Robert Cheatham drops by Eyedrum once a month to hang out for the first Thursday open mic improv night. These days, that's all the time he can spare for the nonprofit art and music gallery that he once played a primary role in sustaining. "Once I had a kid my whole life changed," he sighs. "There's no way I could handle the life that I live now and keep up with the constant attention that Eyedrum needs."
At the age of 62, Cheatham is more concerned with being a father to his 2-year-old son Rowan than he is with skronking away on his saxophone. He no longer has time to paint gallery walls or attend board meetings. But on Sat., Nov. 13, he'll return to Eyedrum to headline the second annual Earball, a day-long celebration featuring nearly 30 noise, improv and performance artists playing at the venue that has served as the home base for Atlanta's avant-garde art and music scenes since the '90s. Local acts Rising Appalachia, the Back Pockets, King Congregation, and Magicicada are scheduled to perform. There's also a monkey-chanting workshop and aerial performances lined up for the bill, dubbed "a celebration of all things aural."
But it's really a celebration of Eyedrum's legacy, as Earball will likely be the last big blowout for the music venue and art gallery in its current location. After being plagued for years by the financial burden to maintain the space, Eyedrum's lease will expire Dec. 31 and it will not be renewed. Needless to say, Cheatham's last show there will mark the end of an era for himself and Eyedrum.
"It's hard to separate closure from the beginning of a new chapter," he says. "I have a lot of memories associated with that space and the form that Eyedrum had taken there, so it feels like closure — at least on those years."
When Cheatham started hanging out there in 1998, it was known as the Silver Ceiling. That was before Marshall Avett and Woody Cornwell moved it below their downtown loft on Trinity Avenue and christened it Eyedrum, where it quickly became a haven for noise, free jazz and an untamed side of the local indie rock scene.
As Cheatham's role flourished, so did Eyedrum. But since his departure in 2009, both show attendance and the overall profile have suffered. Blame it on a number of factors: the economy, poor promotion and mismanagement, as well as the emergence of similar spaces such as Beep Beep Gallery and WonderRoot which have stolen a bit of its thunder. But with more than a decade of history under its belt, Eyedrum still holds its own as an institution for experimental art and music. Much of that history and longevity is due to Cheatham's presence.
"His legacy is that Eyedrum still exists," says current executive director, Priscilla Smith. As for the future, both Smith and Robert Kee, who was elected chairman of Eyedrum's board this month, are confident that it will continue to remain relevant despite the challenges it faces.
"I think we're more of a curated space than anywhere else," says Kee. "Presenting both the music and the art in a cohesive way is something that's always been part of the approach. That's also what makes it difficult to find the right facility after we move."
The short list of potential homes includes a space in Castleberry Hill. Wherever the location, a fest like Earball could only happen at Eyedrum. It's a celebration of the culture the incubator organization has nurtured for more than a decade. With a mesh of such younger bands such as the Back Pockets playing alongside Cheatham and other long-standing acts, Earball is proof that the scene Eyedrum has fostered from the beginning is still vibrant.
"Whatever Eyedrum morphs into next, it will continue to generate energy, just as it did when it moved away from Trinity Avenue," Cheatham says. "Some people will carry on with it and others will go their separate ways. But change is always a good thing."
Editor's note: The story has been altered to reflect that both Marshall Avett and Woody Cornwell lived in the loft above the space that became Eyedrum on Trinity Ave. Cornwell is the last of Eyedrum's original founders who still sits on the board.
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