Yesterday was a truly special day at ETSU — three raconteurs and two musicians of The Unchained Tour performed exceptionally charming, engaging, funny, encouraging stories and songs. The cast at this particular event consisted of Dawn J. Fraser, Peter Aguero, and Neil Gaiman. Joel T. Hamilton and Rachel Kate (Gillon) opened and closed the show with each of their own songs. (Please look them all up online.) I had heard about it because people kept saying, “Did you hear Neil Gaiman is coming?” This was always said in a tone of wonder and uncertainty. It was hard to believe. I expected a hologram or an old emerald green suitcase with a voice box in it, but I also expected to enjoy the story, no matter how I received it.
When I learned more about why Neil Gaiman was coming to Johnson City after reading the Facebook invitation and watching their video, I became even more interested in attending the event. Raconteurs, live music, local support — I love all that stuff! However, I was worried that some people who came to see Neil Gaiman would be disrespectful to the other performers (similarly to how some rude individuals yell for the “headliner” at a concert while the opening band is playing or speaking), or would demand signatures and pictures at inappropriate times. Thankfully, in no small part due to the wonderful stories already shared with us, everyone seemed absorbed in the moment and less in the idea of seeing (and possibly meeting?!) Neil Gaiman.
Which I think was the whole point of the show.
Not regarding “the dude who has done some stuff” specifically, but generally speaking, the point was to exist in the moment without the mental distraction of documentation, narration, and impressing your Facebook friends. Peter Aguero insisted in the beginning of the show that everyone turn off their phones, and not to worry about getting a shot of any of the performers because “there are better images of them online anyway”.
“You want a picture of Rachel Kate performing? Google it. She’s there. I promise.” Lord knows there’s plenty of images of Neil Gaiman. And his hair.
Speaking of Peter Aguero, aside from telling a really intimate and funny story of his own about meeting his wife, he was also a perfect host. He did a fantastic job of keeping the mood light, yet intimate. Almost immediately after he began speaking, I felt deeply connected to his presence, to the presence of the band, to the presence of the audience, to this act of sitting and listening, to laughing. To my own presence.
I liked that all of the stories were personal. As much as I appreciate any good story, whether it’s personal or not, whether it’s even factually correct or not, it’s my opinion that stories are often told better when they are rooted from a personal place. Some place inside that says, “This is true.” If it’s someone else’s story, you can still acknowledge and speak from the part of you that feels this story. Artists do it all the time in plays, operas, and other performances. And that’s when the performances really stand out, really impact my life and remain in my memory.
That said, just because a story is personal, doesn’t make it a good one. You may have said or heard the facetious one-liner joke, “Good story, bro” or “Wow, that was a really good story. Tell it again.” Many people have read part of a memoir that left them marveling at the author’s ability to remain lodged up his or her own ass. Every storyteller, or raconteur, that performed yesterday reminded me of why personal stories can be so compelling. It renewed, at least in me, a sense that a personal story thrives when it’s not being told to impress, to posture, to indulge, to gain attention, to flatter, or to get paid (although getting paid is nice). Personal stories are their best when the heart of the storyteller is present and being shared. In the metaphorical sense, not in the cannibalism sense. We weren’t in the auditorium that long.
Actually, the whole theme of the tour is the heart. Jokingly, Peter Aguero said, “it’s pretty simple the tour is shaped liked a heart…” so there you have it. Dawn told us a story about a dog who “thinks he’s blacker [than her]” who accidentally helped her find a balance between her past and present. Peter told us a story about being adventurous and squeezing the gonads of life. Neil told us a story about being happy for three days, about elephants and a dog who knows a lot about being chained. If you look at their posters, the heart’s probably the first thing you notice — a map with a heart roughly drawn on it, with names like Boone and Asheville as points of reference. And perhaps that was the best way for a group of strangers to come to a campus in northeast Tennessee and tell stories so that we would listen, so that we would walk away feeling like we had experienced something unique and beautiful and meaningful, so that we might want to tell our own stories and listen to those of others.
Although we were lucky enough to see this event for free, I think it’s absolutely worth paying money for and you should if you’re even remotely close to any city along its route. Thank you Dawn, Peter, Neil, Joel, Rachel, and George Dawes Green, thank you to everyone at ETSU who made this possible.