In the summer, Athens is almost a ghost town in comparison to its usual hustle and bustle that makes it the Classic City. Most of the parking lots are empty, restaurants are slow, and the bars and music scene are practically nonexistent.
Then, for five days over a weekend in June, Athens gets its sparkle back. With two outdoor stages, 14 participating bar and music venues, comedy and an outdoor artist market, Athfest has something for all ages, shapes, and sizes.
The outdoor artist market featured a wide array of different vendors; from handcrafted jewelry, clothing and ceramics, to paintings, posters, and prints by local artists. What was especially appealing was that the majority of the booths seemed very DIY-esque and tumblr-y, in the best way possible. It was like a Pinterest board come to life, full of things you wish you were talented enough to craft yourself.
If you’ve been to Terrapin Brewery, you know Streets Café, Athens’ first food truck. Usually they’re parked on the grass somewhere, and after just a few too many pours of Hopsecutioner, I cannot resist the Street Fries (French fries perfectly smothered with cilantro mayo, Korean BBQ sauce, and Okinomi). After walking past all the other local food booths and trucks – i.e. Your Pie, Kelly’s, etc.), I once again couldn’t resist. Nothing like munching on Street Fries while watching Kishi Bashi at dusk on Saturday.
What makes AthFest so fantastic is that, during the day, you get to walk around the streets of downtown Athens and see beautiful art you can buy, eat delicious food, and enjoy amazing live music. Then, your favorite bars and music venues host even more amazing live music well into the night. Best yet – as Powerkompany’s Marie Davon said, it’s like a “family reunion.”
Roadkill Ghost Choir
Walking into the Georgia Theatre on Friday night was, as usual, nothing short of pure bliss. It was a very long, muggy, crowded, yet fabulous first day of AthFest. With most of the AthFest crowd still outside for Reptar, the Georgia Theatre was a spacious air-conditioned oasis, and Florida’s Roadkill Ghost Choir was setting up to take the stage for their 9:45 p.m. slot for the night.
I had first heard Roadkill Ghost Choir on Bonnaroo’s playlist for its 2014 lineup. The song featured on the playlist, “Beggar’s Guild” off their debut EP Quiet Light, caught my attention for its folksy, Fleet Foxes/Band of Horses-esque sound, yet it still packed a harder, more raw rock sound due to the Andrew Shepard’s rough but crooning vocals. Due to the usual festival frenzy, I didn’t make it to their set and so was very excited to see them perform at AthFest and be introduced to the rest of their music.
With “Beggar’s Guild” being my only exposure to the band, I was pleasantly surprised with their stage presence and energy. I was expecting a mellow half hour of bearded, flannel-clad men, to be honest. Instead, frontman Andrew Shepard’s thrashing, headbanging, stomping around in combat boots and impassioned vocals brought a loud and demanding energy to the growing Georgia Theatre crowd alongside Stephen Garza on lead guitar. Andrew’s brothers, Maxx on drums and Zach on the bass deliver the same kind of oomph, while Kiffy Meyers on the pedal steel, banjo, and guitar played into the bluegrassy, Tom Petty influenced sound that makes Roadkill Ghost Choir an indie folk-rock band.
They played with my emotions. At times, I was bouncing around dancing to the high-energy tunes of the set, then the lights dimmed, and they asked for the crowd to settle and Andrew’s vocals were swoony and perfect and graceful. Then he said, “Where’s our sax man?,” and I stifled a schoolgirl squeal due to my undying love for the saxophone. A flower headband-adorned New Madrid band member came up with his saxophone whilst draped in an American flag cape and blessed the crowd for a short-lived feature.
I left the Theatre almost glad I missed their Bonnaroo set. I got to see them at one of my favorite venues and in a much clearer state of mind (and a lot less dirty and grimy after a weekend on the farm). With a slot on Letterman early this year, an upcoming debut album, In Tongues (produced by Dr. Dog and Tokyo Police Club’s Doug Boehm and recorded in Athens – eep! – set to release by the end of the summer), and a festival-packed summer tour, Roadkill Ghost Choir is a band to watch. – JN
Family and Friends
Being a UGA student, I had already heard a lot of buzz about Athens’ own Family and Friends. So, when they took the Pulaski Street Stage late Friday afternoon, I was excited to see if they lived up to the hype — and they did.
Having only been putting on performances since April of 2013, they already had a comfortable stage presence and fed off of each others charismatic energies. The stage was packed with vocalists, guitars, a violin and upright bass, two dueling drummers, and the occasional what looked like flour bombers running across the stage. At 5′ 3″ it was nice to be able to still see someone playing something as I tip-toed over the heads of the huge crowd watching them — and by watching them I mean almost the entire crowd was dancing and singing along to Casey Harper and Mike MacDonald’s beautiful and inviting vocals.
Just in the 45-minute-or-so set that they had, the band exuded genuiness and pure humilty. I could tell that they were thrilled to be on stage and so thankful for their dedicated and hyped up fans in the immense crowd. Family and Friends is all about the fans. Their first album, Love You Mean It, came out in January of this past year and was funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
As I stood in the crowd, I was in awe of the energy they put forth — especially considering the lovely heat Athens offers us mid-June. They kept the energy of the mostly exhausted and overheated crowd alive the entire time while doing their own shenanigans on stage. F&F changed up the pace throughout their set and finished it off with a cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Members of another Athens band, Programs, ran on the stage by the end of the song yielding what looked like makeshift smoke machines/flour bombs. F&F finished off their set with as big of a bang as they played by stage diving into the ever so accepting crowd.
Family and Friends is an eccentric group of former/current Bulldawgs who have an obvious genuine love and talent for performing. Their individual eclecticness meshes together well as a whole and creates an exciting and lively performance. – JN
Judah & the Lion
By the time 6:30 p.m. rolled around, I didn’t expect many people to be willing to continue to brave the typical Georgia summer heat. That was until I experienced Judah & the Lion.
A large crowd of eager fans filled the space in front of the Pulaski Street Stage to see the Nashville, Tennessee natives. Soon the air was filled with hits such as “Sweet Tennessee” and “Love Your Love,” and there wasn’t a single person not tapping along to the beats. As the vocals, banjo, and mandolin combined, it became apparent this would definitely be a crowd favorite of AthFest.
Their stage presence was undeniably joyous and spontaneous. At first you were submerged into folksy music, but then Brian Macdonald decided to surprise us all with a rap during their unique cover of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” These guys rocked out and were jumping all over the stage, including up on the speakers. With all that being said, I will definitely be seeing them again when they return to Athens in the fall, as well as look out for their new album in September. – KM
Once again the Georgia Theatre was a temple to music. This year, it housed New Madrid for AthFest 2014 as one of its late night acts.
As a veteran group to AthFest, they once again brought a large group of fans out into the night, myself included. Soon enough, the group—consisting of Phil McGill, Graham Powers, Ben Hackett, and Alex Woolley, dove into their music as it echoed around every fan screaming around the stage.
Between the red velvet curtains, New Madrid stayed true to their original sound. It was inevitable that you would begin to sway to the strums of the guitars and the soft beats of the drums. Nevertheless, these Athens natives continue to keep their fans begging for more and never disappoint. – KM
Jubee and the Morning After
It is safe to say that Jubee and the Morning After was a surprise favorite of mine during AthFest. From Macon, Georgia, this band combines high-energy funk with the smooth sound of vocals.
Taking the Pulaski Street Stage to a loud roar of approval from their fan, both local and distant, Jubee and The Morning After wasted no time in getting everyone moving. Soon Jubee in his American flag-printed vest began rapping to an undeniable funky beat. No one in the crowd could have possibly stayed still.
Soon a crowd favorite “Whatcha Made Of” was played. It was amazing to see all four band members create an energetic stage presence. Jumping, bouncing, swaying, or a combination of both emerged when the crowd roared with its approval of this song. I think Athens will agree that we hope Jubee and the Morning After will come back real soon. – KM
On Saturday night, after the temperature had dropped and the numbers in the crowds began to rise, Kishi Bashi took the Pulaski Street Stage with his violin in hand.
A large crowd of eager fans and newcomers filled the space in front of the Pulaski Street Stage to see the composer. As the stage glowed in an array of blue and pinkish hues on top of the white draped fabric, Kishi Bashi played. I have never seen a violinist sing while playing his instrument, but I can’t think of anyone who would top this performance, in skill or in atmosphere.
Playing songs from his newly released album Lighght, Kishi Bashi gave the entire on-looking crowd something unique to remember and experience. I can definitely say that this was by far the most unique performance I saw, and it left me wanting more. – KM
Once again Athens, Georgia continues to produce great bands that create even better music. Radiolucent, a group of “Georgia Boys” took over the Pulaski Street Stage to rock out with their Georgia fans.
As the performance continued, I found myself caught in between waves of gospel, rock n’roll, country and a whole lot of soul – no complaints here. The fans sang every word of nearly every song that the five-man group played.
Their stage presence was undeniably fun. Everyone could not help but enjoy the environment that was created as these guys rocked out and continued to keep the energy high throughout the entire show. That being said, I will definitely be seeing them again when they return! – KM
When listening to Don Chambers, two words come to mind: Rock. Star.
Hull Street Stage provided the perfect area for Don Chambers to stun his fans under the Georgia sun. After every song, more and more people crept over into the streets, arriving out of curiosity and staying due to the mesmerizing performance.
The band in its entirety showed natural talent as well as a love for performing. Their stage presence was that of a band that has been playing together for over 20 years and creating hits for nearly as long. As the show slowly closed, I found myself surprised at how short the performance seemed. Even though it was the typical hour, I – along with many other – let out a sad sigh. Guess we all will have to wait till their next performance to hear the rock star sing. – KM
Reptar is one of those groups that Athens locals just know about. It’s like the first word of any little baby Athens music lover. The group is made up of frontman and guitarist Graham Ulicny, bassist Ryan Engelberger, drummer Andrew McFarland, and keys player William Kennedy. I had the pleasure of seeing Reptar a year or so ago at CounterPoint Music Festival and that show was insane. AthFest, however, was my first time seeing them play in their homeland, and I was blown away. I imagine that the passion Athenians have for Reptar is greater than or at least equal to that of Brazilians for soccer. And that may be an understatement.
The show started up after fans had been crowding the edge of Pulaski Street for thirty or forty minutes chanting and cheering. Ulicny was wearing a long wig, and the rest of the group was decked out in varying prints and bright colors. The group also had a saxophone and trumpet player on the stage. They opened up with a crowd favorite and people were jumping and pushing into the barriers as Ulicny’s crazy tongue preached to them. The religious experiences I saw people having at Reptar were unbelievable. Clothing was being removed, shoulders were climbed, crowds were surfed, and people were slowly becoming insane.
The group played a lot of new music, which was received well by the crowd, and then “Rainbounce” started. Security rushed in to hold the crowd back and the performers were going crazy. Everyone was jumping and what felt like an earthquake to me was surprisingly just the passion of the incredibly devoted Athenians. The best part of the show (not really, but really) was the little girl sitting on the edge of the stage. She had huge noise canceling headphones but she was clapping and bouncing along to the beat and she looked absolutely adorable. Bassist Engelberger acknowledged her a few times, and she looked overjoyed. Reptar is a crazy-awesome band to see live, and if you’ve never done it you need to go find their next show ASAP. I saw a whole new side of this town that night and let me tell you, I’ve never been prouder to be an Athenian. – MF
An Evening at Ciné
Everyone knows that Athens is home to some incredible entertainers. We Athenians love a good, sweaty show and know how to find one. Nestled just on the edge of town, however, I stumbled into one of the nicest little shows I’ve seen in Athens in a long time.
It was Friday night, and we’d all just danced our brains out at Reptar when we made our way over to the local theater, Ciné. The lineup was posted, and we walked in to find Little Chief on the stage. When I say stage, I mean they were set up on one side of the room, and we were standing on the other. The vibes in the room were surreal. There were about 35-40 people there, and everyone was crowded towards the front of the cool, darkly lit room. It felt like we were in a little coffee shop or in that scene from Inside Llewyn Davis where they’re in the dark little open mic lounge (if you haven’t seen that movie, see it).
Little Chief had taken the stage moments before we entered, and the crowd was already getting into it. Apparently, what “began as a few friends wanting something more” turned into a full fledged cross-country tour for these guys. The six of them were on the stage strumming mountain-sounding melodies and singing raspy, soft harmonies, and after the complete insanity that was Reptar, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. Standing in the crowd, waving and singing along to the words I could pick up on, and I was loving every second of it. They reminded me of something, but I was not entirely sure what. I got little pieces of Mumford and Sons, then Of Monsters and Men, then Fleet Foxes, but no comparison quite fits. The group closed their set with a gorgeous rendition of “Hey Jude” that had the crowd hollering at the top of their lungs. The whole experience was weirdly spiritual in a good way.
The crowd took a minute to settle down after the boys get a roaring applause, and the next act began to set up. It was Sam Burchfield, usually a solo artist, with a backing band. The band geared up, and the night took a decidedly sexy turn. Burchfield started singing bluesy, soulful love songs, and I was so surprised. I’d never heard them before, and I certainly did not expect that voice to come out of him. The band was great as well; I think they should become a permanent feature if they aren’t already. They have this incredible guy on the keys who periodically pops in with a killer trombone solo. The whole show was like Ray LaMontagne on motown steroids, and it was awesome. The crowd got into a soulful cover of R.Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix),” and Burchfield told us he probably should have closed the show with that. We didn’t even care – we just “toot-toot”ed and “beep-beep”ed, and nothing could bring us down from that high.
These two artists secured my place at next year’s Ciné show, for sure. The evening was an incredible accident for me, and I wish I had gotten some t-shirts to express my affection. Hopefully the two groups will return to AthFest, or even Athens in general, soon, because I did not get my fix. Next time you go to a festival, try going to see an artist you’ve never heard of before – maybe, like me, you’ll find a new favorite. -MF
Favorite Venue: Georgia Theatre
Least Favorite Venue: Hull Street Stage
Favorite Live Performance: New Madrid
Best Band Discovered: Judah and the Lion
Favorite Athens Band: New Madrid
Favorite Non-Athens Band: Judah & the Lion
Overall Favorite Band: Judah & the Lion
Favorite Venue: The World Famous
Least Favorite Venue: Outdoor Stages (lots of technical difficulties this weekend!)
Favorite Live Performance: Family and Friends
Best Band: Powerkompany
Favorite Athens Band: Woodgrains
Favorite Non-Athens Band: Roadkill Ghost Choir
Overall Favorite Band: Family and Friends!
Reptar at AthFest 2014. Photo by Miranda Feneberger.