Athfest – Athens, GA – June 23-26, 2016
Athens, Georgia is a musical hotbed. Its annual Athfest (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year) is a great proving ground for the immense talent here, past and present. This year’s fest, which occurred during the weekend of June 24-26, featured old favorites and some great new faces from Athens and surrounding areas. Beginning with the Flagpole Music Awards on Thursday the 23rd, which is sponsored by the great local weekly Flagpole, which serves as a beginning of the festival and going through Sunday night’s closing headliner Kishi Bashi, it was another great festival to remember. Of the 37 performances I caught, the following were my highlights:
*Pylon Reenactment Society: One of Athens’ greatest treasures (and one of the greatest rock bands ever, IMHO) is Pylon. To keep the music alive for a band that had been in existence on and off from 1979 onward and that permanently disbanded after the death of guitarist Randy Bewley in 2009, Pylon lead singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay and a crack team of local musicians now resurrect the tunes for live consumption to great effect. Though they only played three songs at the Flagpole Awards, to hear “Cool” live, especially with guest original bassist Michael Lachowski, was an incredible treat. Hay’s acceptance speech for Tribute Band award was stirring in its awareness of the greater good beyond music.
*Mothers: I first caught Mothers last year at Athfest and was fascinated by their unique rock aesthetics. Now, after exploding onto the national indie rock scene with their brilliant LP When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired, they are one of Athens’ brightest stars. They played the Flagpole Awards and nabbed three awards including Artist of the Year and then played a headline spot on the club crawl on Friday at the legendary 40 Watt Club. Elusive, elliptical, haunting, the Kristine Leschper-led band is entrancing live and on record.
*Athens Cowboy Choir: The immense band of twelve vocalists and two instrumentalists is a sight to behold and a wonder to hear. With appropriate cowboy gear and voices out of a vision of the deep past, their renderings of such songs as “[Ghost] Riders in the Sky” has to be seen and heard to be believed.
*Nikki Lane: The country taste of Nikki Lane is sweet and bitter, and the Nashville-based songstress wove a potent musical tale for pre-festival goers at the 40 Watt Thursday show.
*Kevn Kinney: One of the great modern songwriters, best known for his leadership of Drivin’ N’ Cryin,’ is electrifying in solo form. Here, with a single guitar to open official Athfest shows on a blazing 95-degree outdoor stage on Friday, he played an hour of brilliant tunes, from “MacDougal Blues” to “Straight to Hell.”
*Jim White & Friends: Jim White is a premier Americana performer and he put on an excellent outdoor show on Friday. A brilliant player and writer, his songs seem to be from a lost novel and they are even more powerful live.
*Family and Friends were a fun, raucous outdoor stage headliner. The crowd enthusiastically received the folk rockers for a sunny set to bridge the gap to the night’s indoor activities.
*Muuy Biien: The Athens punk outfit is better every time I see them. On a bigger stage — the vast Georgia Theatre — lead singer Joshua Evans could roam and jump around all the more while delivering vocal explosions accompanied by the rest of this great band.
*Nihilist Cheerleader: A super-fun rock show in intimate confines is always welcome, and Nihilist Cheerleader provided this in spades on Friday night. Youthful and beaming with energy, they were a true blast.
*The Coathangers: The Atlanta threesome of The Coathangers is one of the best of modern punk rock. Playing behind their 2016 Nosebleed Weekend, they put on a phenomenal show as the deserved headliner at Georgia Theatre on Friday.
*Chelsea Shag: The soulful upstart provided some gorgeous beats in air conditioning on a sweltering Saturday in support of her recently released Colours.
*Dodd Ferrelle and The Winter Villains: If only all mayors were as cool as the expert rock guitarist Dodd Ferrelle. Winterville, Georgia’s mayor shows how music and politics can mix.
*Reverend Tribble: Pure showmanship from beginning to end, Reverend Conner Tribble was my favorite personal discovery this Athfest. Dating back to the Athens of the 1970’s and a recent return from a time in New York, Tribble’s “$3.08 Worth of Funk” is certainly one of the catchiest songs of the year.
*Arrested Development: The Atlanta hip hoppers brought a brilliant show to the main stage headlining slot on Saturday. “Tennessee” and “Mr. Wendal” wowed live and Speech is a great band leader, bringing out the sounds and voices of a great current band to a crowd that could have listened to them for an hour more.
*Lingua Franca: The intimate space of Cine was the perfect venue for this brilliant rapper to bring her wordplay to life. She wrapped the crowd around her finger and every phrase for an exhilarating Saturday night set.
*Five Eight: Athens mainstays Five Eight just keep getting better and better. Leader Mike Mantione began in a suit for their Sunday afternoon set in which they kept doing song after song about death. Their sound pounced on the ears and soul, replacing thoughts of the heat with the belief in rock and roll.
*Monsoon: A one-woman wrecking crew, Sienna Chandler, led Monsoon through a red, sparkling minefield of No Doubt-inspirations and the many hints of a star in the making. Surely a force that will only get better, I cannot wait to see what the future holds in store.
*Kishi Bashi: The eclectic violin and alt-rock wunderkind closed out Athfest in style. With an audience as varied in age as you could ever expect at a rock show as he has appealing aspects to children and older adults alike, he dazzled with strings and key arrangements as an impending setting sun brought yet another fantastic Athfest to a close.
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 6, 2016.
Photos by Chris Sikich © 2016.