AthFest is developing a legacy for itself as storied as the music scene it represents. The five-day festival is a true grassroots showcase of the finest in Athens music, art, comedy, and cinema. This year offered a formidable lineup topped by locals Reptar, Drivin N Cryin, Elf Power, and the onetime of Montreal sideman Kishi Bashi. The real strength of AthFest rests in the diversity of its undercard. Local bluegrass, punk, hip-hop, electronic, rock 'n' roll, folk, indie, and everything in-between is represented in almost equal parts. It's a cliche, but AthFest truly offers something for everyone.
I stopped by for Friday (June 20) evening's festivities to offer a snapshot rundown of Reptar's headlining show and Flagpole Magazine's excellent showcase at the 40 Watt Club.
Reptar 9 p.m.
A half-hour before AthFest's first headliner is slated to take the stage, a teeming mass of sweaty attendees are already gathered under the solace of the early evening cool in front of the outdoor Pulaski St. stage. Three decades ago, a comparable crowd might have gathered here for R.E.M., a decade after, perhaps Widespread Panic would be the cause for the evening's thick anticipation. But in 2014, the music diehards of Athens gather to see Reptar. Musically, the Athens-native eight piece bare little similarities to the jam-heavy, jangle-pop appeal of their fore bearers, but the one thread that connects Reptar across the decades is their ability to cause people to absolutely lose their minds.
Reptar is hardly the critical darling that other Athens giants have been, but clearly critical acclaim wasn't why the crowd has gathered in droves. From the first song, the group has already claimed the stage as its dancefloor, selling its energy with every bit of confidence that a band can muster. Over the course of an hour, the crowdsurfers rarely take breaks, fans hoot and holler in competition with the speakers, and at multiple points an arsenal of nervous-looking AthFest security are recruited to hold down the barrier so the enthusiasm doesn't turn into a riot.
The group's music falls squarely into the recent advent of what some would call "fun rock." Simply put, this style wasn't made for breaking new ground, exploring new sonic territories, or to further any kind of musical conversation - it's bonafide party fuel. Yes, Reptar's music is often a cringeworthy amalgamation of the kind of over-produced, formulaic, anthem-heavy, starchy post-afrobeat indie that has been co-opted by every band hoping to take the crossover throne from MGMT. But, in a live setting, thoughts of just how much better bands like MGMT, Vampire Weekend, and Animal Collective pull off the tribal-twee shtick dissolve. For this hour, there is only an eight-piece band named after a cartoon dinosaur and an absolutely fervid crowd who devour every second of it.
Shade 10:15 p.m.
Local trio Shade opens up Flagpole Magazine's showcase at the 40 Watt Club. The group has slowly etched a name for themselves among Athens' competitive landscape, not without good reason. Though their set-up is limited to the archetypal guitar/bass/drums, they certainly make their voice known. Lead singer and guitarist Phelan Lavelle is an absolute treat to watch. Her dance moves are akin to her guitar lines, slinking, serpentine, hazily moving around like a snake hypnotized by a piper. Yet her dancing is often more mesmerizing than the band's music. Their tunes are vaguely jazzy, post-punk explorations that at their best, bounce around, and at their worst, flop.
Murk Daddy Flex 11 p.m.
Murk Daddy Flex fall under the sample-heavy, irreverent, and scarcely classifiable style of electronic music explored by artists like the enigmatic Oneohtrix Point Never or anyone under the vaporwave umbrella. The best way to make sense of their music is by making sense of the accompanying video that corresponds to their set. The videos are a rapidfire re-contextualization of old cartoons, cultlike self-help videos, Pokemon-inspired weirdness, and at one point what looked liked a public access Hindu show captioned with Seinfeld dialogue. Their music follows a similar path of aural culture jamming. Their beats, when they had recognizable rhythms, were unique at the expense of being memorable. An old adage in journalism is to choose clarity over creativity, and Murk Daddy Flex's set flows like an especially convoluted Allen Ginsberg poem.
Halfway through their set, the video begins flashing "tea time," and the duo quickly jumps to a small table carefully set up on stage to respectfully pour each other tea. Whether that's inventive or inane, I'm not even sure Murk Daddy Flex knows.
Axxa/Abraxas 11:50 p.m.
Atlanta-bred Axxa/Abraxas bills itself as "Sincere Psychedelic Rock 'n' Roll," and there isn't a more fitting description of its sound. Its style is as steeped in lo-fi '60s psych-garage longing as possible. That kind of relentless nostalgia is charming to a point. At the beginning, the band's energy ricochets around the 40 Watt, and the attendees who had been confused to the point of inaction by Murk Daddy Flex emerge to get their bones moving again. Yet after only a few tracks its songwriting shows its cracks very clearly as each song bleeds to another and they fade into cheery white noise. Axxa/Abraxas sits in my least favorite category. They are never bad, but never truly great. For a band there is perhaps nothing more damning than complacency.
The Coathangers 1 a.m.
The Coathangers are late. Their scheduled 12:30 p.m. time slot has been pushed back past 1 a.m., and the toll of the day's searing sun becomes apparent on the audience's drooping faces. It looks like their early morning hangovers are finally starting to set in, and I begin to worry that the moshing frenzy that the Coathangers typically inspire will be absent. I am quickly proven wrong. Literally the minute Atlanta's favorite scrappy, blase-yet-ferocious female punk trio rips into their set, those hungover scowls flip to exasperated grins. People are getting thrown around without regards to size or gender as The Coathangers maintain a level of control over the audience like some kind of punk puppeteers.
Their set lasts for roughly 45 minutes but they manage to squeeze in at least 15 songs that all burst with antagonistic glee. Like most punk bands of today, the Coathangers' songwriting borrows generously from its punk forefathers. Many songs are indistinguishable, and are only brief explosions that favor ferocity over form. Yet the small sea of exhausted festival-goers fighting past their bedtimes didn't come for game-changing originality. They came for something that has been at the very core of Athens' music scene since the beginning - an opportunity to get drunk and get down to some reasonably good tunes to stave off the summer heat. And the Coathangers absolutely excelled to that end.
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