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Unchain my heart

I may be hopelessly biased, but I’m pretty sure the world runs on stories.

As much as food and water, stories are essential. Even when humans run out of fossil fuels and the last can of kidney beans is eaten,  the last few folks will be crowded over a trash can fire surrounded by the crumbling ruins of Western civilization, telling tales of what came before and what might happen next.

When a good story is told—and by good, I mean anything that absorbs you so completely that not only do you forget to check your phone but you sort of forget where and who you are—something happens between its teller and its listeners, a mysterious weaving of images and ideas and inspiration that wasn’t there before. A kind of energetic nourishment is transmitted back and forth, altering everyone’s reality.

In the hands of the professional storytellers of the Unchained Tour, your contact high might last for days.
Saturday night brought the last stop of a ten–day sojourn that led a cantankerous blue bus full of raconteurs through a heart–shaped loop around the South, stopping at independent bookstores to spread the Gospel of the Good Story.

Judging from the string of sold–out shows in places where Honey Boo Boo might be found dancing on tables at Wal–Mart, it’s evident that there are plenty of hidden factions that worship at the altar of plain old-fashioned yarnspinning.

Conceived by author and Moth founder George Dawes Green—who proudly assumes the mantle of “high priest of this bizarre religion”—Unchained has become a required pilgrimage for the devoted. Back home for the tour’s finale, Green and his band of merry minstrels were greeted with all the fanfare of its outlandish megachurch, with a three-hour daytime jubilee featuring local music, E. Shaver Booksellers and hand-pressed bookmarks by the Soda Shop a followed by fire twirling and hulahooping as the night crept in. By the time almost 400 disciples had crammed themselves into the Knights of Columbus ballroom, the mood was positively zealous.

A true believer myself, I shimmied up to the second row and plopped into a single open seat, a view so close I could practically read the small print on the cut–out heart streamers dangling from the ceiling, made from the pages of donated books. (No healthy tomes were harmed in the project, promised Megan Luther, who led a team of volunteers in their construction.) And then I was swept away.

The show began with hymn–like, haunting cowgirl blues from Rachel Kate (formerly of The Shaniqua Brown) and quirky accordion riffs from multi–instrumentalist Joel T. Hamilton. Then Brooklyn–based Dawn Fraser lit up the stage with a story about her Trinidadian roots and her twin brother, who is challenged with Down’s Syndrome but not hampered. She was followed by Savannah native and New York theater legend Edgar Oliver, who recounted in his wonderfully peculiar grandmother voice his unlikely rise to military greatness at Benedictine Catholic School.

After intermission, Green popped up to give a sermon, sporting a velvet waistcoat and massive head bandage as a result from a fall earlier in the evening (from excitement? Exhaustion? Epiphany? He couldn’t decide.)

“If you want true bliss, then the books you read need to be real books,” he intoned to the audience, evoking a chorus of hallelujahs, hosannas and amens.

The revival reached full fever as he anointed Joni Saxon–Giusti, also known as The Book Lady, as a patron saint, and hailed Unchained’s producer, business manager and all–around badass Samita “TCB” Wolfe as “nothing but soul.”

Emcee Peter Aguero grabbed the mic for his unapologetically raunchy narrative of sex, blood and bong hits that had strangers squeezing each other’s knees with laughter in the crowded rows. Then the air crackled as Aguero introduced the last raconteur, one of the messiahs of modern storytelling: Best–selling, award–winning, ridiculously cool novelist Neil Gaiman.

“He’s just a guy who’s done some stuff,” Aguero warned in his New Jerseysian growl, obviously wary of what happens when you travel with a Big Author to Small Places. “So RELAX.”

Gaiman appeared in his signature black, and the room went quiet, reverential even. As a fan of his books—fiction that marries the fantasy of superheroes and ghosts and parallel worlds with the weirdness of humanity—I was surprised then mesmerized as he told a subdued, stark tale of his own loneliness and redemption that involved an elephant, a dog and a woman. It was a valuable wisdom: The most powerful stories are the ones that are true and simple and happen to you.

Then the tour was officially over, and the crowd bounced out, buoyed by the stories and a sense that all of us were now connected having shared the experience.

I stuck around for the after party, hoping to score the interview I had scheduled with Gaiman that his publicist cancelled before the tour began. But artist/DJ/Unchained bus driver Jose Ray started spinning the vinyl, and I got distracted by the Knights’ cheap bar and a bunch of Savannah people I really like. By the time Gaiman showed up a few hours later, having finally escaped the line of fans that followed him down Liberty Street, I was really in no condition to take notes on anything.

But now I have my own story about how I almost met the Big Author and may have stepped on his toe while dancing to the Pointer Sisters by the light of a single desk lamp.

If I may witness, the glory is in the telling.