It took only three days for the 1972 Blue Bird school bus to break down on the Unchained Tour’s last jaunt in February. The vehicle, which transports a cluster of kooky storytellers and musicians to venues around the South, still had a ways to go. While most of the performers went ahead in a van, the bus perpetually lagged behind the rest of the day.
The Blue Bird’s driver, Jose “JR” Ray, a Savannah-based visual artist and window washer, was stuck with the bus. He was getting gas in the middle of nowhere, and when he pulled the bus back out into the road, it immediately broke down. Again.
And then the cops showed up.
Normally, such a situation would evoke some kind of sympathy from the authorities. But this bus isn’t, by any means, a normal bus. For one thing, it’s blue and white and covered in small murals with visualizations of quotes, like:
“It flashed across my mind that these moving lights must proceed from the beautiful fireflies we had often heard.” —Adam Hodgson, Milledgeville, 1823.
That one is illustrated by a cowboy on a horse. You’ll also spot a coyote, a man’s high-heel shoe, and a dark painting exclaiming that Savannah “is a TRAP” making a circle around the body of the Blue Bird. The bus is not quite on the Electric-Kool-Aid-Acid-Test Ken-Kesey-and-his-Merry-Pranksters level, but it’s not the generic yellow you’d expect to see on the road, and it would certainly be out of place in backwoods Georgia.
Not surprisingly, the police freaked out. “They ended up calling every cop, every sheriff,” Peter Aguero, a performer on the Unchained Tour, says. He was one of the lucky ones sitting by a pool at the night’s final destination while Ray and a few other stragglers dealt with the cops. “Everybody came and they ended up searching the bus.”
And they didn’t find a thing, although Ray did get a ticket for breaking down in the middle of the road. Regardless, with the Unchained Tour kicking off once again last Friday, the bus is back on the road.
The Unchained Tour was founded in 2010 by George Dawes Green. Though he’s currently based in Savannah, the best-selling author is the founder of the Moth, New York City’s distinguished oral narrative series. While the first two tours stuck to Dawes’ home state of Georgia (with a brief stop in Florida on the second one), this round will take an intentionally heart-shaped jaunt across the Carolinas as well as the Peach State.
Besides Aguero, who currently hosts the Moth and does storytelling musical improv with his BTK Band, Unchained features returning performers Green and Edgar Oliver (a New York City eccentric who was last in Charleston for a one-man show at Spoleto 2011). New to the show are Dawn J. Fraser (a Brooklyn-based humorist) and local musicians Rachel Kate Gillon and Joel T. Hamilton (see their story here). And then there’s Neil Gaiman, who really needs no introduction, but if you’re racking your brain, he’s the guy behind Coraline, Stardust, American Gods, and the DC/Vertigo Sandman comics (see more here).
The shows are two hours long, and this time around they’ll be hosted by Aguero. Each of the raconteurs will tell their stories — each usually has a handful in their back pocket that they rotate throughout the tour — and two short sets of live music by Gillon and Hamilton will break up the action. Afterward, the gang will host a meet and greet at Blue Bike, as part of the tour’s goals to promote independent bookstores.
The performers are a motley crew, and they all pile aboard the tour’s Blue Bird bus and set off on the road from Savannah. “In the beginning, you’re very excited because you’re setting out on the beginning of this week-and-a-half-long adventure, and there’s music playing, and when we pull out of Savannah everyone’s clapping and cheering,” Aguero says. The vehicle was gutted when it was purchased, and Chad Faries, the vice president of Unchained’s board of directors (and a former carpenter) installed its wood floors and furniture. The bus only has two regular seats, toward the front. The rest of it has been fitted with couches and pull-out futons and pillows and tables with chandelier lamps and even an easy chair. Anything loose, like curtains and tapestries, sway in the breeze. Everything is bolted down for safety, but Aguero doesn’t think the bus goes much faster than 40 miles an hour anyway — he is just hoping it makes it through the hills of the Upstate and North Carolina. And the sound system’s great, in Aguero’s opinion.
Obviously, this isn’t your ordinary school bus, and Aguero admits it gets stares. “You get a bunch of weirdos stumbling out,” he says. “It’s a really eclectic group of people.” Kids in particular can’t comprehend it. The colorful Unchained bus is not like the ones in their world, and this rag-tag group of adults aren’t the kind of people who are supposed to be riding on them. Once they get on board, it blows the kids away, and then they draw stuff on its chalkboard panels.
Meanwhile, on the bus, people pair up and become fast friends. The legs of travel on the Unchained tour aren’t very long, two to three hours at the most — this isn’t the kind of arduous journey that drives people up the wall after, say, 12 straight hours on the road. And there’s plenty of room for people to have private time. When he needs a breather, Aguero likes to sit up front, behind Ray, and watch the road.
Of course, people do have their pesky little mannerisms, which Aguero confessed to without naming names. “Everybody can be on their best behavior for two days, and then after that, you go back to your foibles that your wife at home can’t stand about you,” he says. “And I’m just as guilty of that. I’ll start bellyaching about stuff, and you get a little precious about having your preparation time … your nerves get frayed, and you might snap at somebody.”
Samita Wolfe, the show’s producer, is inclined to make fun of Aguero for his tendency to be a “delicate flower,” as he says. When they get on the road in the morning and he’s too asleep to talk to anyone, he’d rather wake up with Elliot Smith in his headphones than deal with his fellow storytellers. But any stresses eventually pass. “Because when it comes down to it … it was exhausting, it was really tiring, but once show time would come, you fall into the rhythm of the show,” Aguero says. “And everybody would drop into their role and you felt like a team or a family, and the idiosyncrasies fall by the wayside a bit.”