Wednesday, July 28

Evel Knievel Days

Amongst the seasons my preference is for winter. To be precise, I mean a proper Minnesotan winter where it is entirely possible that the temperature never rises above zero weeks at a time, where the lakes and rivers are frozen solid, where a thick snow falls across the land beginning at the end of October, and where the sun rises after 8 in the morning and sets shortly after 4 in the afternoon.

Though the first days of spring when it is warm enough to wear shorts again are very good, spring and fall are generally too wet and sloppy of seasons to be favorites of mine. Summer is nice, but I prefer shivering to sweating, the dark to the light and stillness to the vibrancy of life in motion. The warmest of the seasons does, though, enjoy one spectacular advantage over winter, and that is festivals. Community celebrations that bring the people into the streets as they wander between attractions and performances and kiosks are not ideal in a season where the ice makes it difficult to keep one's balance.

These past weeks in Butte have provided a fascinating contrast in the range of possible festivals. On the weekend of our wedding, the city hosted the National Folk Festival for the third year in a row. This past weekend it celebrated its most famous son with Evel Knievel Days. It may go without saying, but the audiences in attendance for each were rather different. The crowds at the folk festival preferred flip-flops for shoes and tie-dyed shirts. The de facto uniform of the Evel Knievel crowd was black leather chaps and matching jackets. The folk people carried their drinks in the thin metal bottles that have replaced Nalgene as obnoxious, sustainable ways to carry water, and the Evel people carried their twelve ounce beer cans in stacks. The greatest crowds at Evel Knievel Days watched a man throw himself off one of the tallest buildings in town. The greatest crowds at the National Folk Festival were for people singing in foreign languages accompanied by instruments they couldn't name. At the beginning of July the street stands sold island fried noodles, Chinese fried rice and Greek gyros. Two weeks later they sold island fried noodles, Chinese fried rice and Greek gyros. Okay, the the tastes of the two crowds were the same, but one could not buy Jello shots of Everclear for two dollars at the folk festival.

Given an either/or choice between the two, my inclination would be toward the folk festival. It had a tango quartet. There are not an awful lot of things that I will choose over a tango quartet. There was also a tap dancer accompanied by piano and a salsa band, though my ability to enjoy either was limited by tent-filling crowds and missed chances to see later performances.

That is not to say, however, that the performers of Evel Knievel Days were without their particular charms. I am not such a fan of revving engines and the accompanying noise, but it would take a cold heart indeed to not appreciate the talent and courage necessary for a man to launch himself and his motorbike from platform to platform and back down again. If nothing else, it was a lot more fun to take pictures of these than a group sitting on stage strumming on guitars or pulling a bow across a fiddle.

It was rather odd to me that the headlining event of Evel Days, the ride of Spanky Spangler was the most boring. When I saw five cars balanced on their ends in a line, I was hoping to see a man and his car fly over them. Nope. After two false starts, he succeeded in launching himself into the first with enough power to start a domino effect that would take out the rest. On later thought it occurred to me that was for the best. There would not have been nearly enough room to brake to a stop after a successful jump and thus avoid knocking over the protective fence, taking out a good forty onlookers in the process.

It brought up what I would considerable an uncomfortable truth about the attractions of Evel Days. To some extent, threat of bodily harm was a real possibility in all of them whether it was men trusting to centrifugal force to keep them stable while driving circles against a vertical wall or jumping off a trampoline to complete flips before dunking a basketball. That's part of the excitement, the awareness that a missed trick could send someone to the hospital. What's the worst that happens when a folk musician misses a note? A few boos from the most attentive? Tricks like those at Evel Days demand nothing less than the best from their actors. Stage fright means a concussion and a loss of concentration means a broken arm. With these earlier performances, too, there was clear practice and talent behind the performance. Spangler just had loads of guts and still managed to attract the most people to his stunt that was over in seconds, unless you count the jet fly-by and I don't.

What made so many flock to watch a man who had failed his stunt last year and lit himself on fire in the process? Really, I don't know. I didn't think it was particularly great. Help me with this one. Is it the simple spectacle and promise of destruction and explosions? Why not put up a viewing balcony in a demolition yard then? Is it the idea of someone willing to sacrifice his bodily health for our amusement? Is it the smug satisfaction that we aren't nearly as stupid as him and eager to see ourselves proven right? Or is it the thought that we could do the same with minimal time and training?

In a few weeks Butte will end its festival season with An Ri Ra and its celebration of all things Irish. My belief would be that those who enjoyed the folk festival would come to dominate, but green-tinted beer and other aspects of the more proletarian Irish culture may very well bring out in force the rest and bring the two audiences together in a display of unity and similarly wonderful things.

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