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Railroad Tracks 

Reunion concert and CD preserve local music memories

On Friday, June 23, the last trace of the Point -- the now-defunct club, which long played an important role in Atlanta's music scene -- was eradicated. With the afternoon sun scorching down, gruff workmen tore off the wooden panels from the venue's south end, removing the Point's giant, colorful trademark mural -- a singularly gaudy piece of folk art which had stood unblemished by graffiti as a familiar fixture of Little Five Points for years. But even as one landmark of the city's musical past fell victim to the wrecking ball, just a few miles away at the Earl in East Atlanta, a group of devotees gathered to celebrate the appearance of another. The occasion was the release party for Hidden Tracks, a new 14-song CD compilation of previously un-issued material from the early '90s heyday of Atlanta bands such as Smoke, the Jody Grind, DQE, Parlour and Long Flat Red -- music from an age which now, in retrospect, seems to have been truly golden.

The man behind Tracks is Neil Fried, a musician/producer who began professionally recording Atlanta bands back in the '80s, using the name Chelsea Studios (a reference to his facility's first makeshift, dirt-floor location on Chelsea Circle) and then later Railroad Earth (after the title of a short story by Jack Kerouac). Operating on the cheap, often with equipment far below the state-of-the-art, Fried was able to offer rates within the budget of even the most impoverished musician. Blessed with unusually good taste, he was also able to attract artists who genuinely merited that description; and the recordings, which emerged from Railroad Earth, have become, in many cases, enduring milestones of the city's musical history.

"It's been a responsibility of mine to get this music out," Fried observed Friday evening, as he admired a finished copy of the CD.

Tracks makes available 14 previously unreleased gems, all cultivated in the fertile soil of Fried's studio. Highlights include two exemplary tunes by Smoke, the avant-garde ensemble led by gravel-throated poet Benjamin, whose fame has achieved near mythic proportions since his death in January '99. Also notable are four songs by Kick Me, a group which singer Kelly Hogan and guitarist Bill Taft created after their bandmates in the Jody Grind perished in a tragic highway accident; several of these were later re-recorded for Hogan's '96 solo album, but the original versions featured here exude a primal passion missing from those later sessions. Particularly impressive is "Lucky Nights," in which once innocent references to "smoke" (tobacco smoke) assume a poignant double meaning.

Although Hogan was the nominal headliner at the Earl's release party, the biggest treat may well have been the beautifully shot black-and-white 16 millimeter film of Benjamin which Fried projected at the evening's start. As the silent film unspooled, Smoke veteran Brian Halloran improvised accompaniment on his cello, providing an appropriately smoky soundtrack. It was a moving gesture, one echoed an hour later by guitarist Andy Hopkins who, in addition to re-uniting with former Parlour bandmates Pam Howe and Brett Busch, also debuted his own Benjamin tribute song, "To My Louder Friends."

Lydia Brownfield reassembled Long Flat Red to perform their Tracks tune, the beautiful "Eighty-Six Days." Fried was so overcome by this gesture that he hopped on stage at the end of the set and stammered out his thanks, trembling with emotion.

Kelly Hogan appeared about 1 a.m., unrehearsed and complaining of lack of sleep, to run through some of her solo material. Backed by her local stage band, she rose above the obstacles to deliver fine renditions of Kick Me's "Blue Magic" and a duet she recently recorded with Canadian rocker Neko Case (for which Brett Busch sang Case's part). However, some fans expressed disappointment that Hogan did not perform with her Jody Grind/Kick Me bandmate Bill Taft.

Curiously, Taft -- also a Smoke alumnus, and who is featured on 50 percent of Hidden Tracks' material -- elected to look forward instead of back. Playing solo, he limited himself to the repertoire of his new band, Hupcap City. Yet he played like a man possessed, whether singing about love, helicopters in Vietnam or movie censorship. "There's some things the dead can never forgive," he sang cryptically near the end of his set, "and there's some things the dead can never forget."

Grace Braun displayed much the same spirit as she took the stage with the latest incarnation of her band DQE. Leading the trio through a very short performance, she concluded with a jaunty new song called "I Choose You" which showed that, although her past achievements are commendable, she may have better work yet to come.

No one was more pleased by this than Fried himself, who summed up the evening by observing proudly, "It's great to have worked with all these people ... and everyone on this record is still doing what they love."

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