In honor of AthFest turning 20, Flagpole reached out to local musicians, writers and festival organizers and asked them to reflect on their favorite AthFest memories from the last two decades. Here are a few of their stories.
Art Jackson, former ADDA director:
In December 1996, Brian Nummer, owner and brewmaster of the Athens Brewing Co., called me about starting an arts and crafts festival in the slow, students-gone summer season. We decided that I would invite five or six folks to join us for dinner around one of the long brewpub tables. The community marketing philosophy at the time was to build on your strengths, and it quickly became evident that this initial group thought our strongest local asset was not necessarily arts and crafts, but music. (We later estimated that the music industry was in fact the county’s fourth largest employer.)
We met over pizza and beer every Monday evening at 5:30 p.m. I think at the first few meetings the Athens Downtown Development Authority provided the pizza; Brian, the beer. Everyone invited new people each week. It was a very inclusive process. If anyone came back a second time, they were on the committee. In six months the planning committee grew to over 20 and had recruited 13 participating clubs, 71 bands and around 50 volunteers.
Earlier attempts by some folks, like Flagpole founder Jared Bailey, to package and market Athens’ alternative music reputation were rebuffed by some of the major players as being contrary to the “free spirit” of the alternative music scene. But as other cities, like Seattle, Austin and Atlanta, developed their own sound, Athens was losing ground. Although touring bands liked to play the small college-town venues, Athens was losing its visibility and reputation as an alternative music incubator.
On July 18–19, 1997, the free outdoor stage featured bands Friday night until 9 p.m. and Saturday from 2–9 p.m. The club venues started each night at 9 p.m. and ran until their normal 2 a.m. closing. The outdoor stage was located on the courthouse steps. (The first Friday band was delayed by about 20 minutes until court adjourned.) Each night over 6,000 fans crammed into the clubs and restaurants. The event was not only successful in bringing students back for a weekend, it also attracted large Atlanta and South Carolina crowds. And, most important, at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, the first AthFest broke even and ended up about $1,300 in the black!
Gordon Lamb, Flagpole:
In the spring of 1997, I was working at Wuxtry Records when my friend Monty, who owned the Lunch Paper bar across the street, came in and asked me if my band, A Mercy Union, wanted to play this new “Athens Music Festival.” Nobody really knew what it was, and it was a little confusing because there had already been two events named Athens Music Festival (in 1988 and 1989) held at the old Athens Fairgrounds, as well as another large outdoor event named SuperJam in the same location.
I imagined that this new event was going to be something like those. I was wholly unfamiliar with the notion of “club crawl” events. It was difficult being a band like ours—a melodic, speedy mix of vaguely mod influences with a healthy dose of Hüsker Dü-isms—in 1990s Athens. So it was a real treat to all of the sudden play in front of 100 people or so when we’d only regularly been playing to 10–20.
Monty asked us to play again in 1998, so we used that as an opportunity to throw a break-up show. In a weird twist of circularity, original AthFest organizer Jared Bailey was also the person who’d given A Mercy Union our very first show six years prior at the 40 Watt. Anyway, it’s pretty amazing how steady and consistent AthFest has been over 20 years, because this type of work is incredibly difficult and almost totally thankless.
David Barbe, Chase Park Transduction:
In 1989 Jared Bailey came home from a trip to Austin, TX to go to this thing I had never heard of called “South by Southwest.” It sounded great—outdoor stages, a club crawl, bands from all over the place. He was completely energized by his experience in Austin. He told me he wanted to create something like that in Athens, which sounded like an actually doable pipe dream.
When the first AthFest finally became a reality in 1997, I didn’t get to see one bit of it. Chase Park Transduction had opened about a month before, and I was working at the studio the whole time, mixing Harvey Milk’s The Pleaser. The band went downtown and played their set, but their description of it was as close as I got. Nose to the grindstone and all that, but I still love that record. Regardless, kudos to Jared for making it happen.
Jeff Montgomery, ACC public information officer:
Finding one memory from 14 years of helping organize AthFest and 10 years of staffing the athensmusic.net booth during the festival is a challenging task, but one very vivid one comes into play from 2001.
While staffing the booth with my business partner and fellow AthFest organizer Troy Aubrey, we were puzzled by a steady stream of middle-aged parents who were not the typical Japancakes crowd buying out our batch of Japancakes CDs. Most were coming to pick up their Scouts, who had been helping out at the AthFest concession stands, and were fascinated by the amazing band on stage.
It dawned on me then that this was why AthFest was so important to Athens. This was why we needed to continue volunteering so much time, blood, sweat and tears all year to make it happen. It was the power of AthFest to showcase local music to far more people than those who were able to go to the 40 Watt at midnight or who knew about “Sound of the City” on WUOG. This was an important way for potentially so many more people to learn more about their music community and support the musicians who were part of it.
That’s what kept me helping out the festival for another decade.
For me, AthFest’s educational mission started on day one by educating the community on the music that is made here in the community. I’ve said for years that I can just about guarantee that anyone can find not only music that they like in Athens, but music they love in Athens. Many have fallen in love with Athens music—I know I have—due to AthFest, and I hope they are able to continue to do so for many years to come.
Vanessa Hay, Pylon:
In the early part of 2004, Randy Bewley contacted me and our former bandmates from Pylon to see if we would be interested in playing together again, just for fun. This was our third incarnation. Practicing together was sort of like cranking up an old jet aircraft, Curtis Crowe noted. It still worked, and it was a lot of fun.
We played live in August 2004 at Little Kings, before Curtis was whisked away by his job working on the TV show “Lost.” We managed to play a few more special dates as schedules allowed, including New Year’s Eve at the 40 Watt with Elf Power and the Atlanta Heroes Awards in honor of the B-52s.
Pylon performed at AthFest 2005 on Friday, June 24. We always tried to do something special for our shows. In this case, I had the idea of doing something for the audience instead of the stage. We gave out 500 pink balloons with a new Pylon logo designed by Michael Lachowski. It was crazy looking over the audience to see that sea of balloons—definitely a memorable moment for me.
The first part of our set was a bit rough, and Randy had an amp die early in the set. Bryan Poole got Randy one of his amps, while Michael remarked to the audience on the beauty of the moon and the good weather. The second half of the set felt much better, with the audience dancing and getting into it. I have no idea how many people showed up, but it looked like a lot. We had a great time.
Sam Paulsen, Girls Own Love:
We Versus the Shark first played AthFest in 2004, downstairs at a packed-out Tasty World, along with all of our Chi House-era buddy bands. We were headlining, and with the usual delayed schedule of a hectic festival show, we didn’t hit the stage until right before 2 a.m. The venue was still packed, though, and Murphy told us just to keep playing and he’d deal with the cops if they showed up (what a guy!).
We were covering “Groove Is in the Heart” by Deee-Lite, and I was suddenly nervous about it, as I hadn’t sang live much before, and had my doubts on whether people would actually like the song or think we were dumb for playing it. During the bridge of our song “This Graceless Planet,” we segued into the cover, and people went nuts! Everyone was dancing and singing along, and I got my two minutes of vocal diva fame, which was exhilarating.
After the cover, we triumphantly finished the second half of our own song, and the thunderous applause made it feel like we had just won an Olympic medal for strangest song mash-up in history. Definitely one of the best AthFest shows we ever played!
Gabe Vodicka, Flagpole:
As a 19-year-old, getting paid (not a lot, mind you, but paid nonetheless) to play a legit festival was a big deal. In my view, that’s AthFest’s most significant role: It continues to provide validation and encouragement to so many young, eager local musicians. In 2005 my band at the time was so pumped to play the Club Crawl—at Tasty World, I believe—that we decided to use the occasion to ostentatiously transition from our very dumb original band name to an even dumber new one. Few people cared (or even noticed), but we rode the high of that show for weeks.
Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones/file
Andrew Rieger, Elf Power:
AthFest is always a good opportunity to see a lot of local bands in a short time span. If you have the stamina, you can see 10–20 bands over the course of the festival. Some will be great, some will suck, some will be just OK, and some that suck one year may be great by the next year, but it’s always fun for me to wander around and try to see as many different bands as I can. Here are five performances that have stuck out over the years.
1. Pylon (outdoor stage, 2005): I was lucky enough to see all of Pylon’s local shows when they got back together from 2004–2009, and this was a typically raucous, high-energy performance, with Vanessa Hay’s unhinged gyrations convincing the sweaty crowd to follow suit.
2. Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs (outdoor stage, 2010): Few people seem to realize that garage-rock legend Holly Golightly (best known for her collaborations with the White Stripes and Billy Childish) and her partner Lawyer Dave live among us out in Danielsville, as they rarely play locally. This show was a wonderfully stripped-down and low-key performance of her sublime mix of garage-rock, country and blues.
3. Dark Meat (outdoor stage, 2008): Local mega-group filled the stage with 20-odd band members thrashing wildly, supplying the crowd with their jubilant, dissonant sonic stew.
4. The Glands (outdoor stage, 2012): One of the very best bands to ever emerge from Athens. This show saw The Glands debuting some highly anticipated new songs that mixed seamlessly with singer-songwriter Ross Shapiro’s much-beloved classics from their two legendary albums.
5. Timmy and The Tumblers (Flicker Bar, 2015): This band’s final show was a sweaty, booze-fueled wonder, with Tim Schreiber living up to his moniker, wildly tumbling and cavorting about while rocking with furious abandon.
Nathan Kerce, Flagpole:
I’ve attended AthFest every year since the inaugural celebration in 1997. In 2009 my friends and I got the opportunity to play AthFest after winning a battle of the bands competition at our local high school. It was sparsely attended and poorly received, but still, I got to play AthFest! Growing up with this festival as a part of my life means I have a lot of great, lifetime-defining musical moments to reflect on and cherish.
My all-time favorite AthFest memory comes from AthFest 2010. Bubba Sparxxx was headlining and coming towards the end of his 30-minute set. This was when the festival was flirting with the notion of having a second “main” stage that would mostly be filled with hip hop acts.
Sparxxx’s set was plagued by sound issues, and he wasn’t pulling out any of the deep cuts from his surprisingly solid back-catalog, but it was still a fun time. The reason I remember the set so well is that after running through his 2005 hit “Ms. New Booty,” Sparxxx immediately ran the beat back and played the song, in full, a second time. The sheer confidence in that move left me astonished.
He then seamlessly transitioned into hosting a booty-shaking competition, with random people from the crowd jumping on stage and shaking their asses. I was mesmerized. As soon as the set ended, a guy in front of me turned around and spewed vomit all over my brand new shoes. I was upset, and the smell was so vile I ended up having to just throw them in the garbage later that night, but because of Bubba Sparxxx, I was able to leave the festival with a smile plastered on my face. Thanks, Bubba.
Photo Credit: Mike White
Jace Bartet, Double Ferrari:
AthFest is my favorite time of year to be a human. Friends converge together in genuine appreciation of our uniquely Athens-tinged music and art while everyone sweats and doesn’t drink enough water, but we’re all in it together.
I’ve attended every year since 2004, and it’s really all one big highlight. I could write a book about the greatest performances I’ve viewed and experiences I’ve had, but there was one moment as a performer that I can say was my personal favorite. During Reptar’s set on the main stage outside in 2012, I inadvertently lacerated my forehead in a moment of unhinged rock mania as my guitar collided with my skull during a solo.
For the next 40 minutes, my face was a gory mess, and to my own horror, I noticed a group of three under-10 girls with their father standing directly in front of my side of the stage, between the stage and the barricade, and I assumed that I must surely have traumatized them with my crimson spew.
After the show, once I’d been cleaned up by AthFest’s medics, I put my glasses on and noticed that those kids and their dad were waiting nearby. Dad motioned me over, and I was so nervous to meet these kids because, well, having a big gash on your head just isn’t a good look for the children. But I kneeled down and introduced myself to them, and the tiniest of the tinies just pointed at me and said, excitedly, “You look like Harry Potter!” They seemed really happy.
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