On Sunday afternoon, a normally vacant Main Street Garden Park in Downtown Dallas was transformed into a fenced-off destination spot for bands, political figures and supporters of both. For 10 hours, the flat patch of grass and trees surrounded on all sides by concrete and glass became the Buffalo Tree Music Festival.
To call this a music festival in the pure sense that it was a concert is not exactly true. It was more of a Democratic Party rally dressed up as a music festival and a pizza party thrown at your office where you talk about next quarter’s projections for the duration of your stay. Presented by the Homegrown Festival and the Dallas County Democratic Party, the Buffalo Tree Music Festival was designed to engage voters, entertain them and register new voters.
All the beats of a festival were present. After passing women holding signs indicating the festival was sold out, and after being properly vetted by security, audience members were greeted by the sounds of music and the aroma of alcohol. Children played on the playground and ran through the fountains, while parents clad in Beto O’Rourke shirts exchanged smiles and small talk with like-minded strangers. Dogs on leashes and wearing Beto shirts roamed through the mostly younger faces, some looking right out of college and others in the first years of creating a family. There was the occasional person on the other side of the fence who would yell liar, but it was usually more of an aimless heckle than a retort to anything said from the stage.
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Lines not out of place at Disney World formed for The Easy Slider truck tucked away at the end of many other trucks. Makeshift bars selling mixed drinks were available for those who like to mix their politics with day drinking. Tents leading up to either side of the stage offered yard signs and information about the Democratic candidates running, such as Colin Allred or Lupe Valdez, all next to tents selling albums and shirts for the headlining music act for the night, rock band Spoon. Mixing the two worlds further were the band Polyphonic Spree’s shirt on sale that said “The Polyphonic Spree Bet on Beto,” with proceeds going to O’Rourke’s campaign.
The musical acts dabbled a little in political rhetoric in between songs, as there probably was no better place to ever do it, and the politicians who spoke for the evening thankfully chose not to sing.
When the band Sparta started their set midday, people gathered near the stage and watched the El Paso group play their signature mix of chest-thumping drums, fast guitar riffs and piercing vocals. Some with hands raised, all with heads nodding, the crowd applauded loudly after each song in the set.
When lead singer Jim Ward said, “I do not have a PG mouth,” you were reminded that yes, many children were in attendance and that this is not just a rock show. Ward said he would keep his comments to a minimum because there were better speakers present, but he did mention the connection he felt to O’Rourke with their El Paso roots.
Rain started pouring hard around 6:20 p.m., forcing some to head for cover, while others made their exit. The rain lasted for 20 minutes, but it came back in small waves until the end of the event. People would huddle under tents for shelter, giving an open opportunity for clipboard-wielding volunteers to see where the concertgoers were registered, why they were not registered and how easily all this could be fixed with a quick trip to the registration tent.
The night carried a sense of surreal spectacle. As the Polyphonic Spree walked toward stage in one direction, endless white-robed members carrying bottles of water and trumpets and violins, O’Rourke met with reporters. Tie removed, white dress sleeves rolled up, O’Rourke spoke on the importance of being present in front of younger voters.
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"I wouldn’t show up on election day either if no one ever showed up for me,” O’Rourke said. “Going to these places the candidates don’t go to, that office holders don’t hold town hall, aren’t held accountable in, shows our faith in them. Also, the fact that they’re leading on the most pressing issues of the day. You name it, if it’s climate change, if it’s gun violence, if it’s access to health care, affordable higher education, young people are the ones leading on this, forcing the issue, awakening the conscience of a country.”
Later in the evening, before Spoon made it to the stage for the closing act, O’Rourke spoke to a crowd that was enamored with the politician. It was a peaceful and powerful 15 minutes, with children on parent’s shoulders, phones held above heads recording the moment, and chants of "Beto, Beto" at moments when O’Rourke took a breath.
After O’Rourke finished his speech and thanked the crowd, many started to pick up their blankets and lawn chairs, making their quick exit through the back. Newly acquired shirts and lawn signs in hand, they dispersed into the barely lit city. Spoon might have sold out many shows across the country, but for one night, Beto O’Rourke was the rock star the crowd came to see.