundhog Day-like narrative of a series of ever-funnier encounters with an idol of her youth, the pop singer Taylor Dayne (who was famous for about five minutes in 1990).
Stu McLamb introduced himself as a representative of a "lo-fi garage band called Love Language," before performing a set of new songs with new accompaniment gathered for the occasion. McLamb performed seated next to violinist Rachel Rollins, cellist Josh Starmer (Birds and Arrows) and, for one number, tap dancer Alexis Brice. His first song, the Pete Seeger chestnut "If I Had a Hammer," brought a yearning, soaring romanticism to an evening that that badly needly a shot of it. The moment was gratefully received.
David Cross got a headliner's reception, and he was genial enough. He started off with a rant about evil tidings in bad Southern states (e.g. Alabama, MIssissippi) and how North Carolina is not like those bad Southern states. The specific target of Cross' ire—Alabama's cruel new restrictions against immigrants—was fair enough, but he seemed to sense, correctly, that upper-South versus lower-South rancor only perpetuates division. So he moved on to other subjects. However, his set was unrehearsed—he acknowledged his lack of preparation midway through the set by pulling out notes and looking for bits to riff on. The audience, surely aware of his freely given time, didn't mind.
Cross riffed on confiscating churches and giving them to the homeless and he raffed on the idea of brand loyalty to Shell or BP gas stations. But he didn't really hit a gusher until he stumbled upon another epitaph for the evening when he recounted a story he'd clipped from the British media. It concerned the discovery of a headless, limbless corpse in London, and how her relatives "were said to be fearing the worst." (Maybe you had to be there.)
Mould, whose homosexuality was largely unknown during his groundbreaking years with the Minneapolis post-punk trio Hüsker Dü, launched into new material and old. While longtime fans were present and accounted for in the audience, which remained seated during his set, his aggressive guitar playing—sans rhythm section—and minimally melodic yelping were a bit challenging for newcomers to his work.
He capped off his set with a pair of oldies from Hüsker Dü's pastoral masterpiece, 1985's New Day Rising: "I Apologize" and (I think, for my hearing aids were off at this point), "Celebrated Summer."
In between songs, however, Mould offered observations about the new development in Carrboro and Chapel Hill ("condos... Aveda... That's cool, but it doesn't do much for me"), and announced that on Friday, he'd finished mixing a new album and, to cheers from the audience, that it would be released by Merge, likely in September.
As for the ballot initiative that was the reason for the event's being, Mould stressed the importance of talking to our friends and neighbors about it. "It's a lot easier than coming out," he said in another epitaph for the evening.
After a pause, he added, "I mean, take it from me."