Athens, GA: 25 years later

Downtown AthensTwenty-five years ago, Athens, Ga. was the king of the alt-rock/indie-rock/college rock scene. (Gen Y folks: It was the Seattle of the 80s.) With bands such as R.E.M., Pylon, and the B-52s gaining national attention, artists flocked to the city hoping to get noticed.

I happened to be in college during that time, and I was like a kid in a candy store. Every Friday night you could find some up-and-coming band that was “the next R.E.M.” It was a place of excitement and innovation. Michael Stipe sightings were frequent. It was a wonderful place to be.

Now, R.E.M. have broken up, the B-52s are relegated to adult contemporary radio stations, and Athens seems to be just another college town with its own set of bands that play the circuit. But a few weeks ago, I decided to go back to my old haunt and see if I could find that spark somewhere.

Some of the old places were still standing; the renovated Georgia Theatre looked the same as it did before fire destroyed it in 2009. The Grill still served fantastic milkshakes. Wuxtry Records has managed to stay open despite the digital revolution. And the 40 Watt Club was still playing live music, albeit in a different place from where it originally was.

I walked down Clayton Street, and things really did seem the same: college students flocking together, heading for their favorite watering hole; bars battling for customers with a cacophony of different music playing several doors away from each other; homeless people muttering to themselves and asking for money. It felt…comfortable, familiar.

I stopped by a few of the venues that were highlighting some of the more talented acts, according to the intown tabloid, Flagpole. But I found most of it loud, raucous and tuneless. It lacked the excitement and sharp musicianship that I had grown accustomed to in the old Athens.

But more than likely, I had changed. I don’t like roller coasters anymore; they give me a headache. I no longer play Nerf basketball for hours on end, pretending that I was the next Larry Bird. Was I – gasp! – getting old?

I walked away from the crowds and found myself at Hendershot’s, a coffee shop/bar just off the main downtown scene. It had seating and two rickety couches that sank almost to the floor when you sat on them. The artist performing that night was Chris Gustin, a solo electric violinist who records tracks in real time onstage, creating loops which he then layers other tracks over to create the sound of a string quartet.

The sound shifted between melancholy and joyfulness; at times his instrument sounded like a classical violin, and others it had the twang and lilt of a bluegrass fiddle. It was hypnotizing. Later I found out that this was his first public performance; his co-workers from his real job had come out to cheer him on.

After the show, people asked Gustin if he had a CD they could buy. But he was so new, so fresh on the scene, that he had only a Facebook page to share.

This was the Athens I had discovered as a young adult – unknowns debuting new sounds, people getting excited and mesmerized by something that was different. Granted, the music was less upbeat and more suited for a 30-40 something crowd. But even though my tastes had shifted a little off the well-worn path of downtown Athens, my feelings toward what I was hearing hadn’t changed.

Athens was still Athens, and I still loved music. I left satisfied and rejuvenated.

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