The onlookers were a mix of college students, parents with children and older couples, some of them waiting for the night’s Lotus World Music & Arts Festival concerts to start, others ticketless but taking in the festival’s spectacle.
Charles was a professional entertainer at Lotus for the first time. Sleeves rolled up, hands empty, he ran through a barrage of tricks, including making a $20 bill appear inside a kiwi.
Then, when it seemed over, with six limes and a whole cantaloupe on the table in front of him, he nonchalantly picked up his hat and another cantaloupe rolled out. He asked for donations, whatever the patrons could afford. They flocked around him immediately.
A block away, a young boy played violin on a street corner. Near the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, a guitar-playing busker ran through “Margaritaville.”
Oliver Bailey, 68, said he’s been coming to Lotus on and off since near its inception — he missed the first festival but attended the second, third and several since. He said the festival hasn’t changed much in all those years, save for the attendance.
“There are more people now,” he said. “People come from all over the place for these things ... I saw a license plate out there — one for North Carolina, one for Florida. (Lotus) is bigger than Bloomington now.”
Bailey was at the Buskirk-Chumley to see French-Chinese swing artist Jessica Fichot for the second night in a row. The theater’s lower level, with three rows of chairs added in front of its standard seating, was nearly full, and some people watched from the balcony.
The show was Fichot’s fourth and final of the weekend, and just as the festival brought in performers from across the globe, her music combined far-flung musical influences.
On stage, she told the audience she was born in France to a Chinese mother. She then went to college in Boston and now lives in Los Angeles.
Backed by her band, which included a Swiss guitarist and IU alumnus Dave Wilson on saxophone and clarinet, she sang in French, Chinese and Spanish, playing toy piano waltzes and energetic swing numbers. By the end of her set, a group of teenage girls in the front row danced in their seats.
By 7:30 p.m., an hour after Fichot kicked off the night’s music, a group of drummers had gathered on the sidewalk in front of Athena on Walnut Street. A few doors down, Dave Debikey stood in front of his store, Global Gifts.
Debikey said Lotus weekend is a big one for the store — after all, its name alone fits with Lotus’s world-arts ideology.
“It brings a lot of traffic,” he said. “We do extra sales. We do extended hours during Lotus. The Lotus crowd is our crowd too ... A lot of them appreciate fair trade.”
He said he can usually hear music coming from the nearby Pictura Gallery/Old National Bank Tent, but the Martha Redbone Roots Project’s set wasn’t as loud as some of the tent’s other acts. Instead, the sound of the drums drifted down the block.
Martha Redbone stood on stage as lights painted the walls and ceiling of the white tent purple and blue.
“This is an amazing time in our lives,” she said. “I never thought there would be so much stuff to fix in the world ... We’ve got to march, we’ve got to write letters, we’ve got to do more than just sit on our computers. The revolution will not be televised. It will not be on Facebook.”
Then she taught a song to the crowd, one recorded in 1965 by the Staple Singers. Later, she told them she taught it because of the rise of people like Donald Trump and because people need to start singing these protest songs again.
“We’re gonna march on freedom’s highway / We’re gonna march each and every day / Made up my mind / That I won’t turn around.”
The crowd sang back the last two lines.
Near one side of the tent, a bearded, sweater-clad man held a young boy on his shoulders. The boy wore neon orange ear plugs, nearly matching his bright red hair.
While most of the crowd fixated on Redbone, he looked everywhere, eyes wide, at all of the lights and all of the people.
A group of young adults sprinted across the street as the parade came within earshot. When the parade arrived, the group saw a mass of flags, huge masks, a tuba player and someone in a chicken mask.
The parade navigated down Kirkwood Avenue, through the food trucks lining the street just west of Walnut Street, and past the magician, still performing, east of Walnut Street, finally stopping in front of the Buskirk-Chumley.
The musicians — members of a North African brass band called Fanfaraï which also played other sets at the festival — stepped out of the throng and to the side of the street. Behind them, the Lotus logo was projected onto the side of a building.
A drummer stepped forward to call the band to action.
“Un, deux, trois, quatre!”
Before Tune-Yards even appeared on stage, the tent was packed. In recent years, they’ve become a prominent indie rock name, drawing critical praise for albums like last year’s “Nikki Nack.”
The band also has Bloomington connections. Bassist Nate Brenner, the group’s only constant member other than frontwoman Merrill Garbus, is from Bloomington, and touring backing vocalist Moira Smiley is an IU alumna.
Throughout the set, the crowd danced to the band’s rhythm-heavy pop songs.
Garbus contorted her voice in a series of vocal acrobatics, from more conventional singing to wailing to passages of rapid spoken-word and near-rapping, layered by her backing vocalists’ counterpoints.
Near the end of the set, Garbus stopped. She said this would be Tune-Yards’ second-to-last show with its current touring lineup, that they’d wanted to play Lotus for years, that their chance finally came at a perfectly bittersweet moment, and that it felt special to play in a town important to some of the band’s members.
“I always say something always goes wrong in Bloomington because Nate’s family being here makes me extra special nervous,” she said. “But tonight is just extra special.”
More than an hour later, the tent was still full as people danced and drank beer to the tune of Delhi 2 Dublin’s Bhangra-and-Celtic-informed dance-pop. Electronica-influenced beats meshed with electric guitar, fiddle and south Asian drums.
Midway through the group’s second to last song, Tarun Nayar, who handles the group’s electronics, came out from behind his booth, microphone in hand.
He encouraged everyone in attendance to put their arms around those next to them, even strangers.
People continued to dance, arms interlocking. The tent held heat clashing with the cool night air.
“All of a sudden, there are no differences between us,” he said. “Can you feel that? Can you feel that?”
firstname.lastname@example.org | @JackHEvans
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