Five Iconic Moments in Athens Music History

Five Iconic Moments in Athens Music History

With the City Series, TIDAL investigates the local music scenes of U.S. cities. Enlisting the expertise of a locally-based music writer, we explore the past, present and future of music in each town. In the first installment of Athens, GA, Gabe Vodicka highlights five pivotal moments in Athens music history. 

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Athens, Georgia is incredibly—in some ways improbably—rich with music history.

An early hotspot on the African-American jazz and vaudeville circuits thanks to the presence of the black-owned Morton Theatre, the sleepy, scenic northeast Georgia town of nearly 120,000 has produced a litany of local talent since.

That’s due mainly to the presence of the University of Georgia, whose School of Music provides a training ground for aspiring classical artists while boasting a world-class performance calendar, and whose Lamar Dodd School of Art lends Athens a revolving core of young, energetic creative types.

Athens is best known for spawning two bands, each of which was comprised of UGA students: new-wave legends The B-52′s, who formed late one night in 1976 after imbibing at a local Chinese restaurant, and alt-rock mega-stars R.E.M.

Later in the 1980s, the city pumped out popular indie groups like Pylon, Love Tractor and Oh-OK, as well as bands like Widespread Panic, which went on to become one of the most recognizable names on the jam-band landscape.

In the ’90s, Athens birthed smart-Southern-rock fixture Drive-By Truckers. It was also home base for most of the bands that made up the influential Elephant 6 collective—Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power and Of Montreal, to name a few.

Beyond the usual suspects, Athens has produced a laundry list of other critically and commercially successful musicians.

You may be surprised to discover Danger Mouse, Vic Chesnutt, Harvey Milk, The Whigs, Reptar, Futurebirds, Dark Meat and Dead Confederate all got their start in the Classic City

They’re all over the map, stylistically speaking, but all the artists named above share at least one important trait that is woven into the fabric of the pint-sized Southern city: Athens music is fueled by a fierce DIY spirit, which continues to lend it both charm and authenticity.

That spirit is a byproduct of necessity. While other “music towns” are defined by their industry ties, Athens lacks substantial label, A&R and media activity. Thus, the city’s many musicians have been forced to create their own opportunities.

Indefinable, independent and constantly thriving, Athens’ musical past is best explained by examining some of its most iconic moments.

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1980: “Twisted Kites” Perform at St. Mary’s Church

Photo: Jason Thrasher

To the crowd of UGA art students and party-seeking townies that gathered at the former house of worship, which had recently been converted into apartments, Apr. 5, 1980, was just another night.

“At [that] time in Athens, downtown shut down at 6 p.m.,” says Paul Butchart, whose band, The Side Effects, opened the house show. “There were few places to go to have fun, and in our eyes, they were full of old people who were clueless about what was going on… So, we made our own fun.”

The show (“fueled with copious amounts of beer, quaaludes and marijuana,” recalls Butchart) was a birthday party for scene mainstay Kathleen O’Brien, whose roommates Peter Buck and Michael Stipe, along with O’Brien’s boyfriend Bill Berry and Berry’s friend and former bandmate Mike Mills, decided to put a group together for the occasion. Having not yet decided on a name, the group settled on the placeholder “Twisted Kites.”

Butchart teases that Stipe was “nervous about the ‘competition,’ [and] attended a practice at house in the suburbs where The Side Effects practiced… The church itself was a rotten mess where the steeple was located, with a hole in the roof which had caused the floor to rot below. We blocked this off with some couches to keep the revelers safe.”

Though it’s now the stuff of legend, R.E.M.’s debut occurred largely without fanfare. Certainly, no one in attendance knew they had witnessed history. “People came because it was a happening, because it was a party,” R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills once said. “Who was playing didn’t matter.”

Still, says Butchart, “[We] still felt we were part of an underground, a sort of secret society centered around a common interest in a certain musical sound.”

St. Mary’s Church was demolished in 1990 to make way for condominiums, but the towering brick steeple remains, a reminder of one of the most significant moments in Athens music history.

 

1997: Jeff Mangum performs at Jittery Joe’s

There are more iconic “Athens albums”: Southern Rock Opera, Reckoning, Gyrate. But Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea transcended that designation to become a cultural touchstone. The record set off a firestorm of cultish adoration and inspired thousands of would-be singer-songwriters to put their words to music, no matter how personal or peculiar.

Though friends of songwriter Jeff Mangum, like Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger, talk of feeling a sense of wonder and excitement upon hearing Mangum workshopping strange, strong new songs in the bathroom at 156 Grady Ave., no one in the tight-knit, staunchly underground Elephant 6 crew suspected the record would achieve global recognition.

“There was a brief time, for some in the Elephant 6 world,” writes author John Cook in the book Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, “when the notion of taking the steps necessary to put out an actual record beyond their small circle of tape-traders was fraught with peril.”

Chief among the E6 skeptics was Mangum, who, spooked by his sudden success, retreated from view after touring behind Aeroplane. (He finally re-emerged in 2012 for an ongoing string of tour dates.)

A select few Athenians got a glimpse of the music that would appear on the LP on March 7, 1997, at the downtown headquarters of local coffee roaster Jittery Joe’s. Whereas Neutral Milk Hotel’s first album, the shambolic On Avery Island, was full of fuzzed-out folk-punk earworms, the songs Mangum played solo that night were tender, nuanced, even transcendent.

The intimate concert, arranged and documented on video by then-Athens resident Lance Bangs, marked the first public performance of Aeroplane’s masterful, eight-minute centerpiece, “Oh Comely.” The giggles and wails of a small child can be heard throughout the recording.

True to the mystical, inclusive E6 spirit, Kim Cooper writes in her 33 1/3 book on Aeroplane, for Mangum’s friends and followers in the small crowd, that child—Ravi Fernandes, the son of the Olivia Tremor Control’s John Fernandes—”was not an obnoxious, crying baby, but another artist collaborating with Jeff in his own style, which just happened to be pre-verbal.”

 

1998: Widespread Panic brings 100,000 people to downtown Athens

While Elephant 6 was experiencing its own moment, another movement was sprouting up in the Classic City. In opposition to E6′s unassuming bedroom-pop vibe, jam bands like Widespread Panic prized precision and spectacle.

Though Panic had been active in the Athens scene since the 1980s, it rose to national prominence along with a slew of like-minded acts, including Phish, Aquarium Rescue Unit and the Dave Matthews Band, in the early-to-mid-’90s.

By 1998, Panic was a jam-circuit institution, playing hundreds of shows per year and regularly selling out amphitheaters across the country. To commemorate the release of its first-ever live album, the band arranged for a free, outdoor hometown concert, dubbed “Panic in the Streets.”

Though attendance was expected to max out at 35,000, estimates of the final number reached as high as 100,000.
“Everyone knew that Widespread Panic had a pretty big fan base,” says Gordon Lamb, who writes the local-music column for Flagpole, the Athens alt-weekly (Lamb is also is the driving force behind Athens Intensified, a new music festival). “But, honestly,” he says, “[nobody] expected anything like what happened.”

Though resources were stretched, the chaos was mostly contained. Most importantly, the concert put Athens firmly on the map as a live-music destination.

Perhaps ironically, infrastructure already in place because of Athens’ status as a college sports destination helped the town support the largest artistic event it had ever seen, according to the Athens-Clarke County Library’s Heritage Room.

“Though the number of people who attended was similar to a typical football Saturday, traffic problems did not occur on the same scale,” reads a post on the Heritage Room’s blog. “Sunday morning, there were reports of ankle-deep trash in places on Washington Street near the stage, but total trash collected by the city was only 18.2 tons; in 2009, after a night game versus the South Carolina Gamecocks, UGA removed 70 tons of trash from North Campus.”

 

2004: Pylon reunites

With R.E.M. having long since outgrown the town, Widespread Panic reeling from the 2002 death of guitarist Michael Houser and groups like Drive-By Truckers and of Montreal yet to reach icon status, the Athens scene in the early aughts was in need of a guiding light. It came, unexpectedly, courtesy of one of the city’s earliest musical institutions.

Pylon’s comeback show on August 5, 2004 was a surprise to many locals, though the reunion had been in the works for months. But the band hadn’t planned to play out quite yet. When drummer Curtis Crowe found out he had been hired to work on the television show “Lost” and would be leaving town for several months, Pylon decided to rush the reunion.

The first show was designed to be small and secretive. But word about the concert, held at the small downtown bar now known as Little Kings Shuffle Club, soon spread like a wildfire. UGA’s student-run radio station, WUOG, purposefully went off the air so its DJs could attend the show.

“I had initially visualized… maybe 75 people,” writes frontwoman Vanessa Briscoe Hay. Soon, “I saw people of all ages and interests and backgrounds come filing in. I saw people that I [hadn't] seen for years who had driven in from from Atlanta. [Bassist] Michael [Lachowski] had friends who started driving when they got off work in Tennessee and barely made the show. The show completely sold out… there were people hanging out in the street watching through a side window.”

Lamb recalls a multi-generational crowd. “I wound up watching from the very front with Jeff Clark [of Atlanta music magazine Stomp and Stammer] and Bradford Cox [of Deerhunter]. The fact that it was the three of us from three different generations of Athens/Atlanta music wasn’t lost on me.”

Over the next few years, Pylon continued to play locally and elsewhere. Riding a wave of buzz set in motion at Little Kings three years prior, DFA Records re-issued the band’s landmark records Gyrate and Chomp in 2007.

The band’s third act was cut tragically short in 2009 when guitarist Randy Bewley passed away. Still, Pylon’s return had influenced yet another generation of Athens musicians. The band’s angular, propulsive post-wave persists in the sound of countless local groups.

 

2009–2011: Georgia Theatre burns and reopens

2009 was a low point in Athens music. Pylon’s Bewley died in February. Acclaimed local songwriter Vic Chesnutt committed suicide on Christmas Day. And earlier that summer, the Georgia Theatre, one of the town’s most iconic venues, was ravaged by a fire.

The Georgia Theatre had undergone a number of changes since its 1889 construction as a YMCA, operating as a movie theater, a hotel and, finally, a concert venue. Owner Wilmot Greene, who purchased the building in 2004, spent the next five years restoring its dilapidated interior, all while hosting shows by marquee local and touring acts.

The blaze, thought to have started after-hours in a dressing room, gutted the newly renovated building. “It was really sad,” says Lamb. “Not just in terms of Athens music, but in terms of Athens civic and cultural history. As the hours passed, a lot of people showed up, and all we could do was watch it burn.”

An Athens Banner-Herald article at the time quoted Athens-Clarke County Fire Chief Iby George as saying, “We’re in defensive mode now. It’s hard to say if they’ll be able to rebuild. There is at least going to be extensive damage.”

But Greene pledged to repair and rebuild. With the help of several sizable private donations, as well as a partnership with the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and a personal loan, he spent the next two years restoring the Theatre to its former glory. In August 2011, two years after the devastating fire, the theatre re-opened with a celebratory concert from reclusive Athens indie-pop outfit, The Glands.

The renovation was a testament to Athens’ artistic and community spirit. It also proved beneficial for the venue, as well as for Athens itself. Its state-of-the-art design and sound system, coupled with contemporary flourishes like a rooftop bar, has helped re-establish Athens as an destination for in-demand touring artists.

“I think [it was] a phenomenal achievement,” says Lamb. “It wound up being a spectacular building, and a venue Athens really needed—a solid, large-house, modern building capable of putting on technologically solid shows.”

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Gabe Vodicka is the music editor at Flagpole, the Athens, GA alternative weekly newspaper. He has contributed writing to publications that include Tiny Mix TapesCreative Loafing and The Portland Mercury. He plays guitar, cooks, drinks beer and lives in Athens with a wonderful wife and two temperamental cats.

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