Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Let There Be Southern Rawk

Ann and I recently returned to Athens for the city’s annual music festival, Athfest. And despite arriving in town to find our apartment flooded and most of our friends either out of town or getting married, we lucked into a series of great shows.

We tried to prepare ourselves for the festival by reading Flagpole and listening to the annual Athfest CD, a compilation of Athens bands most of whom, purportedly, would be playing over the weekend. Unfortunately, Flagpole music critics have terrible taste in music and only a minority of groups on the double CD were performing over the festival weekend. But some of our top choices were there and, with some serendipity, we found a number of excellent bands.

We started our weekend with a hearty dose of Part Bear, an Athenian rock/classic rock trio with a hyper-energetic lead guitarist who seemed to channel the hybrid spirit of Stevie Ray Vaughn and George Thorogood. The set served a medley of guitar-driven, fast paced songs that kept smiles on our faces despite the rancid bite of an unexpectedly bad Sweetwater Blue.

But perhaps the most humorous encounter of the weekend was our subsequent, and initially failed, attempt to see Venice Is Sinking at Little Kings. The previous act’s draw had overwhelmed the bar and its patio to the point that a backup of people blocked the door and a thickening press of people crowded the fence separating sidewalk from stage. As the police moved in, threatening to break up the crowd and shut down the club, we were told to disperse. Not to be defeated, Ann and I walked around back to where, not-so-secreted in the alley behind the bar, we found a six-foot wide hole in the bar’s patio fence guarded only by a few drunk bar patrons playing with bean bags. We looked at it for while, unsure it it was real or some beer-fueled delusion – why would so many people be crowding around the fence and windows on the other side of the bar if there was a huge opening in the side of the patio right there off the street. But when no bouncers or trip wires revealed themselves, we slipped in (rather, we indiscreetly sauntered in). We were rewarded by a run-in with some old History department colleagues and a great, intimate performance by Venice Is Sinking, an indie-rock / alternative group that blends male and female vocals, electric and classical string instruments. I was most impressed by the bassist’s impromptu rap, entertaining the crowd during a soundboard troubleshoot, and the keyboardist’s knack of playing the keys with one hand while fingering a trumpet with the other.

Our enthusiasm was tempered by Saturday’s oppressive heat and humidity. Why Southerners plan their festivals in June instead of May continues to amaze me. If it weren’t for the shaded, beer-cooled presence of the stage-front beer garden we would never have made it to the night’s headline performance by the Whigs. But the surprise of the night was Birds & Wire’s intimate show at Farm 255. Ann, Lesley-Anne, and I squeezed in along the side of the stage, along the edge of a roach-infested retaining wall overlooking Caledonia’s gloomy courtyard down the hill. Between feverish glances at the bug wall, though, we soaked in Birds & Wire’s jazz-altcountry-rock mix. I suppose it can’t hurt to point out that the band’s lead guitarists and vocalist, Lera Lynn, was a delight to both the ears and the eyes. I think Ann smacked me once or twice during the show for that observation.

But, by far, the best of the weekend was Sunday’s headline performance by Drive-By Truckers. After another hot, sticky day at the open stage – where groups like Passafire and Kimberly Morgan & The Everlovin’ Band outperformed our expectations – we finally got to see Athens's most recent iconic band.

We’d tried to see the Truckers months before when they had rolled through Athens on an acoustic tour. We were first exposed to the band through several enthusiastic UGA history department colleagues (including one of our most respected professors) and last year’s Athfest CD. But what we’d heard was enticing. I’d come to love their melancholy but defiant “The Living Bubba,” a song the Truckers wrote about a man with AIDS only a week before his death (a revelation that made all the more poignant the song’s lyrics, “I’m here to stay (at least another week or two) / I can’t die now cuz I got another show to do.”

The show rocked. It was loud, powerful, energetic, and the audience was wild. Ann and I appeared to be the only ones there who weren’t prepared to sing along to the “Let There Be Rock” and who were surprised by the band’s raucous encore performance of the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died.” I’ve had trouble describing the band to others since the show. Guitarist and vocalist Patterson Hood’s lyrics remind me of Johnny Cash while his thick Alabama accent and raspy vocals harken back to Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brother’s Band (a connection reinforced, for good or for ill, by Drive-By Trucker’s Skynyrd-themed concept album, Southern Rock Opera and their trio of lead guitarists). I now understand what all the fuss about the Truckers is about – it was one of the most energetic shows we’ve seen in ages. Suddenly that guy wearing the “Hood, Cooley ’08” tee doesn’t seem quite so eccentric.

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