The Athens Music Scene Grows Up
Athens, GA • July 16-19, 1998
The City of Athens, Georgia just celebrated its second annual AthFest music and art festival, and it was a success. But sleepy Athens held a quiet message this year. Athens used to be the town where nothing seemed to change. There was a perceptible difference in mood, and in the air. Entering from the east side of town, there stood a beautiful new bar, tended by a partner who had left Athens to seek his fortune, only to return and find it here. Across the street there was the empty shell of a store, a symbol of the end of someone else’s dream. Sure, businesses come and go, but there was something more to this strange feeling. I wandered deeper into town to take stock of this Athens Festival, and there, standing in the doorway of a new restaurant, was David Fairbairn. He is a member of Michael, one of Athens’ more passionate, powerful, and well, elusive bands.
Until this weekend, yours truly would have labeled Michael one of Athens’ best young bands. No longer. Fairbairn doesn’t just work in a restaurant anymore — he and his partners own it. His life has changed dramatically in the last few years: now he is a proud father and restaurateur. Thankfully, Michael still exists, and David still plays in one of Athens’ most intense bands.
The depth of perspective was reinforced by some regretful news. This festival served as the Athens swan song for a number of bands who have found that the force of time has guided their members in different directions. Word was that A Mercy Union and Loveapple have both decided to disband, at least for now. And there were other rumors about other bands. But then, this is the time-honored process where creative talents group and regroup, as new friendships and working relationships form. Eli and the Lures are two bands that pool the talents of musicians who have tested their mettle in countless other bands. Both these bands proved the glory of this process, each playing energetic, thoughtful rock ‘n roll, urged on by old admirers and new initiates alike. Younger musicians and a few non-local bands joined in the festival, providing energy and fresh new styles of music. One club paid homage to the dance scene with a blowout featuring countless DJs.
This festival is a testament to the maturing of the Athens music scene and the people in it. Sure, there was plenty of PBR and microbrews flowing, but it has been roughly twenty years since Athens’ gritty, fun-loving party bands of the late ’70s broke out to become household names. Many people have moved away, but many people have stayed, trading in sleazy apartments and revolving roommates for homes and families. Instead of the all-out party that tends to characterize music festivals, beer tents made room for KidsFest, where the children of Athens watched puppet shows, met exotic animals, and tested their artistic skills. This turned out to be pretty popular — and with adults too. KidsFest was a special touch that really put a human face on the festival and helped give it a unique time perspective. Greg Reece, local rockabilly legend, watched the puppet show with his young son before his set on the main stage. Alice Berry, Greg’s singing partner, wished former students well as they readied for college in the fall. The hard-partying, carefree musicians of yesterday have become the responsible teachers, spouses and parents of today. These musicians stood and played shoulder to shoulder with their younger compatriots, and if the festival has a moral, it might be that experience matters, since these maturing scenesters have become better musicians too.
AthFest ’98 was intended to celebrate and promote the music scene in Athens, Georgia. Yeah, you’ve probably heard, or even said it yourself: Athens is passe, or “what good has come out of Athens lately?” Well, the tiny town of Athens sported over 300 bands at last count, and if you are reading this magazine, you surely realize that major label notoriety is not necessarily synonymous with artistic merit. Musicians still flock to Athens, either to work with nationally-recognized musicians and producers or to hone their skills in a friendly atmosphere chock full of other musicians. Ever since people like Jared Bailey helped establish what there has been of a scene, this town has served as an incubator for musicians and artists of all stripes. Bailey is one of the founders of the venerable 40 Watt Club and the Engine Room and a principal organizer of AthFest. Damn if he hasn’t worked his ass off.
But AthFest isn’t one man’s project. This nonprofit effort called forth generations of Athens scenesters as volunteers, and they really made this event happen. Musicians volunteered to help organize. Music industry-types pitched in their time and talents. The local government and development authority worked with organizers to make the festival possible. Businesses and restaurants opened their doors to bands and crowds, all to allow about 150 bands to play over four days. This wasn’t some industry free-for-all where bands are treated as a commodity; the story of AthFest is a story of commitment to the Athens music community.
Quite simply, that is why the whole festival was a success. Some day, the festival will emerge as a true regional event; it is too attractive and too much fun to remain a secret very long. If anything, the festival has stayed too focused on its mission of showcasing local/up-and-coming artists. There were no national acts to attract more out-of-town guests. And the festival does have some growing to do, given that this is only its second year. One improvement over last year is that free music industry panel discussions were held, evidence that the festival is slowly becoming a bigger, better organized event. In the end though, slick professional management should never be substituted for the zeal of the volunteers and the community spirit of the event, since these are its greatest strengths.
If you’ve ever wondered what a music scene actually is, AthFest is the perfect way to find out. Look out again next year!