AthFest 2009===June 26, 27 & 28th, 2009===Downtown
Friday, June 26
Ah, city fests... a chance each year for towns to "get cultured" and showcase their finest locally grown artists to the surrounding area. This being my umpteenth trip to Athens, it was exciting to attend my first AthFest Music & Arts Festival and get a slightly different taste of the Classic City. With a main concert stage situated at the bottom of Washington Street hosting free shows all weekend in front of the world famous 40 Watt Club and artists and street vendors peddling their wares as far as the eye can see, this is the kind of event any true music fan could get into (even if you only knew a handful of bands playing) - not to mention the countless bars within earshot hosting concerts all day and night for a nominal fee with drink specials to boot, college girls in summer gear and bombastic locally-owned restaurants around every corner, this fest had the ingredients for a memorable weekend and would not disappoint.
Around 6:50 p.m. on Friday evening Twin Tigers hit the main stage delivering their tightly wrought, psych-pop jaunts to the enjoyment of the early crowd. Although officially hailing from Augusta, GA, Classic City can claim Dead Confederate as one of their own, as these guys have been rocking around the city for years as Redbelly until shifting gears towards their grittier, nastier current self. In just a year-and-a-half since their debut LP, Wrecking Ball, the band has made great strides towards stardom and on Friday night it was easy to see why. Opening with the soaring "Get Out" set the tone for a rapid-fire six-song set of heavy hitters. The quintet ran through the upper echelon of their catalogue, oscillating from the glowing reverb psych splashiness of "It Was a Rose" to lead singer Hardy Morris' scowling, heavy hitting grunger "Start Me Laughing." What stood out from this set was the closer, a new tune called "Split The Seams," with an anomalously pop-leaning melody that will surely please the ears of "fringe listeners."
After a short walk to a watering hole for a nicely priced refreshment, several fans scurried back downhill where The Black Lips would slowly draw everyone in with their "fuck everything" attitude and Kinks-esque, (only way more rancid) brand of garage rock. Each song of the set weaved through the genre jungle but all had a similar texture of fuzzy, garage sound. Nonsensical at times, but offensively hilarious frontman Cole Alexander wildly flailed about the stage as lead guitarist Ian Saint Pe looked to be dizzying through his own mental fog, delivering sheer brilliance at times and looking lost at others. After shooting off a fire extinguisher into the crowd, two of the band members kissed and The Black Lips' circus was well under way. Several mumbled banters preceded their jittery sound with some surprisingly poppy tinges, as in "Drugs" and some instances of impure, raunchy, cacophonous bliss. Fittingly, the show ended with Alexander making a mockery of his loaner Fender by busting it to bits. This was the final musical performance of the night on the main stage.
Word on the street was the next hot set would be cult hero Dex Romweber Duo over at the 40 Watt Club. A very cool mid-sized club on the edge of downtown, the 40 Watt has an endless list of memorable shows under its belt, including a recent Gnarls Barkley set and the now-legendary My Morning Jacket prom night in the Spring of 2006. Also, rumor has it that Kurt Cobain's autograph is on the wall backstage. Undoubtedly an influence on Jack White's The White Stripes, this guitar and drums bluesy tag team entertained the half-full club that had as much of a bar vibe as concert crowd on this particular night. I also made a short stop at Tasty World to check out local jam band Incredible Sandwich, winners of this year's Athens Flagpole Music Award for "Best New Band" (given out on the eve of AthFest). This funky quartet takes strides towards the musical eclecticism of The String Cheese Incident, featuring a wizard-like command of the guitar by lead player Matt McKinney. A fun show always, "The Sandwich" simply needs a little more time to completely come into their own and find their sound.
Saturday, June 27
My crew made it down to the main stage just in time to see "some truly old school Athens rockers" as Bloodkin cranked into the opening "Wait Forever," with lead singer Daniel Hutchens claiming, "I woke up out of tune," a fitting line many Athenians could relate to on AthFest Saturday. John Neff of the Drive-By Truckers added even more twang to "Wet Trombone Blues" before closing the set off with "Henry Parsons Died." The borderline incestuous relationship Bloodkin's music shares with Widespread Panic (WP staples "Can't Get High," "Henry Parsons Died" and "End of the Show" are all Bloodkin originals) is hard to miss, but the band's new songs have helped them step out of the lengthy shadow cast by Panic, as their critically lauded new album Baby, They Told Us We Would Rise Again was recognized earlier this year as one of "Fricke's Picks" in Rolling Stone and has been well-received elsewhere. A great set by any measure with four guitars working at any given time to give the band a pummeling, acid rock-meets-country sound that most anybody could get down to.
Things really got thrown into the spin cycle at the midnight twin bill hosted by two brand new Athens bands with a group called The Interns kicking things off, followed by the Futurebirds. A boozy crowd of twenty-somethings packed into the tight quarters of the upstairs room of Tasty World to take in the show. The two bands are almost completely interchangeable with four members of The Interns also in the seven-piece Futurebirds, but most musical comparisons stop there. Both outfits had the room completely dialed in for the duration of their sets, something that is extremely rare on a twin bill. The vocals of Thomas Johnson are an intriguing element in both acts as are the traveling instruments as they are passed around. As a member of The Interns, lead guitarist Carter King's rocket launch riffs would often shock listeners into a split second mental coma amongst a raucously wound band. As a Futurebird, King is just another head-banging, integral element in the communal makeup of The Futurebirds' varied Southern folk-rock sound.
It'd be a toss-up to pick the better one on this night and pointless to even compare the two. In slower songs, the Futurebirds have the intimacy of a front porch jam session, but most of this night's 1:15 a.m. set was beyond up-tempo giving this writer a sore neck the next day. Rock-style banjo strumming, female vocals and pedal steel give these guys (and girl) a fresh sound. With the lonesome, refined luster of pre-It Still Moves MMJ and the raw energy of an Avett Brothers show, these guys could be around for a long, long time.
Sunday, June 28
A lazy, hot Sunday sent many fans packing it up as Athens legends Dreams So Real played their first show in nearly a decade on the main stage. Musically a little past my time, the band deserves props for delivering a decent set and showing surprisingly little rust after all those years on the shelf. The Randall Bramblett Band closed out the main stage as a group of us watched from the rooftop of an apartment overlooking the festival strip, which is something I highly recommend.
An action-packed weekend in one of the South's finest towns sure made me long to get back to The Classic City for AthFest 2010, only this time with shows at the Georgia Theatre to restore normalcy to the scene.