This is a story about love at first, and how that love inspired me to truly live for live music. My name is Rex Thomson and, as a writer and photo/videographer for this company, I travel the country documenting and sharing the best bands in the world all from the best seat in the house. I’m going to go ahead and answer the question most people ask when I say that: yes, it is as fun as it sounds. The six-year-old me never would have imagined such an amazing life, and, if not for one incredible show and kind hearts of the band Elephant Revival, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
The twin passions of music and art have always ruled my world. One of my earliest memories is asking how to know when a song you liked was going to be on the radio. My wonderful mother explained to me the concept of owning music. In the same way she encouraged my drawing, she asked if there was one song in particular I wanted. I didn’t know the name of it… all I really knew was that, when it was on, I felt like I wanted to jump and move and smile so hard it hurt my face. Soon after I became the proud owner of a powder blue record player and my first album, Sly & The Family Stone‘s greatest hits collection, featuring the song “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”
Years later, a fateful blending of my twin obsessions saw me enter and win an art contest to create the Loki Music Festival poster, which is embedded below. Seeing my recently purchased camera and mistakenly assuming I knew how to use it, the organizers threw photo credentials into my VIP prize package. Thanks to a quick tutorial by a clearly amused seasoned veteran in the music photography game, Brad Kuntz, I managed to get a couple decent shots out of the roughly ten trillion I snapped. It turns out that all my years of art training had drilled the fundamentals of composition and aesthetics into my head, and the rest of photography is basic math.
The second part of my assignment, writing a review to accompany my pictures, also turned out to be rewarding. Music has always been a favorite subject of mine and I had progressively better looking pictures to illustrate my points. Plus… how could anyone say no to the chance to return to festivals I had been attending since day one, with the chance to do it in a finer style than I had ever even imagined? With each event, I spent more and more of a rapidly dwindling savings account in a bid to do the best work I could. Nearing financial ruin, it became obvious that a decision was going to have to be made.
I was doing okay in my old life, bartending and working on my art, but this wonderful new world that had opened up was enticing but nowhere near as financially rewarding or stable. From what I had gathered talking to Kuntz and others like him, the concert photography field was a tough one to break into, and few were managing to make a full time go of it. I decided the best thing way to make an informed decision was to do one more festival before that magic first summer ended, and either ramp up my pace of shooting or go out in a blaze of glory.
The Mulberry Mountain Harvest Festival was a perfect host for my internal debate for a couple reasons. It was a solid ten hours away for lots of introspection time and full of lots of nice, upbeat Americana and bluegrass bands. The whole drive towards destiny, I pondered fate and how I should respond to this diverging set of paths. Wandering the crowds and backstage at the festival, I introduced myself to folks I met at random, using my camera as an excuse to start conversations. I must have told my situation to a hundred different people, hoping maybe they could help me break the stalemate. None of them had an answer but several of them did have a recommendation…whatever I decided, go see Elephant Revival.
Words like “transcendental,” “hypnotic,” and “touching” were being used to describe Elephant Revival’s sound to me, but I honestly wasn’t prepared for what I was about to experience. A misprinted schedule had me arrive before the band had even come out to soundcheck. Plopping myself down in a prime spot up front, I whiled the time away deleting the worst shots I had captured while listening to the disorganized assortment of sounds emanating from the stage. Finally, a faint “Hello” from the stage broke my reverie, and without realizing it, I looked up and gazed into the future.
Mulberry Mountain can be a dusty place, and the 2009 edition was a dry and monotone affair. Looking up to respond and seeing a woman in a luscious green dress with formal ball gown was not at all what I expected. Elephant Revival’s resident multi-instrumentalist Bonnie Paine has broken many a heart, but it wasn’t her beauty that had me frozen. It was more the surreality of her appearance and soft spoken voice against the drab backdrop and frantic pace and volume of a music festival short-circuiting my admittedly spacey brain.
We spoke for a few moments, before she went backstage to have a final huddle with the band for final preparations. Bonnie had asked me if I was going to take pictures of her band, and thanked me profusely when I said that I was there to do just that. Though I was charmed by her kindness and the technicolor hallucinatory nature of our interaction, none of that prepared me for the feeling I got when their first notes journeyed from their strings to my ears.
Never before had I heard a band play so delicately yet make a sound that powerful and moving. The deep bowed and plucked bass lines from Dango Rose brought a heft to the pieces that made the stage itself sag under the pressure. On the other end of the sonic spectrum, fiddle player Bridget Law let loose lengthy bursts of sound that seemed to dart above the mix like a hummingbird.
Nestled in the middle of it all, banjo player Sage Cook and guitarist Daniel Rodriguez each took turns singing heartfelt songs of movement and cosmic wonder. And at the center of it all was Paine, keeping the beat with her feet on an old-timey stomp board while singing in an angelic voice that entrances any in ear shot with it’s purity and beauty. Pairing lilting, arched melodies with tales of the cycle of life, the nature of time and the love that unites us all, Elephant Revival made music that spoke words of hope and love to me on an almost molecular level. Over the course of their ninety minute set, I watched them drive their fans to tears one moment and inspire them to dance joyously, filling the air with dust and cheers.
Feeling more at peace than any time I could easily remember, I found may way backstage to thank Bonnie and her friends for the spell they had cast upon us all. To my happy surprise, the band members themselves were as intelligent, upbeat and endearing as the music they just finished played. Even better, they assured me that reactions like mine meant as much to them as their music did to their fans.
Wandering towards the next stage and the next band on my list with an almost painful grin, I continued to strike up conversations…though my question for people had changed. Now I was asking people if they had seen Elephant Revival.
If you’ve read this far, then my choice that day is pretty apparent, but I am very grateful for this opportunity to share the reason WHY I do what I do. There are hundreds of ways the modern world divides us but all of those are issues that have solutions, if we are willing to work for them. Moments of unity are all too rare and must be shared as an example of what CAN be. I am certainly not trying to overstate my own importance, but sharing the things that uplift my weary heart, like the beatific sounds made by Elephant Revival, is my desperate attempt to push the world towards the light.
Eight years have passed since that treasured day. Over that span, I have been lucky enough to become friends with Elephant Revival and watch them steadily grow in skill and acclaim while still keeping the positive vibration at the core of their music. They have faced struggles, as have I, but one thing has remained constant: When they play, nothing else matters. Often they end their shows taking an old school bow to uproarious applause, but just in case my words are lost in the din I want to say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.