For anyone who, like me, was flabbergasted to see local celebutantes **Reptar** headlining the outdoor stage Friday, while critically-acclaimed national touring act **Atlas Sound** played second fiddle, the decision likely came down to pure crowd logistics. While Atlas Sound might be a more famous and more talented act, these days, nobody can touch Reptar in this town. In ten years of AthFests, I have never seen a crowd stretch half as far down Washington Street as the throng that Graham Ulicny and crew drew on AthFest’s opening night.
Now, for me, the band’s frosh LP *Body Faucet*, released earlier this year, was a colossal disappointment. Remember how when Vampire Weekend first showed up, everybody started making comparisons to Paul Simon’s *Graceland*? Well, *Body Faucet* is to Vampire Weekend what Vampire Weekend was to *Graceland*, and while being a copy of a copy of something that happened in 1986 is a great way to be popular in 2012, it doesn’t bring a whole lot new to the table. Much to my pleasant surprise, the band delivered in a way that they haven’t in years. In truth, Reptar have taken a lot of shit and inspired a lot of naysayers since they’ve started to find more serious success (some of it deserved, but most of it motivated by jealousy and envy). The band followed a familiar, if unfortunate, path over the past few years, as they made their name on the strength of their raucous live shows and the pronounced influence of traditional African music on their Southern dance party sound; got signed; promptly tightened up as a unit; abandoned their wild stage antics for more precise instrumentation; and only now seem to have finally put it all back together.
Combining their hard-won musical prowess and their old-school penchant for freaking the fuck out whilst they rock, Reptar came full circle and delivered one hell of a show. Wailing, thrashing, and crowd-surfing through nearly every track off of *Body Faucet* as well as a new song or two, for an hour and change, they absolutely owned the Classic City. This recap may feel like a backhanded compliment in paragraph form, and it kind of is—Reptar still has a lot of growing up to do before they reach their full potential—but I am speaking largely as one of the converted. This band has already gone farther and done more than any local act to crop up in my time in Athens, and the wide, Serengeti sky seems to actually be the limit. If they can get away from the people-pleasing pop sound that delighted scores of frat-hippies lined up from the 40 Watt to Copper Creek, and find a truer, more original voice, Reptar could be the next Animal Collective. Their ceiling is that high. But for now, their potential is enough, and I’m reasonably excited to hear what they do next.
After the outdoor stage shut its lights off and the crowd dispersed, I shuffled into Flicker for a triple-threat lineup that would carry me until 1 a.m. First up was local troubadour Nick Mallis fronting his self-described “party folk” band **Yo Soybean**. Clearly influenced by early Dylan, but striking a more upbeat, sixties love-in tone, Mallis offered up piece after piece of his heart to us with his infectious tunes about lost love and new romance; false religions and travelin’ prayers; beauty, truth, and drinking heartily to both. His insanely infectious band—featuring a stunning violinist—called to mind acts like Pentangle, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, but with a decidedly more American flavor. They made it virtually impossible not to have a good time at their show, and what more can you ask of a band than that?
Next on the Flicker docket was **Sam Sniper** (for whom Mallis plays guitar), a fast-rising alt-country act fronted by bare-chested, face-painted wild man Chris Barnett and co-founder/partner in crime Andrew Klein. Fusing hard rock to bangin’, twangin’ country with a rusty blowtorch, and hammering it out at a breakneck pace, these guys may have actually turned me around on the entire alt-country genre in a single show (a perfectly executed cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” was a particularly strong point in their favor). Their boisterous stage presence and thunderous, room-swallowing harmonies set Flicker ablaze like a summer wildfire, and they seemed ready to go another hour when their set ended. Sam Sniper exited the stage having given their all in their AthFest debut—and their all was pretty damn awesome.
Closing out my night was Will Chamberlain’s tough-to-pin-down **Vestibules**, in their bittersweet final show. Chamberlain’s soul-crushing lyrics and massive but heartbreaking vocal presence have always defined this band, but every member was in fine form for their final bow. Falling somewhere between alt-country and grunge rock (though staking out largely original territory, in this critic’s opinion), the band’s sound is accented by Jake Wells’ bombastic tenor saxophone, Jenny Woodward (Like, Totally!, Woodworks) and Stephanie Davis’ tender harmonies, and Eric Johnson’s baleful lap steel.
If Sam Sniper set Flicker on fire, then Vestibules burned it to the fucking ground, playing like it was not just their last show, but their last day on earth. Howlers like “Waitress from Montgomery” fit perfectly alongside wailers like “Honestly,” powerful songs harnessed through the un-harnessable power of their composer’s singular voice. Chamberlain once explained to me that he named his band Vestibules (not “The” Vestibules, mind you) because he thought of his songs as vestibules—glass houses in which to display the emotions he couldn’t express any other way (this was apparently the result of a misheard song lyric: “the heart is a risky fuel to burn” became, in his mind, “the heart is a vestibule to burn”)—and anyone who has ever seen him perform will come away seeing the truth in that idea.
Will Chamberlain is as honest and genuine a rock star as I have ever met in this town—he ached, bled, cried and toiled for his music. He made enemies for it. He believed in it, and he made other people believe in it too, including me. Exhausted and wrung out, he closed the set, appropriately enough, with a song entitled “Almost Feels Like Goodbye,” but as that song’s final notes rang out, he looked at the audience with a twinkle in his eye and proclaimed “I think we’ve got time for one more.” With that impromptu encore in mind, we can only hope that Vestibules might have more in the tank as well, but regardless of whether they ever resurface or fade into hazy memory like so many other Athenian musical luminaries gone too soon, they will be remembered long after their time in the spotlight.