As we come up on August I’m having another flush of sadness. I thought I had gotten over it, but I haven’t. Mourning is like that.
You see, Athens Popfest is dead.
I only attended Athens Popfest for 3 years, 2016 through 2018, but it will always have a special place in that part of my psyche where great music, friendship, camaraderie, nostalgia, and some of my own personal history intermingle.
That first year I went, 2016, was also a sort of homecoming for me. I had lived in Athens in the 80s and 90s, during the rise of R.E.M. and the era documented in the film Athens, GA Inside/Out (you can get the DVD on Amazon), and had been away for nearly 17 years. Love Tractor, a beloved Athens band from that era, was headlining the festival, so I figured it was the perfect opportunity to come back to the little A, see some good music, and catch up with some old friends. I got a lot more than I bargained for.
Why I’ve Never Been a Fan of Music Festivals
As someone who is known for being a big indie music fan, it’s pretty tough to admit that I’ve never been too keen on music festivals. Ironically, the reason for this has to do with my time in Athens, GA.
Having spent many years in an indie music mecca, I got used to seeing great bands in very intimate settings. Talking with the band after a show was normal, not because I had purchased some expensive V.I.P. pass, but rather because there were only 50 people in the club and the band was staying at a friend’s house. Live music experiences were always on a more personal, friendly level, and the people around me at practically any given show were like family.
Contrasting that with some of my festival experiences has been pretty tough. Standing on hot concrete or in a muddy field, hundreds of yards from the band, surrounded by thousands of boisterous weekend warrior types who obviously don’t get out much can be challenging at times.
Don’t get me wrong, I get it. I do understand the appeal of a big music festival and have enjoyed the exhilaration and energy of being part of a huge festival crowd. It’s a big party and music is only part of the experience. I will gladly attend big crowded music festivals in the future.
It’s just that I’ve always dreamt of a music festival that was more like a film festival, where there was complete immersion in the music, more intimacy in the venues, and a degree of accessibility to the artists. I wanted that exhilaration I had back in Athens in the 80s, of seeing a favorite band in a small club, surrounded by an audience made up of friends and members of other great bands.
Athens Popfest was exactly this.
Why I loved Athens Popfest
I want to share some specific things I really liked about Athens Popfest. I’m not inferring that if another festival doesn’t do these things it isn’t worth going to. On the contrary, every festival is completely different and should be. Geography, local culture, laws, finances, sponsorships, and crowd sizes all play huge roles in how a festival is organized and some of the things below would be completely impossible or ridiculous for another festival to try to do.
So, what follows are just some things that, for me, really added to the overall awesome experience of Athens Popfest.
The Music Truly Felt Curated
We all have different tastes and types of music we gravitate to and for me it is post punk. Athens, GA is an acknowledged cradle of post punk along with Manchester, England and New York, New York, which has a lot to do with how I ended up there – and why Athens Popfest notably skews post punk in the music selection. It’s the “sound of the city”.
All three years I attended Athens Popfest, it featured seminal post punk bands like ESG, Oh-Ok, Joe Jack Talcum, and the aforementioned Love Tractor along with some newer post punk / post pop stalwarts including Shopping, Ought, Laetitia Sadier, and Pylon Reenactment Society (featuring Vanessa Briscoe Hay from the original Pylon!).
There was also an impressive lineup of newer indie/alternative bands like Waxahatchee, Palehound, R Ring, Ex Hex, Die Alps! Deerhoof, Rat Fancy, and Man or Astroman?. Mixed in were local favorites like Eureka California, Tunabunny, and Antlered Aunt Lord, and of course a strong showing of Elephant 6 bands including Apples in Stereo, Elf Power, Casper & the Cookies, Dressy Bessy, Marshmallow Coast, and Air Sea Dolphin.
The lineups at Athens Popfest took the festival goer to some really fun music spaces. Most notably were the fantastic hip hop performances. My personal favorites were Linqua Franqa, Wes Da Ruler, and Dopeknife.
Each Athens Popfest I attended offered a very thoughtful lineup of acts that mixed old and new, expected and surprising, and comforting and challenging. You could trust that every band was at the very least going to be interesting and because of this you went into each venue with an open mind and were always rewarded for it. By the end of each festival you not only had some new favorite bands to continue to explore, but new sub genres of music to plumb.
Bands Never Played at the Same Time
I think another thing that leant a “curated” feel to the festival was that the bands played one at a time. You could actually see the entire festival and not miss a single minute of music.
With today’s short attention spans and instant gratification ethos, I would imagine that a lot of festival organizers (especially those in charge of larger festivals) would be terrified of the thought of there not being a few choices of music to see at any given time.
But a lot of music fans like myself, not only have the patience to sit through a performance that may not be their cup of tea, but more often than not are thankful to be exposed to something new. Although I like to think I have an open mind, I would probably have missed many of these acts at a bigger festival. I could see myself running around trying to get to a performance that was more familiar to me, not willing to risk valuable festival time seeing something unknown. When acts play one at a time it completely removes that dynamic and causes you to give yourself up completely to the festival.
Another result of having one performance at a time was the camaraderie of the audience. I made quite a few friends every year I attended Popfest and many of these were from out of state or even out of country. At every venue you could look around and see familiar faces. Meeting new people and having some truly amazing conversations about life and music was definitely a highlight of all my Athens Popfest experiences.
A Dinner Break
Ironically some of these great conversations were not at the festival but rather during an intermission that served as the unofficial dinner break.
There was a block of time (around an hour and a half) around dinner time on some evenings of the festival where there were no acts. This was fantastic because you could quickly get together a group of friends new and old to grab dinner at one of Athens’ stellar eateries like the Grit, Ted’s Most Best, Clocked, or World Famous.
Often these dinner groups would include performers from the festival since many were in the crowd watching the show when dinner plans were being formulated. And since there was no music going on, you didn’t feel bad about missing an act or feel rushed to catch an artist you wanted to see. Dinner was relaxed, fun, and a great break from a long day of watching great music.
A Variety of Venues
All in all, Athens Popfest was not a big festival, with some of the acts earlier in the day pulling in audience sizes you would see on a typical Saturday night in Athens. But the final acts on Saturday Night filled the Georgia Theatre, a large space suited for prominent national and international acts.
What really worked here was that the venues were perfectly suited to the audience draw throughout the day and into the night. No matter where you were, you never felt crowded, but you were part of a crowd. Basically, you could always enjoy the music without fighting for the tiny bit of earth you were occupying. That has not always been my personal experience with music festivals.
From talking to others who attended Athens Popfest, I think we all universally agree that one of our favorite experiences at the festival was hanging out at the picnic tables behind Little Kings Shuffle Club. Invariably you would end up having amazing conversations with other music fans, members from the bands that were playing, and occasionally even a music legend or two. Every last person was friendly, approachable, and welcoming. And the conversations and laughter were a delicious icing on the Athens Popfest music cake.
An Incredible Entertainment Bargain
Music festivals get a very bad wrap for being outrageously expensive. It is true that many are ridiculously overpriced, but some smaller, regional festivals are completely the opposite and actually one of the best entertainment bargains you could ever come across.
I’m not sure of the exact amounts I paid offhand, but I believe my ticket for each year of Athens Popfest was around 50 to 60 bucks. This is for four days of music and around 50 bands! Do the math: That’s around $12 per day or $1 per band. That’s completely crazy especially since many of the headlining acts would cost that full festival admission price on their own in a bigger city.
I think the takeaway here is if you are a big indie music fan, forgo the big, popular and expensive festivals and instead look for these smaller regional festivals. Not only are they far more affordable, but because they are smaller and more friendly, you may find a local who would happily put you up or at least recommend some inexpensive accommodations.
Seriously, you would be hard pressed to get more out of your entertainment dollar that you could at a festival like Athens Popfest. And if you now are lamenting the demise of this festival, stay tuned. I’ll give you a heads up on a new festival here in Athens below that is really worth checking out.
A Sincere Thank You to Michael Turner
The creator and organizer of Athens Popfest was Michael Turner of HHBTM Records. I can’t imagine the mountain of financial, logistical, and organizational obstacles a festival organizer must climb to make a festival like Athens Popfest happen, but I am thankful that Michael created such an amazing event and that I was able to catch a few years of it.
If you would like to not only support Michael, but indie music in general, please go to the HHBTM website and buy some music! And if you are interested in booking one of the HHBTM bands, there is a complete list of contacts on the About page.
Thank you, Michael Turner!
AdVerse Fest: A New Music Festival to Get Excited About
So we may have lost one great music festival, but we’ve gained another!
The inspiration and creation of AC Carter (aka Lambda Celsius), AdVerse Fest is a two day music and performance art festival also in Athens that debuted last March (2019). What sets AdVerse Fest apart from other music festivals is that all the acts feature either solo or duo performers and are very visual and performance oriented.
I caught one day of the festival last March and was blown away at the quality of the acts and fun of the performances. They ranged from straight forward “belt it out” musical performances, to more visual artistic expressions, to highly experimental, but all shared the common fertile soil of independent music and voices.
Like Athens Popfest, this is a festival you want to give yourself over to. It has that special “curated” feel. The acts are carefully selected and, while fitting a certain parameter, spill boldly over the edges. So go with an open mind, and be ready to be entertained, challenged, and blown away by the performances you see and the people you meet.
The two day festival featured nearly forty acts in three different venues. The price? $15 for both days!!!
AC says AdVerse Fest 2020 is a go and we’ll have more details soon.
So put AdVerse Fest on your calendar for March and support indie music by going to local shows and purchasing music and apparel from the artists and independent record labels whenever you can.
Long Live Independent Music!