If you were one of the 10,000 or so who saw The Flaming Lips headline Denton's NX35 festival in March, you probably caught a performance by the Dallas Family Band. No, they weren't one of the three acts that played on the monstrosity of a stage at the North Texas Fairgrounds. They were the group of about 20 musicians from the Dallas folk scene, all sweaty and bearded, wandering around the huge field in search of their next audience.
And there were many.
Wielding a wide assortment of acoustic instruments, they played songs at the front gate of the complex as thousands of unsuspecting fans trickled in. For the folks in the beer line, they played vigorously—and, in turn, earned some free beer from appreciative concertgoers. They even performed for the people in the long lines at the Porta-Potties, relieving people's spirits as they waited to relieve their bladders.
Dallas Family Band
Their goals are simple: to play together, to help each other and to brighten the days of everyone they meet.
Sound like a bunch of idealist hippies, to be honest.
"The Dallas Family Band is something that only happens when one of us sees a stage that we've never played—and by stage, I mean a section of sidewalk or a place where two walls meet," says Jacob Metcalf, one of the collective's founding members. "We send out text messages. It's never planned, never celebrated. It's born and then dies every time we perform."
It happens fairly often, though. The Dallas Family Band has played in Uptown, at old folks homes and at the State Fair of Texas for the people getting off at the new DART rail station. They've even gone Christmas caroling.
What's even more interesting is who these people are. Metcalf, for instance, is a core member of the Family Band, but he also has a burgeoning career as a solo artist in DFW. There are many more participants: The Family Band is actually a group of bands—bands whose names are plastered on marquees all over the DFW area. The most active players are members of Fox & The Bird, Spooky Folk and The Beaten Sea, as well as Wheeler Sparks, Dry Creek, Lalagray and Raymond Cade. But there's also a revolving door for members who occasionally pick up an instrument and join in anytime the group gets together and plays—which is fine by the band's regular members, who encourage participation from anyone within earshot, whether or not you know how to play the instrument they thrust upon you.
Here's the trick, though: There are no Dallas Family Band songs, only songs from the individual bands and players. And, when the Family Band gets together, those songs, originally written to be played by a small group or an individual, take on a life of their own.
"We play them faster and more hectic," says Wheeler Sparks. "It's less put-together. It's all transient. You don't look back and think, 'I could have played that better.' You just enjoy it and there's no remorse or regret. It's just fun."
The members thrive on these street performances—to the ridiculous point of turning down club gigs for a night of wandering the streets with their instruments. Absurd as it may seem, there's a certain high that a musician gets when he or she elicits a positive reaction from a stranger on the street. There's also a lesson to be learned. Whether they realize it, busking has become the training ground for the Dallas folk scene. Think of busking as the poor man's test market: In taking the performance out on the street, the Family Band can see which songs work and which ones don't—without the pressure of the stage. And while they feel that their spirited performances are enriching the lives of passersby, they are also gaining confidence in their music.
"It's making us better," Sparks acknowledges. "There's sort of a mob mentality to it, in that you gain strength in numbers. You get a confidence out of playing with a bunch of other people who sing at the top of their lungs."
And, as they learn through trial and error on the street, their club performances are improving, too.
"The stuff I'm writing now is in large part a response to what I have seen and heard in this group," Metcalf says. "It is becoming simpler."
And, at the same time, his performances are becoming more and more like the Family Band's. At Metcalf's club gigs, the audience (usually heavy on Family Band members, to be fair) becomes a part of the show. In fact, it's rare to see one of his performances when he stays on stage for the entire show. Before long, he'll typically hop down into the crowd and lead the audience in a shout-out-loud sing-a-long.
Surely, as these performances become more grandiose, they'll inevitably hit a ceiling. There's only so long a fire can blaze before it burns out. Right now, though, the fire is burning hot, and the groups that make up the Dallas Family Band are benefiting from the collective energy. After all, everyone in the group is selflessly working hard to help the other bands involved. Each performer's club backing bands consist of Dallas Family Band members.
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"The reason we band together and play together is because we love each other's music," says Sparks. "That's really what sets us apart. That's the reason we do the Dallas Family Band."
Indeed, it seems as if the whole of the group is greater than the sum of its parts. For now.
The Dallas Family Band is ablaze with inspiration and spirit these days, but there are already inklings that the group's ceiling is quickly approaching. Confesses Metcalf: "I don't know how long the Dallas Family Band core members will be together."
Until that end comes, though, their spirited performances remain quite the spectacle—wherever they may come.