How Sweet The Sound
Hometown music festivals around the state draw legions of fans who come with lawn chairs to sit in and cash to spend. The celebrations combine culture, commerce and civic pride. There’s often a charitable cause and always a good time.
Music festivals hang in the collective cultural subconscious like a sustained note, a 2,500-year-old bridge connecting the muses of ancient Athens, Greece, to the moods of modern Athens, Georgia, classical music to rock ’n‘ roll, jazz to bluegrass, person to person.
“There is a social and musical environment at the music festival that doesn’t really exist in the one-or two-band bill at the club,” says Chris Thacker, a civil engineer and songwriter who plays lead guitar for Big City Sunrise, a savvy sextet of mostly 20-somethings from northeast Georgia, well-traveled veterans of the Southeastern festival trail.
“There are more musicians, more interaction, more people hanging out together for a longer period of time, a real communal atmosphere.”
Across Georgia, from spring through fall, stages are set on city streets and parking lots, in mountain valleys and farm pastures. Players are assembled, typically organized around a specific idea or premise, and hungry music lovers carrying lawn chairs and cash gather to savor the experience. These festivals may last all day, all weekend or all month, and they create numerous business opportunities for musicians, artists, vendors, hotels and restaurants.
“It’s economic development, pure and simple,” says Jared Bailey, creator and director of AthFest, an 11-year-old festival that featured more than 150 bands on the streets and in the clubs of downtown Athens for five days in June.
Bailey has been a front-row player in Athens’ music scene since the 1980s. He owned the 40 Watt Club, a fabled venue that migrated all over town before settling at the corner of Pulaski and Washington streets in the old Furniture Mart, home since 1990. In 1987 he launched Flagpole magazine, “to help bring attention to the Athens music scene. That was a vision that evolved into AthFest.”
At the time, there was very little civic support for popular music in a city that produced superstar bands such as R.E.M., the B-52s and Widespread Panic, and that bothered Bailey.
“Athens has more bands per capita than anywhere else in the world, and I just couldn’t understand why we weren’t supporting the music scene,” says Bailey, who wrote an editorial to that effect.
So the local chamber of commerce invited him to join its arts industry task force, which recommended that Athens should have a music festival. Sensible thinking – a music festival in a city that The New York Times listed (along with megalopolises such as New York and Los Angeles) as an American music Mecca.
Nothing happened. The idea gestated in Bailey’s imagination for years, until the Athens Downtown Devel-opment Authority picked up on it in 1997 and asked him to head up a music festival.
Bailey has since left the publishing business. He spends his working hours as program manager for Community Connections of Northeast Georgia, donating his time to running AthFest, now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit operated entirely by volunteers.
The event has expanded into art and film and children’s activities, but the emphasis still is on the music, and the bulk of the action takes place Saturday through Sunday, when 10,000 people fill the streets and bars.
AthFest operates on a budget of about $150,000 – “pretty reasonable, considering all that we do,” Bailey says. This year’s event culminated with a Sunday night performance by the Drive-By Truckers, who played on the main outdoor stage, where patrons got free live music (“club crawl” patrons, however, anted up $15 each for wristbands that allowed entry to 20 participating venues).
On a blistering weekend in June, waves of heat rose groggily from the Athens pavement, and Washington Street was foggy with the smells of Jamaican food, barbecued ribs, burgers – and also beer, which smells an awful lot like a revenue stream to Don Powers.
Some festivals are BYOB – and some depend on selling spirits.
“You don’t make money on beer when people are dragging in coolers. But if you control it, and let’s say you make $10,000 in beer sales – well, that’s $10,000 you can use for next year’s festival,” says Powers, chief organizer of the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival in Thomson, where he also serves as city administrator.
The festival, which commemorates blues legend and Thomson native McTell, is the main fund raiser for the Activities Council of Thomson, a nonprofit that fosters education, appreciation and promotion of the arts.
“This is a chance to expose our rural east Georgia community to music and musicians they might never get to see,” says Powers, who performs at the festival with his band, the Crosstie Walkers.
Neither AthFest nor the McTell Festival wants to grow too much. Bailey is consciously protecting his soul in an effort to avoid over-commercialization, and Powers can’t imagine handling more than the crowd of 2,000-ish who attended last May’s festival at the Knox Farm north of town.
But then, it’s not as if either event is in danger of becoming another Music Midtown, the three-day festival that, at its peak, drew 300,000 attendees to Atlanta. Created by local promoters Alex Cooley and Peter Conlon, it featured a lineup of diverse pop musical genres and top international acts from 1994 through 2005.
“People have said to me, ‘Man, this is Athens! If you would just book bands like they did at Music Midtown, AthFest could be huge, really huge,’” Bailey says. “The thing is, our mission has never been about making a lot of money. Our mission is about promoting this city and its artists. It’s a hometown festival.”
At its peak, Music Midtown’s annual economic impact on the Atlanta area was an estimated $23 million. Thousands of visitors spread their dollars around, in hotels, on beer and food and T-shirts. When promoters called off the event in 2006 due to escalating expenses and falling attendance, they left open the possibility of a return at a different venue.
Meanwhile, Metro Atlanta will host a new mega music fest, The Echo Project, south of Atlanta in October.
Corndogorama started out as a gimmick, created in 1996 by guitarist Dave Railey to showcase his band at the time, Ancient Chinese Secret. “It was a joke, really. We exhausted our crowds. I think they were tired of us. So we just put on a punk rock show and served corndogs and it’s grown every year since then,” Railey says.
Railey figures 2,500 people show up to the four-day event, red-letter days for Atlanta indie and metal music fans. This past July it moved from The Earl, where it lived for six years, to Lenny’s Bar, a larger venue where indoor and outdoor stages held up under 60 bands while Amanda Lagoo stayed busy selling corndogs.
“This is, by far, my crew’s favorite event. They beg to work this one,” says Lagoo, whose company, Jalapeno Corndog Concessions, has worked the festival for 10 years. Her business is typical of the mobile, symbiotic ventures that thrive on music festivals. She sold about 10,000 corndogs at Bonnaroo this year, but the 1,000 she sells at Corndogorama are more satisfying.
Bonnaroo, the megafest in Tennessee, tries to hearken back to the classic large rock events of the 1960s and ’70s, like the old Atlanta International Pop Festivals (1969-1970), both organized by Cooley. The first one, which featured Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin, preceded Woodstock. The 1970 version, held in Byron, drew about 500,000 people to see headliners such as Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers.
Music festival history dates back to ancient Greece, but in Georgia it generally starts with those first Atlanta pop festivals.
“They weren’t really concerts. They were watershed events,” says Hugh Fenlon of Clarkesville, an Atlanta native who attended both festivals. “I’m not sure what made a bigger impression on me, the music or the social scene.”
At least one Georgia event still pursues the counterculture spirit of the 1960s era pop festivals. Last year, at a farm in rural Buckhead, “The Day the Music Never Stopped Festival” debuted, evoking Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead. The second version happens this October.
“No one has had a bigger impression on me musically than Jerry Garcia,” says Jamie Hood, musician and director of The Day festival, one of several Georgia events organized as a commemoration – there’s the McTell Festival in Thomson, and in Macon they have the Bragg Jam, a one-day event spread among several indoor venues, created by friends of Brax and Tate Bragg, brother musicians killed in a July 1999 auto accident.
“They were supposed to play here in downtown Macon at the Rookery, which is now one of our festival venues,” says Wes Griffith, a Bragg Jam organizer. “Instead, some of their friends got together to play the gig they would have played, and that morphed into the Bragg Jam.”
Meanwhile, The Day festival in Buckhead strives to capture the tie-dyed essence of those famous marathon Grateful Dead concerts.
“I’m not one of those guys who followed the Dead around and saw them 9,000 times, but I saw my share, and I loved the vibe, the crowd, even the smell of the crowd,” Hood says. “This is our way of celebrating that whole scene. I know there are a zillion people who feel the same way that I do.”
Only 1,200 of them showed up at last year’s two-day event, which featured a collection of Southern rock groups, including Big City Sunrise, and Herring, Rodgers and Sipe (one of their last shows before guitarist Jimmy Herring joined Widespread Panic).
The Day Festival was one of two inaugural events in Georgia that Thacker’s group helped break in last year. The Sautee Jamboree, which was partly his idea, debuted last September and returns later this month.
“It’s great to see a thing come to life for the first time, and better yet to see the musicians find life in one another and inspiration in one another’s music,” Thacker says with enthusiasm. “When that kind of chemistry happens, there’s a level of comfort and openness that translates clearly to the audience.”
These small events carry on with big intentions.
This year, The Day will raise money for the Brain Tumor Foundation for Kids, the Georgia Wildlife Federation and the Taylor Kinchen Fund (benefiting a local child and family). Bragg Jam expects to raise about $20,000 for the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail. In Sautee, they’re raising money to rehabilitate historic buildings at the local community center.
“I’ve always loved employing artists and giving them a stage, and bringing artists together who mesh well. That’s a whole other level of creativity, an art form unto itself,” says Tommy Deadwyler, co-creator and director of the Sautee Jamboree. “The bottom line is, you don’t do this to get rich. You do it for the love of music. Being able to tie that into a fund-raising event? That’s almost perfect.”
Music festivals in Georgia come in every shape and size. Among the notable:
• The Big E Festival in Cornelia, where dozens of Elvis impersonators meet and perform every August to commemorate the death of the King.
• The 21-year-old Atlanta Fest, a Christian music festival that draws more than 20,000 each summer.
• At 30 years old, the Atlanta Jazz Festival is one of the state’s longest running events, the largest music festival in terms of attendance and the largest free jazz festival in the country.
“Jazz is universal, an American art form adapted and adopted by every culture in the world,” says Camille Love, director of the city of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which produces the event. “We think it’s suitable in any venue. I think this festival has proven that over 30 years.”
A month-long celebration featuring 31 days of jazz (a slew of events and educational opportunities at venues across the city), the Atlanta Jazz Festival drew more than 150,000 spectators to free performances in Piedmont Park (Herbie Hancock led the lineup) over the Memorial Day weekend.
Love also is responsible for producing the Atlanta Montreux Jazz Festival, another free event, held during Labor Day weekend at Underground Atlanta. She says her office is in the process of gauging the economic impact of the May festival, which costs more than $600,000 to produce.
Down in Savannah, two music festivals are washing away the dust of everyday life and generating an impact of more than $20 million for Georgia’s first city.
This month, the 26th Savannah Jazz Festival will feature its annual slate of free performances in Forsyth Park and, for the first time, Armstrong Atlantic State University. An eighth day has been added to the event, which drew 20,000 people last year.
And right now, Rob Gibson is cultivating next spring’s Savannah Music Festival (SMF), one of the more ambitious and distinctive music fests in the country. This year, over 18 days spanning March and April, the event drew 55,000 people to see 587 artists from across the musical spectrum and across the globe, showcased in 109 events. The $2.6 million festival generated a record $19.7 million for the local economy.
“This city was settled by English people, Jewish people, African people, beggars, thieves – a real melting pot,” says Gibson, executive and artistic director of SMF. “This is the oldest city in Georgia. There have been a lot of cultural influences here and we’re trying to represent all of that in an artistic fashion.”
Gibson, a Georgia native who directed the Atlanta Jazz Festival before launching the seminal Jazz at Lincoln Center program in New York City, has great expectations for Savannah. He’d like to add a large outdoor venue. He’d like to add more free events and, with an eye up the coast to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, he’d like SMF to become recognized as one of the world’s great cultural events.
“One thing I hope we accomplish is to teach people about the history of the world,” says Gibson, who taught American music history at the Juilliard School. “You can do that through furniture, through ship building, through map making. And you can definitely do that through music.”