Dispatches from Athfest: Day 1, Wednesday Night

I arrived back in Athens on Wednesday and settled in after searching around for a half hour for my boss’s place. Yes, I’m using my boss’s apartment as a crashpad. She’s awesome. (insert kudos here).

Anyway, I hung around trying to get all my crap together and figure out my schedule for the week. The first real ATHFEST event? A screening at Cine.

This was no ordinary screening though! Oh no. The show consisted of rare concert footage of The Side Effects, Pylon’s first last show, Love Tractor (with guests Buck and Mills), and a raging 33 minute REALLY FRICKIN COOL video of the B-52’s circa 1978-9ish. After that, the now cult classic “Athens, GA: Inside Out” followed by a panel of special guests. THEN, if all that wasn’t enough, a performance by the one and only DexterRomweber.

I got there early enough to help the fellow Wuoggers set up some equipment for the aftershow events. Busy as usual, I nearly run head first into poor Mr. Lachowski, who was just minding his own business and admiring some of the artwork on the walls. After a quick apoplogy and an “oh my god” mental moment, I went back to work.

Finally the task was done and I could file into the theater with everyone else and enjoy an awesome show. Some friends of mine pulled me into a seat in the back and started grilling me on what they were seeing. I didn’t mind the questions but I really just wanted to watch and hear.

First up was the LoveTractor/Pylon final show. I thank my lucky stars that I was able to see Pylon last December and I’m now really really really sorry that I never got to see Love Tractor. God that looked like fun. People kept filing in and some REALLY familiar faces showed up. Members of The Side Effects, Pylon, Squalls….it was awesome. The Side Effects show was pretty neat as well.

Then came the 52’s footage and suddenly the whole room was back in the early days of the Athens music scene. All of the old inside jokes between Fred Schnider and the audience were parroted back at the screen. People were dancing in the seats and laughing. It’s an obvious observation but DAMN they looked young. At the end of the concert series, a big, loud voice exclaims “I forgot how cool that was!” I turn around and it’s none other than Ort.

A short intermission followed and nearly everyone left for drinks. I sat stunned in my seat. Now, it may sound crazy but Ort’s always been this almost imaginary creature to me. The first time I saw “Athens, GA: Inside Out”, Ort stood out as a larger than life character that couldn’t possibly have been real. Dexter Romweber fit that too and here they both were, standing around the Cine tables chatting with old friends.

Well, the movie was starting and the familair strains of Love Tractors “Fun to be Happy” started playing on the screen. One of my friends had fallen asleep (this really wasn’t his thing. Didn’t involve setting things on fire and beer) the other was just looking at the screen. Next thing I know, Ort sits down next to me! “I’ve seen this movie a lot,” he laughes. I can’t help but laugh too. His moods are contagious.

For the next hour and a half, I spend the screening with Ort whispering things in my ear. He delights in all the band footage, spewing facts about who met who where and what they did to someone’s car. He also gets really sad when friends who have since passed, such as the great poet John Seawright, appear on the screen. He laughs at himself and nearly knocks me over with a big slap on the back after a certain impression of Popeye fills the theater with laughter.

There’s nothing like seeing this movie with someone who was not only “there” but a part of it. Many of the people in the room were in the movie and mumbles of “I forgot about that” were often expelled from the more tipsy participants. For a nex-gen AthensMusicJunkie like me, it was absolutely incredible. Then came the panel.

Since my beloved WUOG was throwing this screening, our GM and Promotions director acted as moderators to Ort, Bob and Vanessa Hay, Michael Lachowski, Maureen, and Paul. Dexter, who was supposed to be on the panel too, slipped out before anyone noticed and came back in round half-way through. The beginning questions were standard: “Did you like the film when it came out”, “How about now?”, “How has the scene changed?” etc.

The most memorable stuff came from the “scene” question. (I’m typing this after nearly 2 days and little sleep so forgive me). The pannelists all agree that the movie came in on the beginning of the Money for Music part of the scene. More and more artists were coming to Athens to just make it big like the 52’s and R.E.M. According to Lachowski, this is finally fading out and bands just “seem to be doing it for fun again.” Nodding and smiling all around there. The session finished with some questions from the audience and an Ort impression of Stipe that had anyone who’s known him in fits of laughter. A short conversation between Lachowski and Ort gave way to a list of different ways Ort would answer the phone or heckle customers. I loved every minute of it.

We all filed out and I took my place at the soundboard for Dexter’s performance in the gallery area. Note: The man hasn’t lost an ounce of energy. He ripped through some solo stuff, covers, and ballads, delighting those wise enough to stay and enjoy. The very last song of his set featured Ort on vocals and a stomping, screeching solo from the much abused and loved guitar. Afterwards, Vanessa commmented, “I’ve never really heard Ort sing. I think I can die happy now!”

I packed up the stuff and thanked Mr. Romweber for an awesome show. Ort hung around and finished writing lyrics for a new(?) song for Dexter. I finally got to speak with him and was amazed at his vast knowledge of really everything. He asked if I was staying for Athfest to which I replied, “Every day but Saturday.” His eyes lit up and he grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “You’re seeing REM aren’t you.” I smiled and said, “It’ll be my first REM show.” He hugged me and said, “It’s going to be magical. You’ll love it.” We talked a bit more then parted ways.

I left Cine having stood with giants of the Athens music scene and watched in awe as they all suddenly seemed to be back in those early days, laughing about random jokes and recalling epic parties. While I sometimes wish that I had been around for that, I’ll take what I’ve learned from these guys and try to put it to use. They were the first, unique. They made mistakes, had successes and have passed the torch on to new bands (some of which they’re in *cough* Supercluster *cough*).

We can learn from these guys. The Athens music scene of the early 80’s was one of individuality and brotherhood. Bands were supporters of each other, not competition. And yeah, I know, I wasn’t there and how dare I speak on somthing I know so little about. Well, the brotherhood is still there. I saw it Wednesday with how these people still interacted. Bands are supporting each other in Athens, taking each other on tour, loaning equipment, trading opening spots… Athens music is different from any other town’s. Not because of the water or sound or former success stories, it’s the spirit that keeps Athens, GA the greatest little music town on the planet.



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