In Newport, Kentucky just on the other side of the river from Cincinnati, Ohio sits a huge old mansion on a hill called the Southgate House. When Abraham Lincoln visited the house it must have overlooked the beautiful Ohio river where you could watch the striped swimsuit bathers on the river beaches in the summers. Now, The Southgate House overlooks Newport on the Levy, an enormous new development that is an indoor and outdoor mall flanked by fake Italian restaurants with freshly painted beige walls. But inside the Southgate House history is everywhere; you can feel the ghosts in the cracked walls and see the aged framed portraits of mustachioed dead guys. The word “House” is kind of misleading, as the structure underwent a massive extension to the back side at some point so that it now includes a massive ballroom. The two-tiered room has red curtains and a speakeasy vibe, which seems appropriate when you learn that Frank Sinatra once performed on the stage where we would perform on December 17th, 2010.
To celebrate the release of my solo album Alchemy, i invited Chris Oberle, a Cincinnati area illusionist and conveniently a big July For Kings fan, to open the show. My album Alchemy contains the word “magic” 50* times, so it seemed fitting that we would have a magician open for us. * i just made that number up.
i had only communicated with Chris online. Chris told me he had created his own tricks (sold by www.closeupartists.com) and crossed paths with David Blaine a few times. Oberle seemed pretty legit so invited him to perform with us. In the weeks before the event, Chris and i began hanging out and i got to see some amazing close-up magic. in the first few minutes, i was a bit skeptical, as that is the natural human disposition toward magicians. as Chris continued to perform i became a believer. what is amazing is not only the quickness and thoroughness of his illusions but the sheer amount of tricks he can improvise with complete mastery. cards move around, rings disappear, minds are read–and blown. now i was feeling quite satisfied, having wrangled a real magician into performing with us at a mysterious, enormous and allegedly haunted house to celebrate the release of my dark new album. naturally, i asked Chris the question i had been waiting my whole life to ask a magician: “can you make me disappear?”
flash forward to the evening of our Southgate House show, December 17. by now i hope you know where this is going. Chris performs a good opening set of illusions assisted by another magician Jason Jacobs, my friend and fellow singer/songwriter Samuel Lockridge plays an incredibly moving selection of original songs, and we are playing our set, which goes reasonably well. I am performing with JFK members who had graciously agreed to learn and perform songs from my two solo albums Curvature and Alchemy. Occasionally we are joined onstage by Chris as we attempt to weave some illusions into the music portion of the evening. we closed the show with a song called “Magic”, the first track on Alchemy. At the end of the song, there is a long dark instrumental section, which we extended for this show. For the grand finale, Brian our bassist and John our guitarist leave the stage as my long-time drummer Dan McQuinn emerges from behind the drum set and begins wrapping me in a shiny purple cloth. This is the moment of truth.
at soundcheck, just a few hours before the moment of truth, we botched the illusion completely.
in the same way a rock band learns songs and practices them relentlessly until they are correct, Chris, Dan, and I rehearsed the illusion in the weeks leading up to the event until it felt right. At first, we were instructed by a veteran Cincinnati area magician and escape artist, Phil Dalton, who Chris brought in to teach us the basics and give us pointers. Once the trick began to shape up, we performed for John and Brian as they pointed out small mistakes until the illusion looked like real magic. what i learned about stage and close-up illusions in the course of the few weeks during my pseudo-magician internship with Chris, is that there are few “magic” props that eliminate the need for human skill. each trick requires a particular combination of timing, dexterity, and patience in different dosages.
all of that rehearsing seemed for naught when, with John and Brian watching again as the only two members of our audience, our sole attempt at the trick during sound-check at the Southgate House looked like an absolute joke. we left the stage dejected. the doors of the venue were opening and people began filing in so there was no time for another run-through. John and Brian began expressing doubts that we should even attempt the stunt in front of a large crowd–it could be the most embarrassing, awkward ending to a concert ever. but after a month of preparation, i decide we will take our chances and attempt to fulfill my dream of disappearing onstage, a dream that took hold when i was eleven as i watched David Copperfield perform live at a theater in Cincinnati with my father.
Where were we? At the end of our last song “Magic”, Dan wraps me in a shiny purple cloth. The audience is confused. In literally a matter of seconds, the cloth drops to reveal not me but magician Chris Oberle standing on stage in my place, who points a finger and directs the audience to look up at me–standing in the balcony behind them! a group of people standing in the balcony is completely oblivious until the moment of my appearance a mere five feet beside them. they spin around and gasp saying “he is quick!” as the room fills with applause and the house lights come on.
“how is it done?” you might ask. well, there are a lot of ways one might disappear and reappear or switch places with a magician: trap doors, body doubles, underground tunnels–we used none of these, honestly. it was magic! if i was talking about a song, i would tell you exactly how it was created, and that would enrich your experience. this is not the case with magic tricks.
it is no coincidence that david blaine and chris angel and a host of other illusionists have enjoyed greater popularity in recent years. we live in a paranoid society where missing the “real” truth could mean voting for the lying candidate, drinking from the water bottle that leeches toxic chemicals, or believing in a god that does not exist. we no longer trust our government, our corporations, or our religious institutions. And maybe we never did? but access to a deluge of conflicting and vitriolic information has rendered us almost incapable of trust, and more vocal about our lack of faith. ideology colors everything. and as we slowly begin to realize that our ideologies are ephemeral and socially constructed, we cling ever more tightly to our precepts, lest they lose all of their fundamental power.
ironically, a magic trick gives us something to believe in. we know it isn’t real, but as we are thrust into the moment, that suspension of disbelief is genuine refuge from the misery of postmodern paranoia. and the real kicker is that the only consequence of being so completely fooled is pure joy–a net positive instead of a negative.
during my one-minute career as a performing illusionist i felt the rush that comes with breaking laws and rules, with doing something bad for the sake of being bad. but we weren’t robbing a bank. we were using lies and deception to bring joy into our own lives and into the lives of the audience. as the supposedly magic purple cloth first touched my body, the timing was perfect. it just felt right. i knew we had nailed it.
but magicians are not the only weavers of illusion. every act of creation is at once a truth and a lie. every artist–including painters, songwriters, movie directors, poets, and so on–is a magician, an alchemist. we take from reality and reconstruct a world that does not truly exist, a world that is a mere reflection, a lie of the “real” world. we are thieves and liars of the best sort. here is to the tricksters, to the craftsmen of ruses, to every act of amiable social deviance! Thanks to Chris, my band, and everyone who came to the show and continues to support my music.
now you see me, now you don’t!