"In Athens, a whole different world opens up after 10 o'clock," says Kathy Kirbo of the Athens-based band Jackpot City. "People can walk through town in the daytime and not really get the whole vibrant music and art scene. At night, it just comes alive. You can walk down the street and hear a great Americana band, a jazz band or some band just playing on the street, and that's all the time, but at AthFest, the whole place comes alive."
Now in its 10th year, AthFest celebrates all things Athenian, namely art, film and music. On Wednesday, Athens, Ga: Inside/Out director Tony Gayton screens Two-Headed Cow, his new documentary on the former frontman of Flat Duo Jets, Dexter Romweber, followed by music videos of Athens-based bands. On Thursday, Flagpole magazine hosts its annual Athens Music awards, and on the weekend, visitors can check out kids' activities and the artist market. But the draw, as it often is with Athens, is the live music.
Downtown Athens is smaller than some Atlanta subdivisions, but more than 170 bands will shoehorn into less than 20 venues for AthFest. For the Club Crawl on Friday and Saturday nights, most of those venues kick off lineups between 8 and 10 p.m. and continue until the bars close. Festival-goers who can hold their booze, or at least stagger proficiently, can catch all sorts of different music.
"The diversity of music is even greater now than it was in the 'heyday' or whatever it was called in the '80s," says Jackpot City's keyboardist/violinist Mamie Fike, referring to a period when bands like the B-52's, Love Tractor, Pylon and R.E.M. kicked around the then relatively unknown college town.
"Really [Athens is] perfect for a musician: There are places to play and tons of studios," adds guitarist Kelly Noonan.
Jackpot City formed in 1998 and the band is comprised of a trio of seasoned veterans of the music scene. Fike performed with Chickasaw Mudd Puppies and Asa Nisa Masa, Kirbo with Greenhouse and Purr, and Noonan with Wet and Billy James. And all three have been in projects produced by members of R.E.M. and Widespread Panic. They've been active in Athens for, um, how long now? "Don't ask," laughs Fike. "Just say something like 'quite a while.'"
Jackpot City's melodic Beatles-esque soul (it's more Revolver than Reckoning) has featured an assortment of additional players, including Ben Mize (formerly of the Counting Crows). The current rhythm section -- bassist Bryan Howard and drummer Ian Werden -- has played in a plethora of projects. Busy Werden plays in at least three other bands at this year's AthFest. The group is also working on its first bona fide album with producer and Love Tractor member Ben Holst.
Individually and collectively, Jackpot City's members have played almost every watering hole in the bar-dotted town, making them perfect guides for Athens newbies, or Atlantans who only occasionally drop in on the Classic City. With a little guidance from Jackpot City, here are the bands you shouldn't miss during this year's Club Crawl:
On Friday, start your journey at the epicenter of Athens music clubs, the internationally known 40 Watt (285 W. Washington St.). The spacious venue has operated at various locations since the late '70s, and happens to be conveniently set directly across from AthFest's outdoor main stage area. After dark, the club hosts a strong bill with the prog-metal of Coulier (11 p.m.) and the dance-math of We Vs. the Shark (11:45 p.m.). "There were like 100,000 people right here for the free Panic show [in 1998]," says Fike, pointing toward the middle of the street. "It was crazy."
Around the back of the Watt is the Caledonia Lounge (256 W. Clayton St.). Stop in early on Friday as a brief rest from the main stage and see a one-of-a-kind performance from improv masters Garbage Island (8 p.m.), then come back for a galvanizing blast from heavy metal welders Music Hates You (midnight). "That's the beauty of Athens," says Kirbo. "You can play any type of music and there's an audience for it."
Venture a little farther up sloping Clayton Street to the subterranean DT's Down Under (140 E. Clayton St.) for the Carla Le Fever and the Rays' funky rock (10 p.m.). Cross the street and find the debut of Transmetropolitian (145 E. Clayton St.) as an AthFest venue. The Vinyl Strangers will play power pop (11 p.m.) with some familiar AthFest faces, including Jackpot City's Ian Werden on drums.
But don't wander too far away, because the Washington Street block is ground zero for the city's greatest concentration of clubs. Just up from the 40 Watt is Flicker Theatre (263 W. Washington St.), an intimate hang-out for musicians like cagey Don Chambers (who performs on the outdoor stage Saturday at 8 p.m.). Farm 255 (255 W. Washington St.) is a rootsy restaurant with an outdoor music area. On Friday, Squat (10:30 p.m.) and Grogus (midnight) offer mind-melding jams.
Somewhere along the way, you're likely to run into an assortment of infamous Athens characters, musicians and irregulars. Most of 'em won't bite, so say hi. We found music guru and beer expert William Orten "Ort" Carlton and former Athens Mayor Gwen O'Looney happily wandering around town. "If you can't find someone you know, you can go to a bar here and just have a great conversation with a total stranger," says Kirbo. "And quite often, they'll know some of your friends."
The intersection of Washington and Hull streets is also a hotbed of activity. The smaller second outdoor stage is located here, alternating acts with the main stage until past dark on Friday and Saturday. For the Club Crawl's second leg on Saturday, nearby Lunch Paper (235 W. Washington St.) features High Caliber's rocking power pop (9 p.m.), with Werden on drums, of course. Need a jolt? Hot Corner Coffee (269 N. Hull St.) has the racy burlesque of Effie's Club Follies (midnight) and it also has caffeine.
Lumpkin Street is just up the hill. Take a right and you'll see the famous Georgia Theatre marquee (215 N. Lumpkin St.). The legendary Love Tractor plays an early set (9 p.m.). As the group updates its sound and lineup, it also looks back to its past catalog, so expect a few old favorites mixed in with new material.
Make it a classic evening and hurry on down to the Melting Point (295 E. Dougherty St.) at 10 p.m. An Athens favorite in the '80s with the Squalls, Bob Hay, now with his Jolly Beggars, explores the music of Scottish poet Robert Burns with a bluegrass flavor. "And then at 11, run back and see us [at the Caledonia Lounge]," reminds Jackpot City's Fike. The Club Crawl also includes Last Call, Little Kings, Morton Theatre, Nuci's Space, the Ritz, Tasty World and Wild Wing Cafe, so check www.athfest.com for a full schedule.
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