It was 1 a.m. on a chilly September day in Marfa and the headliner, Deer Tick, had just completed their set at El Cosmico's Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love, bringing an end to the weekend's festivities -- or so I thought. A man wearing an elaborate robe and a headdress ascended the stage, accompanied by a handful of friends in similarly ornate costumes, and invited the audience of a couple hundred to join their parade to an after party at an undisclosed location. Tired, I considered turning back to my tent, but instead I obeyed the instinct to follow the herd to a house just off the campgrounds. And I'm so glad I did. What I witnessed was one of the most energizing live musical performances I've seen, and I've thought of it often over the last few months.
The costumed folks, it turned out, were Austin's Golden Dawn Arkestra. The 10- to 14-piece band comprises an amorphous, rotating cast of musicians and dancers, and the music they make sort of defies description. It's Afrobeat. It's psych rock. It's funk. It's jazz. It's really, really fun to dance to. The band took up half the living room of the small, West Texas house where we were guided, and soon the room was packed with sweaty, writhing bodies. Walls came down; strangers were no longer strangers; the crowd was united by a shared mission to party.
Golden Dawn Arkestra will play their first-ever Dallas show at The Wild Detectives at 8 p.m. this Saturday, March 7. The bandleader and saxophonist goes by the name Topaz McGarrigle, and don't expect to find out whatever his real name is. He named Golden Dawn Arkestra after the "Arkestras" of legendary jazz composer Sun Ra, from whom the band also derives its propensity toward philosophy and mythology. Sun Ra said he was part of an "angel race" from Saturn; McGarrigle says he's from Austin, but "by way of outer space."
He formed Golden Dawn Arkestra in 2013, after a stint playing music in New York City. "I had this vision in my head and came up with the name and did a couple of gigs under the name," McGarrigle says. "The name almost came first and then it evolved into this thing." Their first recording, a rollicking, atmospheric five-song EP titled Afropocalypse, was released in August, and Golden Dawn Arkestra are currently working on their first full-length recording.
McGarrigle grew up in a musical family with diverse influences, which explains how he arrived at such an unusual blend of sounds. "The station I listened to my whole life [in Austin] always played some great, diverse music," McGarrigle says. "Also my father was in a psych rock band ... and my stepfather studied Middle Eastern music." As to how he assembled his rag-tag band of merrymakers, McGarrigle describes it as an organic process: "People are attracted to this message that we bring -- we're trying to spread some love and joy and respect for the earth and [worship of the sun]."
McGarrigle proves surprisingly low-key on the phone. Based on his chosen name, and Golden Dawn Arkestra's wild live performance, you might expect someone more cartoonish -- more like a Muppet, even. But clearly McGarrigle is a normal guy who understands that the high-energy, larger-than-life mythos surrounding his band is as responsible for its appeal as the music.
"It's this opportunity to step outside of who you are and be a different person," he says. "Everybody [in the band] has their own character ... and their own backstory. A lot of times the audience members will dress up... We're all just particles from outer space and we're all this energy ... We've had a lot of luck just transforming this audience to this energetic level."
At any concert these days, it's the norm to see fans glued to their iPhones, broadcasting their experience to Instagram and Facebook in real time. The fact that there is often little to no photographic evidence of Golden Dawn Arkestra's best shows is a point of pride for McGarrigle. "With all of the technology that distracts us sometimes it takes a lot for us to get into a more elevated space. It seems like we've been able to help people do that," he says. "They're just not in their cell phone world. They're enjoying their moment."
For this free -- free! -- show at The Wild Detectives, Golden Dawn Arkestra will have a full crew of 10 musicians and two dancers. The band hasn't played outside of Austin much, although they've played a few festivals like El Cosmico and Utopia. That's partly due to the difficulty of coordinating so many musicians, who are all also in other bands. "It's a new project, and it's challenging to tour," McGarrigle says. "We have a large collective of beautiful people, so we can [always] still do [a show]... but when everybody's there it's pretty massive."
The Wild Detectives should prove a fit, especially if the weather cooperates and Golden Dawn Arkestra are able to play outdoors. However, they'll play inside, even if the space seems a little prohibitive. "Yeah, if [we] can do it in Marfa..." he says with a laugh.
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Victor Rimach of Dallas Latin band Mayta is largely responsible for bringing this unlikely show to fruition. Rimach has recently started a music booking agency called Chasquis, which primarily works with businesses in Oak Cliff. He's been working with Javier Garcia del Moral, co-owner of The Wild Detectives, to begin putting on shows there. The first one they did was a hugely successful psychedelic cumbia night last summer, and now they're working to put on an event every month. This is the first in that new series. "The next one is going to be in April -- a salsa Latin band from Kansas City. In May we're going to have cumbia night again," Rimach says.
In addition to their album, Golden Dawn Arkestra are also working on a short film, and it sounds predictably weird. "It's going to be the story of us traveling out to this place out in the country where my friends hold a lot of sacred ceremonies, McGarrigle says. "Some of it will be actual performance footage." But some of it won't; he said something about transcending physical reality in the film and I wasn't totally sure what he meant. But it doesn't matter. Golden Dawn Arkestra's music and theatricality do plenty of talking. If you're still not convinced that Saturday's show is one worth seeing, here's one more reason: You won't see or hear anything like this in Dallas again anytime soon. That much is guaranteed.
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