MusicMusic Features

Futurebirds Return to the ‘Center of the Universe’ to Headline AthFest

Southern psych-rockers Futurebirds have flown in various directions since living full-time in Athens—to Nashville, Atlanta and Savannah—but they continue to return to this oasis of creativity. And they still claim Athens as their home. At the start of each show, the band says, “We’re Futurebirds, and we’re from Athens, GA,” before launching into the ether with its five-guitar liftoff.

Futurebirds last played locally in April 2016. Guitarist Thomas Johnson says, “I miss the hell out of Athens,” and looks forward to playing “a bunch of new tunes for AthFest.”

Some of the songs the group plays on the Pulaski Street Stage may come from Portico II, an EP set for release this fall. The band’s Carter King opens Portico II with “Olive Garden Daydream #47,” which emphasizes staying present in the ordinary everyday. “Jay Gonzalez [of Drive-By Truckers] plays a tinkering Wurlitzer and organ throughout,” King says. The Wurlitzer electric piano gives a fresh perspective to Futurebirds’ whimsical sound, accentuating a feeling previously expressed mainly with pedal-steel guitar.  

Johnson, whose voice is an aural reminder of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, gives two old songs new life on Portico II. With “Big A,” he covers the 1960s band Heron, which he learned about from the Aquarium Drunkard blog, and covers 1980s Aimee Mann with a version of ’Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.”

Brass horns brighten Daniel Womack’s addicting rendition of Desire’s “Under Your Spell,” an electric love ballad featured in the 2011 movie Drive. Bryan Howard normally plays bass for Cracker, but his saxophone stands out as an answer to the song’s debilitating lyrics. Womack balances the chorus on either side of an interlude about exorcising demons—a reading from a jacketless book he found at the Portico, a repurposed, century-old Baptist church between High Shoals and Good Hope. The church and its graveyard sit at the center of 60 forested acres along the Apalachee River. There, between recording sessions last summer, the band shot beer cans and swam in the river.

The last year has also afforded King and Womack the freedom to test some tag-team acoustic shows. Both recently recorded solo demos in Charleston with Wolfgang Zimmerman, known on the Americana circuit for his work with Susto and Band of Horses. Storytelling and intimate settings are good for a change, and King and Womack look forward to a living-room and wilderness tour later this summer, when it’s hottest and water-hole baptisms are best. “But my favorite is a good old-fashioned rock and roll show,” Womack says.

Although they don’t live in town anymore, Athens is where Futurebirds met during college and, in 2008, began playing. King and Womack spent summer days listening to Allman Brothers and Drive-By Truckers CDs on drives to an abandoned rock quarry south of Winterville, where Womack flipped gainers into clean spring water. Womack came to Athens green, but felt a calling, and learned to play the guitar in his dorm room. The group soon became woven into the fabric of the local music community.

As for why it continues to call the Classic City home, perhaps it has to do with Athens’ air of metaphysical mystery. When it comes to questions concerning local phenomena, Athenians know to consult William Orten “Ort” Carlton, the beer aficionado, obscure-record wise man and foothills philosopher often seen writing at the library or holding court from a stool at Copper Creek. In a 2001 episode of the A&E documentary series “City Confidential,” about a 1977 Hoyt Street bar murder, Ort says, “Athens is the center of the universe.”

Asked via text message if he agrees with the quote, Womack, a country-rock spiritualist, responds decisively. “I support Ort,” he texts, followed by a lightning emoji.

With the symbol, Womack is referring to the creative power of Athens generally, and a past AthFest experience specifically. During Lera Lynn’s 2011 performance, a thunderstorm erupted, and lightning struck bricks off the edge of a Washington Street building. Running for safety, Futurebirds crowded into Manhattan Café and drank beer while watching the rain fall and lightning illuminate the sky.

Futurebirds’ local connection is elemental. They are in tune with Athens’ natural power, because its summers helped seed their sound. And they keep returning home—to the center of the universe—to water it.