Before my very eyes, Joe Riggs has levitated two pairs of eyeglasses, mangled unbendable silverware with a wave of his hand and reached into people's brains to pull out names and places they had stored there, in private:
Mark Twain. Big Ben. Clark Griswold. Ken Griffey Jr.
What Joe Riggs does is not only impossible; it's unbelievable.
And yet, he's not some street hustler -- even though his steampunk look might suggest otherwise. With his soul patch, shock of dark, gravity-defying hair and onyx pinky ring, he cuts a striking figure about town, always sporting either a black trench coat or black suit jacket. As he launches into his wiggy, logic-defying feats, you find yourself strangely compelled to simultaneously lean closer and run shrieking for the door.
Our earthbound, skeptical side tries to debunk what we've just seen (and wonders if his birthday really falls on April Fool's Day), but another part of us watches this man with the warm wit and distinctive stutter, and we have no choice but to believe.
He got inside my head, so it's only fair that I take a peek into his. When I peeled the cloak back a bit, I discovered the bizarre forces that recently brought him to Fort Worth, and learned that he's stared down quite a few demons in his life. All perhaps pieces of the mold that formed the performer he is today.
Riggs is a mentalist, so yes, sort of like Simon Baker on the CBS TV show.
But Joe Riggs doesn't solve crimes.
He just freaks your mind.
How did he do that?
You hear that a lot whenever Joe the Mentalist floats into your aura. Since he and his girlfriend moved here from Louisville, Ky., in December, Riggs has been known to hit the streets and the Starbucks in Fort Worth, busting out his mentalism on random strangers. He also does private shows for hire, but his newest, most steady gig is at the Longhorn Saloon in the Fort Worth Stockyards. He performs a full act on Sunday nights; Thursdays, you'll see him working the crowd there, trying to drum up a little more business for the Sunday shows.
He peppers his act with a little magic and sleight of hand; makes things more lively. Though at his core, he's a mentalist -- someone who uses highly developed intuitive ability (and maybe a few other things) to reveal human thoughts.
One recent Sunday at the Longhorn, Jordon Ringel sat in the audience. This former Mr. Skeptismo had seen Riggs perform once before. He was now a convert who dragged two new friends out to catch the act.
"Every trick he did," Ringel said, "I tried to analyze it and tear it apart and see where the whole 'magic' part was coming in, and really not one time was I able to catch him. Every single time, he pretty much blew me away."
Ringel was especially freaked out by the fork trick. Riggs typically gives audience members a chance to play with it first, to establish that it's not a trick fork. "Then he would hold it at the end, shake it and stop at the count of three," Ringel said. "Four prongs would be in different directions, then twisted around. And you're sitting there completely amazed and he gives you the fork right back, and you try to twist it and mess with it and you can't even move anything on the fork.
"I don't know how he does it. He's got Jedi powers."
Something like that.
Riggs -- who turns 31 on April Fool's Day -- is emphatic that he doesn't want to make false claims that everything he does on stage is "absolutely real." To be frank, he thinks a lot of mentalist acts out there are a little boring -- they take too long to get to the wow factor. So to give mentalism some more zazz, he incorporates some magic and sleight of hand into his act. But that's a small part of Joe's special blend of mentalism.
He says he uses genuine intuition, pre-cognition, advanced psychology, the study of social engineering, elements of hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming -- a form of persuasion and hypnosis that happens when you're awake. He uses hypnosis for entertainment, but also to help people who have hit bottom, or are struggling with addiction. (see story, right).
"Some things are borderline real," Riggs says. "You're really trying your hardest to understand what someone's thinking or what person a person would think of, just by studying them and how they talk and how they move and how they've answered other questions earlier in the act."
Make no mistake, he says. "I've gotten it horribly wrong -- up on stage. I'd say you're thinking of Alexander the Great, and they're thinking of Tom Hanks."
Reading minds over matter
But what's fascinating is how often Riggs gets it right. He claims it's 80 percent of the time -- a far cry from his early days of studying mentalism.
"My sister must hate me," Riggs says. "She was my only sibling, so eight or nine times a day, I would ask her: 'Think of a person! Think of a place!'"
"She'd say, 'Stopping asking me stuff!'"
Joe's mother was a psychic, so he grew up in a house full of tarot cards, pendulums and runes. He started practicing sleight of hand when he was 8 or 9. At that age, Riggs suffered from a crippling stutter; the ridicule he faced in grade school made him an introvert of the highest order. For years, whenever a phone would ring in his house, he simply wouldn't pick it up.
During his self-imposed silence, Riggs disappeared into music and his mind -- and later, the minds of others. After reading a book about Uri Geller, the world-renowned mystifier and spoon bender, the 18-year-old immersed himself in the unusual study of trying to reveal information stored in someone else's head.
Even today, Riggs admits it's a process that's not nearly as showy as magic.
"This will make people angry," he says, "but mentalism generally -- no disrespect -- is a boring art." It involves a labyrinthine process that can make your mind wander. Says Riggs: "If you can read someone's mind, [most people] don't care how you do it."
That's something he's wary of when he's onstage, trying to wrangle the attention of rowdy bar patrons and the occasional heckler -- some of whom take aim at his stutter (it's still there, but less pronounced).
Generally, though, most of Riggs' audiences are rapt. "With Joe, there's a sincerity that I don't see in a lot of performers," says Jay Noblezada, a professional magic instructor and creative consultant to the likes of David Blaine. "I live in Las Vegas, and you see a lot of acts that are consistent, and they're hum-drum, and it becomes routine for the presenter."
Riggs has a special touch, Noblezada says, that makes his show feel customized to the people that he pulls up on stage.
"I think Joe was really born to make people wonder," Noblezada says. "And to be amazed. And to stop for one hour out of the evening and go: 'You know what? There's something else out there, and I need to keep my mind open, because we don't know everything.'"
Winding road to Fort Worth
Riggs' stage presence mirrors his personality: a mixture of low-key charm, warmth, wit and self-deprecation. Pretty down to earth for a man whose chosen path is full of shadows and mystery. But when Riggs starts weaving references to God, the universe and Tony Robbins into his conversation, it's not surprising to learn that his past is painted with quite a bit of psychic pain.
Married young, Riggs and his wife divorced in 2002, and now he's living apart from his 10-year-old daughter, Raven. (They also had a son, River, who died of SIDS after three months.) The year of his divorce, Riggs had a surgery that spurred a prescription-drug addiction. He checked into a treatment center for six months and says he has resolved his problem.
And the path that led him to Fort Worth (and the Longhorn Saloon) was dotted with trauma and coincidence.
About six months ago, Riggs and his girlfriend and manager, Lori Taylor, were living in Louisville. One night, he was doing a rare Monday show; Lori was in the audience. In the middle of his act, someone came onto stage and told him he needed to make a phone call: his house was on fire. By the time they reached their place, the building was destroyed; they lost about everything.
About a week after the fire, Riggs was riding in the car of a friend when a semi plowed into them. Other than a bloody nose, his friend was OK, and Riggs hopped out of the car without a scratch.
He felt lucky to be alive, but wondered if the world was trying to tell him something.
"It sounds mystical, but I had this instinct that we were supposed to move from Louisville," he says. "Sometimes the universe needs us to get really uncomfortable so it can move us someplace else."
Out of the blue, he got an e-mail from an old friend named Shannon, who had moved to Fort Worth. When she heard about Riggs' series of unfortunate events, she suggested the couple move into her house, which had a few empty rooms. They moved here in December.
One day, out exploring downtown Fort Worth, Riggs came upon a few people smoking outside of Mambo's Tapas Cantina; he asked if it was a cool place. He mentioned his profession, and was invited to come in and be on a local Webcast ( The Mambo's Webcast With John Rody) -- in 15 minutes.
Through that show, he was noticed by the house manager of the Longhorn Saloon, who told owner Todd Osborne: "Man, you have to meet this guy."
Osborne was intrigued, so he decided to try an experiment: an in-house mentalist at the Longhorn. Still in its infancy, there's no question that Riggs' mind-bending show creates a different vibe from most club shows. His show is very participatory, so I ask Riggs if he always knows whom he's going to pick to be part of the act. Generally, he calls on women. And it's not that their minds are easier to read; it's that their reactions tend to be more animated.
But there's one group of people he always targets.
"I love skeptics," he says. "If I can see that a person is absolutely cynical and skeptical, I'll zero in on them."
After the webcast at Mambo's, he met a woman outside the bar who said she was a member of The Skeptics Society. "Afterward, she was like: 'I'm really impressed.'
"And I told her: 'You may have to change societies.'"
Jay Noblezada thinks the man he's mentored is truly doing what he's meant to do on this earth. "To see someone get up on stage and just completely fool us, and keep our minds open, I think that's a beautiful thing," Noblezada says. "And I think he has that spirit about him. You can't help but just root for him."
And with Joe Riggs, we can't help but believe.