AthFest 2015: Review + Gallery
There are too many bands in Athens, Georgia. In a town with nearly a fourth of the population of Atlanta, there is a surplus of bands, both decent and not-so, with more being formed in freshmen dorm rooms every minute of every hour. You can bet with dirt cheap rent, free-flowing local beer, and a university consistently ranked as one of the top party schools in the country, a few friends are forming bands to play AthFest 2016 right now, and the short turnover rate for these acts is directly proportionate to the yearly influx of first-year Atlanta suburb expats and the outflow of college grads leaving the indie darling utopia that is Athens.
AthFest seeks to solve this problem. By taking a snapshot of the Athens music scene, the festival parades the previous year’s most popular acts and guarantees sizeable crowds in attendance. This is the greatest draw for an Athens band in a town where musical over-saturation means that audience size is never quite as large on any other night of the year as it is during Athfest. Take Athens’ reckless, dirty-organ pop band Grape Soda – their Friday night set was their first of 2015, and yet they packed out Flicker Bar and delivered one of the best sets of the weekend. It was memorable enough to carry them throughout the year, but I do hope to see them live again before next year’s festival. Their show was also the first with a new bassist, and their sound has never been so full and so refreshingly professional. It was a welcome return of a significant musical force in this town, one that has operated just under the radar of the press. Now is an appropriate time to revisit their 2012 album, Form A Sign.
Grape Soda is just one of Athens’ many “greatest hits,” if you will, and the festival is nothing if not a chance to show off our hometown heroes. The Whigs, headlining the Pulaski Street Stage on night one of Athfest, are the quintessential Athens musical heroes – homespun, reliable, not too famous, and one hell of a live band. The band ripped through recognizable hits (“Right Hand On My Heart”) and new cuts (“Friday Night”), but the highlight was their roaring cover of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” which had the massive crowd before them in the highest of spirits. It was a reminder that Athens is first and foremost a city that loves its rock music, both jangly and aggro.
The sound emanating from the Pulaski Street Stage was atypically full-bodied, but I could not say the same for the venues I frequented that Friday night. Over at Little Kings Shuffle Club, Athens’ townie hideaway, sound issues plagued the sets of both Tunabunny and Eureka California. The former, an experimental noise band whose forced, nonsensical eccentricity is often heralded as innovation, lazily played through a set of bafflingly inane songs that reminded me once again that Athens can spawn brilliance and ineptitude in equal measure. It was their first show since last August – see a pattern here? The latter is one of the better punk acts in Athens, though their shoulder-shrugging onstage demeanor did more to alienate the crowd than the clipping PA system. “Uh, anybody got a quarter inch?” was asked to the audience after the sound cut out completely. They continued to play as if nothing happened only to crawl to a stop and shuffle about until the system was repaired.
Fortunately, not every band is this antisocial at AthFest, and I guarantee Grassland String Band is one of those acts that revels in the communal spirit of music. Maybe it’s the genre (“Amerigrass” as termed by the band); maybe it’s the variety of ages in the band (stretching from 24 to 60 years of age). But GSB proved that Athens bands can bring people from all walks of life together. After some brief sound issues at the beginning – during which all members of the band effortlessly joked to the crowd – the band cranked into a rollicking set of tunes from their debut album, Before the Feast, and had the entire room of Hendershot’s moving. GSB is six of the most talented musicians in this town, and frontman Michael Lesousky boasts a natural voice to reckon with, booming and capable of transforming into shouts, quivers, and all manner of inflections. It was a noteworthy performance by an Athens staple.
Saturday night’s outdoor stage lineup left me somewhat underwhelmed, but thankfully, the club crawl was especially impressive. Grand Vapids yet again staked their claim as Athens’ most adventurous indie rock band during their set on the Georgia Theatre rooftop. Blending the weightless, Southern-bred haze of Deerhunter with the heavy shoegaze of Nothing, Grand Vapids sets the bar very high for fellow guitar rock bands in this town. Their closest Georgia forebear is the now-defunct Grass Giraffes, a band whose absence left a gaping hole for bold, effects-laden guitar music. Grand Vapids has filled that hole entirely. Their debut, Guarantees, is a cohesive record that is getting the press it deserves, but their live set cannot be denied. The rooftop Saturday night was brimming with onlookers standing mesmerized as the band played several new songs from their upcoming record, abusing guitars and tinkering with pedals, all while drummer Paul Stevens split duties between his percussion array and a table of keyboards.
Fifteen minutes or so after their set, Grand Vapids singer and guitarist McKendrick Bearden ran across town and loaded his gear into Little Kings for a set with Ruby the RabbitFoot. He was sweaty and wild-eyed as he burst into the club and bolted for the stage, but as soon as he began playing, his face changed. This is the work ethic of a true musician and a lover of his instrument. It was a pleasure getting to watch him play again with Ruby, whose sarcastic charm and quirky Southern indie pop songs flooded the venue with unabashed excitement. Ruby’s band members are some of the go-to session and live musicians in Athens and Atlanta, and Avery Draut, singer and songwriter for the Athens-based indie surf outfit WANDA, accompanied Ruby on vocals.
Capping off Saturday night was Athens’ most recent musical phenomenon, Family and Friends. The buzz preceded their set all night. Everyone asked if I would end my night seeing them at the Georgia Theatre. Guitarist JP McKenzie informed me that it would be the pre-release show for their upcoming EP, XOXO, and they celebrated properly by playing a set of songs taken from it among the slew of classics the band has already delivered. Family and Friends have just released “Wyoming,” the first single from XOXO, and the sound is markedly more spacious and resonant like the larger rooms these guys and girls are playing nowadays.
There is no doubt that Family and Friends is an anomaly in Athens. Their ascent was quick and dynamic, filling out the Georgia Theatre in their first year of existence as a headliner. Now, two years into the band’s career, Family and Friends are poised for national greatness, but in Athens at least, they have achieved what very few bands have in a short time – they are a remarkably impressive live band with a catchy, diverse catalogue of tunes. Watching a packed out Georgia Theatre sing along to every word of their opener, “My Life, My Love,” was proof of their status as Athens’ most popular band of the moment, and my money rests on what will undoubtedly be their continued success both here and outside the Southern musical circuit. In short, Family and Friends brought the house down with their percussive and progressive folk rock. It was one of the best shows I have seen in that venue.
Bands and artists like Family and Friends, Grand Vapids, Grassland String Band, Grape Soda, Ruby the RabbitFoot, and WANDA are the hope of this tiny music mecca, and as long as there are more bands forming, there will always be AthFests to showcase them. In the future, Athfest will continue to draw locals and out-of-towners alike, but its hesitation to push beyond the boundaries of Athens’ insularity can be starkly contrasted with other yearly events, such as the Slingshot Festival, which listed among its 2015 lineup Holly Herndon, Jamie XX, and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. The fact cannot be understated that, though it consistently honors local Athens heroes and underdogs alike, AthFest will inevitably have to step up its game in light of larger, national acts performing at local festivals like Slingshot. In the meantime, we can only hope for AthFest to rise to the challenge.