Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
A few days ago, I made the drive clean across the entire state of Iowa, from the shore of the Mississippi River to that of the Missouri River, to a fake cove in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to see a Mumford and Sons/Nathaniel Rateliff/Matthew and the Atlas show outside a casino. The stage was flush up against the side of the casino's hotel, backed into a corner, surrounded on three sides by a grass berm. The Missouri was out of its banks on the other side of the berm, making the riverboat appear to rise, and it wasn't finished yet as the city was in full-blown sandbagging mode. The Harrah's and its surroundings - a golf course and an expansive parking lot - weren't the place for the spine-tingling, soulful bluegrass and folk music of the three acts performing that night, but it would have to do and it faired just fine.
Inside the backstage area, a basement in a carpeted storage area next to a bank of elevators that could take you directly to the tables and slots or the all-you-can-eat buffet line, Matthew and the Atlas had its allotted space, partitioned off by black curtains. The curtains kept them from being in the same "room" as some stowed away exercise equipment - some Nordic track and a universal home gym machine - but all of it was wiped from thought and became blankness about 20 minutes before they were set to go on, as they worked through a few songs to warm up their voices.
It took a half a second, upon hearing lead singer Matthew Hegarty's voice laying into those notes of grave beauty and his bandmates joining him in communal fashion, and anyone within earshot would have sworn that they were born again. At that moment, if anyone listening had the ability to choose for themselves the music that they'd like to have played either at their birth or as they were closing their eyes for the final time ever, they would have said, "This. I want to hear this." Matthew and the Atlas bring us closer to God, or its equivalent, if that's just our little myth.
It's music that feeds us and sustains us in ways that most music cannot. It feels as if it's from our own flesh, as if Hegarty represents us, is speaking for us, or is just reading our most intimate thoughts. We feel as if he's hearing our secrets, or that he's letting us in on his own. It feels as if he is channeling the spirits of those who came before him, those who came before us and learned and felt more than we ever have or ever will. It feels magical in its ability to make us forget that we're living in modern times and that we have so many things to worry about. It makes us feel outside ourselves, creating a scene of something old and something young, something that we've never experienced. He sings, "Waiting for my skin and bone to return/See what I've become/Summer has not yet been here/Though my days are long/Take me back to when the night was young and another song was sung," on the song "I Will Remain," and it's not the first or the only time that Hegarty makes it seem as if he's having an out-of-body experience. It's a contagious sensation, this being lifted from what you know and where you've been. You feel as if you're suddenly lost, wandering through some personal wilderness, but never feeling so profound and alive.
*Essay originally published July, 2011