New Madrid plays a surprise set at Rowdy Dowdy this Fourth of July.
Living in Athens demands that one operate on the seasonal cycle of a college town. Residents know the drill well: At the end of spring, the city loses a majority of its inhabitants. Tens of thousands of people disperse, finding work in bigger cities or heading back home to regroup. Though some students stick around in the summer, the months of May to July are sleepy and peaceful, with little traffic and plenty of elbow room at your favorite bar. Come August, school is back in session, bringing with it a fresh crop of excited young newcomers.
Likewise, the houses and unconventional DIY venues in Athens that serve as underground music hotspots turn over with the students and residents who sign their leases each fall. Historically, these spaces have served as incubators for blossoming local musicians, low-stakes entry points for bands to test out fresh material and find their path. With each graduating class, the torch is passed to new folks willing to let their living spaces become wrecks for the sake of art.
Some believe it’s a small price to pay, both for the benefit of the scene and the renown a top-notch house-show venue attracts. In the past couple years, a few of Athens’ DIY venues have been unable to contain the growing communities they fostered, leaving their hosts wondering what to do next.
Just off Milledge Avenue, New Wives guitarist Drew Kirby’s concert series evolved from a near once-a-month house show into a curated mini-festival at what was then New Earth Music Hall. Freeklife, a play on “Greek life,” was a way for Kirby and his friends to foster community and showcase their art.
“It was called ‘Freeklife’ from the get-go, which was a concept we had initially visualized as a sort of college arts society, where we would have performances and showings and get-togethers, but almost immediately it took on a pretty heavy party vibe,” says Kirby of the series, which emphasized graphic design, screen printing and “guerilla promotion.”
Now, after more parties, a summer series on the Georgia Theatre rooftop and a Slingshot Festival expo, the future of Freeklife is in limbo. Kirby, a recent UGA alumnus involved in musical projects of his own, says it’s hard to say what will happen moving forward.
“When we started having shows, it was because we couldn’t really get booked for good shows downtown, and we didn’t have any real connection with the Athens scene,” he says. “We felt left out, but mostly I think we were just young and eager to make an impact. I think that’s probably true of a lot of house shows: [They give] younger or newer bands a chance to play for strangers in a kind of low-stakes, hospitable environment.”
Rowdy Dowdy, another local DIY venue with a bohemian flair, is also left in the lurch. One of the home’s proprietors, Durham Henderson—Durs, for short—echoes sentiments expressed by other hosts who come of age and find themselves in a precarious position. “I want to keep the same feeling alive, but everyone has graduated or moved away, so there is no house that could be held at the same level,” he says.
We felt left out, but mostly I think we were just young and eager to make an impact.
The so-called Dowdy Grounds, comprised of two separate houses within 50 yards of each other, helped foster the budding careers of locals like Wieuca, Chief Scout and Monsoon, as well as hosting a laundry list of touring Southeastern talent. The venue’s events grew progressively in scope and size, with the final party taking place this past Fourth of July, headlined by surprise guest New Madrid.
With Dowdy’s rising profile and continuously stellar lineups, to end now would be a shame, says Henderson, who is intent on continuing the concert series at a downtown venue. “I do realize this will take away the no-rules aspect, but what I want to remain strong is art, love and debauchery,” he says.
Indeed, while other up-and-coming Athens house-show venues are poised to fill the holes left by Dowdy, Freeklife and others this semester, established downtown clubs have begun to take decidedly DIY cues in how they approach booking and the live atmosphere.
The Globe began hosting “secret” Sunday shows in 2014 in its upstairs bar, which was previously reserved for special events. Scott Crossman, a Detroit transplant, came on board this spring, assisting David Chandler with booking. Crossman has since taken the reins.
“I am going for an ‘experimental’ niche, but that doesn't always mean each artist is improvising a noise set,” says Crossman. “It does usually mean that things get weird. But it also means I experiment with the bills.”
Crossman usually sets up shows based around similar genres, though he admits some of his favorite events he books are the “freak shows” that bring disparate styles together, with one cornerstone artist headlining the concert.
Although he’s a new resident, Crossman has already bolstered Athens’ DIY community. In addition to his work at The Globe and involvement in numerous music projects, he also has a hand in booking shows at Go Bar. “The Globe is really just an extension of Go Bar, but still a cross between that and the former Farm 255,” he says, expressing gratitude towards former Farm booker and house-show honcho Mercer West’s contributions to the Athens scene.
Changes are in store for the 40 Watt Club, too. The venue recently hired Thomas Valadez (Future Ape Tapes, Tom Visions) as house manager, where he is tasked with performing all the duties the position might suggest—keeping open lines of communication and ensuring that guests, talent and staff are happy—as well as doing some booking of his own.
The prolific local musician has booked shows and hosted residencies at Go Bar for three years, and he says he is ready to step into his new role, applying what he’s learned at the smaller venue to the legendary Washington Street spot.
“The opportunity to manage came at a great time, where I feel ready to take what I've learned at Go Bar and just concentrate on making the place fun first, and then wrangle performers willing to follow suit,” Valadez says.
Valadez’s ties to the local DIY community have already proven beneficial to the club in the slower summer months. The 40 Watt's larger stage offers underground acts a great entry point to reach a wider audience; the hire has also allowed the venue to tap into Athens’ vibrant locals-only community.
“House shows and DIY spaces have helped keep alive some super creative acts, and kept music fun and approachable,” says Valadez. “I want to see some of these amazing bands coming through playing to 10 people have the opportunity to play in front of 100 people, and start from there. Athens has a great house show culture, and the goal is to make the party more and more inclusive of our surrounding community.”
Of course, in contrast with the typical DIY venue, these downtown clubs rely heavily on traffic and dollars to stay afloat. As facilities like The Globe carry more overhead than a bi-monthly neighborhood party abode, keeping these new series running will require constant support from townies, students and others.
“I'm hoping there will be some grants for endeavors like what we’re doing upstairs at The Globe, because it is hard to fund experimental music shows,” says Crossman. “Though the room’s usually full of eager listeners, most venues base their production costs on cover charges or bar sales, which can vary widely from night to night.”
But Valadez says Athens’ DIY renaissance reflects a profound economic shift.
“A really cool thing happened when all the money fell out of playing music: People were forced to either do it for a deeper reason than financial reward, or give it up and reassess priorities. I feel like this has been the reality for long enough that a lot of those forging along in denial have found other ways to channel that creativity, and those who stuck with it are finding ingenious ways to keep it alive.”
How to House-Show Like a Human Being
While there typically aren’t any strict rules when attending a house show up the street, etiquette and human decency still go a long way. Here are a few dos and don’ts for attending house parties from the perspectives of band, host and attendee.
From the band:
“Set up as quick as you possibly can, and don’t play for an hour. You can lose so much valuable time, not to mention your audience, by taking 30-plus minutes to set up your gear or by taking too long to wrap up your set. In general, no one wants to watch a band in a living room play 14 songs in a row. Keep it succinct and you have a way better chance of someone catching your set and maybe wanting to see more in the future.”—Drew Kirby, New Wives
From the host:
“We actually had only one rule, and that was strictly enforced: No Dying Plz. Also, just talking to your neighbors is all you have to do. Our neighbors would actually come to the party, so there was never anyone making a noise complaint.”—Durham Henderson, Rowdy Dowdy
From the attendee:
“Don't push people who don't want to be pushed! Moshing is one thing, but angry wrestling and jabbing is awful!”—Rebecca Jones, Jo RB Jones