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article imageOp-Ed: Strumming along in Athens, Georgia Special

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By Bryen Dunn     Mar 16, 2011 in Travel
Athens - Music is a way documenting one's footsteps through life, from the first record purchased, to the first concert attended, or the first instrument played. Later in life the nostalgic factor remains, and you may find yourself reaching back in time.
Athens, Georgia was always synonymous with music for me, as I brought myself into adulthood listening to REM, the B52’s, Pylon, Widespread Panic, and a whole lot of other so-called oddities of performance. When I recently had an opportunity to relive my younger days through music, what better way to do it than visit the city I held in high respect, and catch a concert by the new-wave-wig-wearers themselves, the B52’s in their hometown.
I arrived in early evening and checked into my funky digs at the Hotel Indigo, a rapidly expanding boutique-style chain of properties run under the Intercontinental Hotel Group. Each one is uniquely designed to fit in with the surroundings of the location, so naturally the Athens property was music themed. They are currently offering “Live After Five” entertainment on the back patio just off the lobby area, with weekly Thursday night performances by local acts. As well, “The Rialto Club” is a cool little venue on the lower level that’s only used for special events and performances. The hallway leading to the upscale lounge is lined with band photographs from The Beatles to home town heroes REM, all acquired as a permanent collection of the hotel.
I decided to venture out with no set itinerary just to get a feel for my surrounding, and see what I might happen upon. There are four main streets that run parallel through the city, with Clayton and Washington being bar central. I soon discovered that this is still very much University of Georgia territory, with the huge campus somewhat dwarfing the rather small downtown core area. Not so ironically, there is no shortage of bars and low-cost eateries, and the streets are buzzing by 10pm with an early 20’s academic crowd. I try to find a place with live music that might offer a glimpse into the indie-scene, but only stumble upon the boombastic beats of DJ’s.
I opted to grab a couple beers and head back to the hotel, dismayed by my search. I popped into a convenience store and was informed no alcohol sales permitted in the downtown core, and then kindly pointed in the direction of the nearest place that does sell it. Another 10 minutes added to my stroll until I found what I was looking for, and directly across the street was the Blind Pig Tavern. I discovered where the alumni gang gets tanked, and there was a local band jamming up on the stage like it was 1980-something all over again.
The next morning I was scheduled to meet Paul Buchart, a longtime musician music tour guide, and historian. He’s responsible for creating a Music History Tour of the city that provides details on who played where and when, a visit to the graveyard of deceased musicians, locations of local record shops and music venues, and the best drinking and eating joints in town. At least I knew I wouldn’t have any problems finding a place to hit up that night. Paul and I spent about three hours together gabbing about the past and the present. He actually was in a band The Side Effects that opened for one of the earlier REM shows, and he lived in the house where the B52’s played their first show ever back in 1977. Speaking of, while turning the corner Paul bellowed out the window to B52's vocalist Cindy Wilson who was trotting across the street with a box in hand on her way to the Classic Center, where the band were performing their 34th anniversary gig that night.
Most of the downtown portion of the tour was spent looking at old photographs of what use to be where something else is now, beckoning the historical aspect. We then popped into a couple of independent record shops, picked up an egg biscuit at Mama’s Boy, and discovered the musical side of a city more commonly known for college football, specifically the Georgia Bulldogs. We jumped back in his pick up and drove a couple miles over to Normaltown, where much of the music actually originated from, and a couple of the REM members still own property. I must admit it did feel pretty awesome to be holding the “Murmur” album in my hand at the very location where the front cover was photographed.
We then hit up Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods, where the REM boys grabbed their “Automatic For The People” album name from. This traditional southern soul food establishment is located just beyond the downtown core, and offers fried chicken, a variety of vegetables, daily specials, and bottomless cups of lemonade or ice-tea to a mixed crowd of locals and the curious. Dexter Weaver’s “automatic” motto still lives on as he works the cash register 25 years after his restaurant initially opened. Asked what keeps him going, "I do it for the people", he says. Today, REM posters adorn the wall alongside pictures of President Obama.
After lunch we walked around behind the restaurant to an old railway truss, where the back cover of “Murmur” was photographed. Later we drove around to where Paul’s band The Side Effects opened for REM in a former church converted into living quarters and performance space. Next up was a visit to the grand grounds of Oconee Hill Cemetery, where both Ricky Wilson from the B52’s and Michael Houser from Widespread Panic are both laid to rest relatively close to each other. We then headed back downtown making one last stroll along Hull Street, where according to Paul is where the true current Athens scene can be found at places like the Manhattan Club, and of course the current home of the 40 Watt Club at Washington and Hull, a must visit for any music fan.
We parted ways noting that we would hopefully see each other later at the B52’s show. I made a quick stop into The Melting Point located on the grounds of the traditional classic Georgian style Foundry Park Inn. The grounds also contain a beautiful outdoor courtyard, magnificent spa, and old-charm dining at the Hoyt House Restaurant. There was an 80’s cover band performing that evening called The Highballs, a perfect place for a quick pint before hitting up the concert just up the road. The locally based outfit played a good selection the top retro hits that everyone knows and loves.
Walking into the Classic Center was a total flashback, as many in attendance were decked out in their wackiest, flashiest costume attire. Opening act Casper and the Cookies is the newest project from Vanessa Hay, Pylon’s original vocalist. Just goes to prove Athens really is still a city with a small town vibe. The B52’s ripped through over an hour of their hits, and a couple of obscurities, to a crowd that remained standing the entire time. Paul and I did see each other from a distance and gave each other the musical head-bob acknowledgement. After the show I was off to the Manhattan, where not surprisingly I encountered a good part of the concert crowd nestled up to the bar.
Before falling to sleep that night I jumped onto my laptop and played some classic videos from all the great Athens bands I just discovered so much more about. There’s something quite magical about being in a place that has special meaning for no other reason than the writing of someone you’ve never met. Hopefully my scribbles will make you want to go to Athens as well!
Be sure to pick up a copy of the weekly alternative publication, Flagpole Magazine, or read it online. A couple of cool musice sites worth checking out as well are Athens Music , Athens Music Junkie, and Athcast.
The 15th annual AthFest Music and Arts Festival takes place from June 22 to 26, and is a great opportunity to catch emerging local acts. Also, a great musical history can be found on the DVD, Athens, GA: Inside/Out.
AAA Airport Express and Groome Transportation offer regular shuttle service between Atlanta airport and most Athens hotels.
Photos taken with Fuji Finepix F300EXR Camera.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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