Athens Popfest 2016, Day 3 – The Crush
Tim Darcy of Ought. All photos taken by John Roark.
Lunchbox video by Claude Cardenas; all other videos taken by Jason Seiple.
August 12, 2016
Grunt. I’m up Friday morning, but sheer force of will keeps my body upright. I’ve probably slept four hours, and my whole lower body aches from the jubilation of last night. At least I’ve got until two to compose myself, I think as I slump into the office I’ve borrowed for the week. At least all I have to do is –
Yet at 12:30, I find myself mumbling to Jason Seiple in front of the Grit, plucking out the greens of a grain and greens bowl. And Jason, I apologize if I seemed dour at the time – but when forced upon the company of people for an extended period of time, my whole being does tend to break down. My inability to sleep the night before did not help, either.
Nevertheless, we return yet again to Little Kings. Dena’s back – not that she was absent yesterday, I just lacked any outstanding memories of her. She’s telling me that she needs to stop charging her card so much, because the pile of receipts are piling on her desk, and if she’s not careful, they’ll tumble and the cat will choke on them. I’m not sure how to answer this – I can’t say aren’t you worried about the actual money – so I just nod knowingly.
What are the first band, Wieuca? Not enough, basically – I’m standing in the crowd, staring at these four guys, and not one second of this standard rock procedure pierces through my misanthropic slump. Folks in front of me are nodding along, and I cannot fathom where their enthusiasm springs from. There are hooks, and there are riffs, and there is a sloppy aesthetic propped up by the band’s vaguely southern-fried flavor and slacker mentality, but none of this equates to anything that holds my attention. Wieuca reserve their praise for PBR – who, admittedly, have pulled out all the stops in their sponsorship for Popfest, granting each of us narrow cozies to fit their cans and (the running gag of the week) branded lip balm. But endorsing a beer company instead of other bands or the hard-working individuals who birthed the whole fest in the first place? Hence, my indifference.
After standing through Wieuca, I cast my eyes about the room for someone to talk to, someone to invigorate the sleeping socialite in me. Mike Turner – the mastermind of Popfest – is chatting with someone unfamiliar, and seems to be at ease (which is rare, in these scenarios). I poke in, and he introduces me to Steev Rullman, writer and editor of the Florida-based zine, Pure Honey. I’d seen some colorful issues lying around the tables, and snatched one out of habit; now the dots connect, and the knots in me start unraveling as we introduce each other and migrate to the back patio. I’m so absorbed in conversation, in unwinding myself and regaining what magic I’d lacked a few minutes earlier, that I miss when Romantic States take the stage, and Steev has to remind me to head back inside.
Thank goodness we did, as now the Popfest spirit was back. Romantic States were a duo, a man with a wistful gaze on guitar and a lady that radiated calm and solace on drums. Together they played gentle, soothing things – the sort of calm that sets in at dusk, when the cicadas start to buzz. I silently note the drummer’s bare feet on the pedals – which makes me happy, as I couldn’t play drums with my shoes on, either. They remind me of the secret 90s bands that you only stumble on through word of mouth, or by words printed emphatically on pages. The duo doesn’t talk much, but they don’t need to. Banter would ruin the spell of the hush.
My miserly curse has been broken. Now Athens is lovely again, even though every surface on the back patio is soggy from the recent shower. I hang out for a while with Soccer Tees and Dead Neighbors; behind us, some of the Tunabunnies are chillin’ with Noam, Scott and Brigette’s little son. Folks come and go with little tykes during the day shows, always with nice big headphones on to protect their ears. That’d make Mike happy, I think to myself. Little Kings has always prided itself in being a neighborhood bar, the kind that offers board games, complimentary gummy bears and roasted nuts, and tons of cozy couches. Last year, the club even banned college-age students from the venue after a nasty altercation. The Popfest’s presence here at Little Kings certainly affirms that communal vibe.
Once again, I’ve failed to catch the start of another band – live music emanates from within, and so I rise to poke back into Little Kings and see what’s up. Schwervon are another guitar-drums couple, again with the man on the former and the woman on the latter, again razor-sharp and vital – but where Romantic States shared devout secrets, these two bond over mutual quirks and charms. Nan Turner informs us about the inspired sources of their lyrics, like the one they wrote after moving and finding tons more churches around. In their most winning moment, Matthew Roth announces that he wrote a poem, and Turner – who hadn’t heard the poem until now – would perform an interpretive dance. And so she does, with slow flounces and exaggerating skipping and, toward the end (for the line “lying down, baking on the sidewalk, like a bread stick” – I think), a dramatic faint. It’s only for fun, of course, but that’s exactly why we cheer even more.
The evening draws nearer. I dare not venture outside this time, as I’m keen to drink in the cherry cola sweetness of Lunchbox. Even as I sidle up to the front, though, my thoughts drift further ahead – and, as I’ve done reflexively all afternoon, I find myself casting my eyes around the growing crowd, trying to spot the tall, unreasonably handsome man I’d glimpsed last night. Lunchbox didn’t disappoint, mind. Timothy Brown impresses us with his gracious and affluent manner – he apologizes for the band’s late arrival, as their keyboardist Evelyn Davis had cut her hand and had to be retrieved from the emergency room. (And thus, she dangles from her hip the damaged hand in its blue cast, which I’d barely registered until that moment.) “She’s a trooper,” Timothy says, and we cheer our approval. “The show must go on, like Ethel Merman, and other historical figures of the stage and screen.” Thank goodness, as her carnival-esque keys are the cotton candy essence of Lunchbox’s sweet sweet throwback jangle.
By this time, I’ve given up on the beer experiments, but I’m still determined to have dinner with a different party. And lo! Here’s Jill again, my lovely dance partner from last night. I ask if she’d be game for pizza, and she is; a few minutes later, we’ve settled into a booth at Little Italy, awaiting our slices. My fork-and-knife technique amuses her, for denizens of New York scoff at such niceties. John Stuart – he who was fraternizing with Alice, of Cosines – finds us and joins in, and now we are a proper party, sharing stories and laughing with each other. Now I can finally ask him, what was that collective you said you were in last night? Upset the Rhythm, he replies, and I am all OHHHHHHHHHH, because I wrote this not too long ago, and this last year, and they’ve put out so many other cool things (Trash Kit, Deerhoof, Sauna Youth) that I completely forget to mention them. He’s also worked in radio, which used to be my dream as a kid (my volunteer DJ title at Dandelion Radio slips often from my mind). I can’t tell Stuart this, but he’s the kind of adult I’d like to grow up into – knowledgeable, level-headed, and willing to talk and listen to greenies like me who stumble on words from time to time.
Once we’ve said all we can say, we migrate back to the theater. Oddly, no one at the front door asks me to take off my backpack this time (that’s how I was able to free my body for Gauche and Shopping last night), so on it stays. John is mingling with this cool lady named Courtney, who I’ve sat with before at Little Kings – and we will meet again, tomorrow, but for now I listen to her stories about old pen pals, and the dozens of letters she wrote to them, all in different handwritings. Across the room, the Bastards of Fate are congregating, in their spiffy suits, Jason Wells’s fabulous rock afro wig, and Camilla Delk’s lacy horror starlet dress. I say hi meekly – you know how it is, when you meet the folks behind the nutcase goblin racket you’ve adored for nearly two years.
Grand Vapids are one of those bands that only other Athenites would be psyched for. That’s cos they’re the type of guys that don’t get out of Athens much, even though (or maybe because?) the town nominated their debut album as the best of the year back in 2015. They are definitely blokes with guitars, and specifically blokes into “serious” guitar rock tropes – sullen but not saturnine, dreamy but not surreal, catchy but not memorable. I do chuckle at one of their jokes, though, wherein they marvel at the generous size of the crowd at such an early (i.e 8:30 PM) time – which, indeed, is the kind of in-joke you’d expect from a very in-crowd kind of band.
Like Grand Vapids, Feather Trade also hail from here; unlike Grand Vapids, they are not part of the in-crowd. Both Chisholm Thompson and Natalie Gazaway have ruffled feathers for being radical in separate ways – the former for his sharp upbraidings of the complacent and amoral, the latter for her unbridled sensuality. I’ve seen Feather Trade half a dozen times, including once at the esteemed 40 Watt a block away – but nowhere else does their moody black post-punk reverberate so clearly (finally, the scathing lyrics cut through all the velveteen distortion), and nowhere else have I seen Thompson so deftly pour himself into his act. The drummer shakes loose his hair and pounds all over his kit; Gazaway pumps silky slithering bass lines with her irresistible finesse. My friends and I agree: for the Feather Trade have never looked, strutted, and sounded more like bona fide rock stars. (Emileigh Ireland takes Thompson aside afterwards, and with dripping irony admonishes, “We need to talk about your future…”)
Now, Thompson’s an attractive guy with an alluring glamor, no doubt – he’d just dyed his hair pink yesterday – but I hadn’t expected to see the gaggle of young ladies cheering emphatically before me. This amuses me to no end, for Thompson isn’t a Don Juan type at all; indeed, when I suggested later that these were “fan girls”, he completely dismissed the idea, insisting that they were only very enthusiastic festival goers. Well, be what they may, Feather Trade nevertheless knocked everyone’s socks off – particularly with their new shirts, which Thompson described to the crowd with relish: “Athens: Rich Kids Pretending To Be Poor Kids Pretending To Be Artists”. (As you might imagine, debates are still spiraling around that phrase on Facebook.)
I think I saw him at this time, the young man I’d been idly scanning for all day, standing way in the back on the long ramp to the green room. Tall, static, impossible to read. Yes, it’s him – the face by the Ought bio that I wrote for the Popfest guide. You must understand: Mike handed that bio down to me because he knew – and I know he knew – how much music can electrify me. And I needed the electricity. Tim Darcy’s incendiary courage in the fight against apathy – in Ought, on his college campus in Montreal, in his spoken word side project even – burst my heart apart, and it bled all over that damn blurb.
But alas! I’m holding steady, I’m popping into conversations and breathing in as steady a pace as I can manage. The Guerilla Toss gang step up next, and they’ve ascended miles since 2013, when I saw them antagonize a throbbing crowd with sheet metal noise. Funny, though – that gig may have been where they first sighted the psychedelic projections (via local tribesmen The Cult of Riggiona) that now illuminate their set, as if Kassie Carlson and her crew had hijacked a dozen Alfred Hitchcock movies in neon. And while they don’t rain sheet metal on the theatre, they certainly beguile festival-goers with dank slug bass and Carlson’s shrill abstract poetry. I love watching her as she shoots the words at us, prowling from one side to the next, crouching and standing, pointing and gesticulating through the funky slime around her.
Still, as violently as Guerilla Toss try to shake things up, they only unroll the radioactive carpet for the one and only Bastards of Fate. Where before we hapless listeners were spiraling through Technicolor, now the stage is shrouded in dusk. How to describe this madness! Oingo Boingo meets death metal? Wall of Voodoo in a showdown with the Thing? And I’m down in the swamp with everyone else around me, because none of these songs ring any bells; and for the first time this evening I’m enthralled by the unknown. In fifteen minutes, we’d traipse from prophetic nightmares to sashaying pop scat to high-flying rock smack – a dizzying feat enough, but death-defying stunts are nothing to Doug Cheatwood, the band’s lightbulb-swinging frontman. He flounces, he struts, he staggers, and my oh my, what other voice could so utterly disarm and derail the innocent, beckon to demons or croon to the full moon? And Delk’s madcap synths tickle the beast, accenting the kookiness central to the Bastards’ twilight aesthetic.
Granted, as much mischief as the Bastards cast that night, everyone later would only recall one line. Twenty minutes into the set, Wells instructs us to hold out our lighters and cell phones, as we’re about to have a “moment”. The folks behind me willingly oblige; I and nearby companions, sensing hijinks, keep our hands down. So the punters wave, and Delk begins a pretty piano intro, and sings: ”Everybody’s talking bout the neon butthole”. Hands freeze, folks exchange glances. Talking about the what? The butthole? Delk repeats the phrase – and indeed, everyone is talking about the neon butthole. Me, I’m doubled over giggling; never in recent memory have I seen so many concert-goers so utterly bamboozled. (Wells informs me after the set that the indelible phrase was entirely Delk’s idea, born from a very fortunate misinterpretation.)
In the wake of the Bastards, the crowd disperses – and the grand theatre feels far roomier at this time tonight than last night. That could be because neither the Bastards nor the cult sorcerers that follow, His Name Is Alive, have ever garnered more than small but devout followings. And that’s particularly saddening for the latter, as Warren Defever has enchanted critics here and afar for nearly thirty years. Indeed, it was through Karren Ablaze’s recent book that I first stumbled upon HNIA – then I found Stars on ESP in the CD rack at Wuxtry soon afterwards, and thus dived headfirst into wonder and mystery. Few others in attendance had experienced the same revelation, at least among the folks that I spoke with.
Like Joseph Kyle (who wrote HNIA’s bio for the Popfest guide), I’m not quite sure what to expect. Defever’s last expedition, 2014’s Tecuciztecatl, was a peachy prog rock odyssey, lightyears removed from the whispered Beach Boys incantations of the album I knew and loved, and so in the headphones sounded sour and strange. But tonight, a deep rumble emanates from HNIA’s new, Jethro Tull-ish journeys and reverberates in our chests. Andrea Francesca Morici (aka Andy FM) stands statuesque on the synth, majestic and proud like Princess Zelda; Defever wears a bandana on his head, as if to signify his new role as fictional guitar hero. Fictional, of course, because that he is not – in the midst of the set, he drops his axe entirely and launches into a hypnotic oscillation on a synth pad. A gearhead would’ve looped the passage on a pedal, but Defever taps out the entire song, over and over, into that nirvana state of repetition. For that alone, I’d commend them; but then Defever also reined in his guitar and Andy FM sings Stars on ESP’s theme song, the sparkling little talisman that carried me through many a miserable drive in Athens. They can’t see me, but I’m whispering the words underneath them: “this world is not my own / I’m just passing through”. Bless you both.
But once HNIA take their bow, my heart starts to palpitate. I can’t stop it. I try to duck into the bathroom, engage in casual conversations with Zach and Ciera (of Soccer Tees), but anticipation is tickling me enough that I can’t conceal it any longer. What is this? Is this giddiness the signifier of fandom? Or have I really, truly, hopeless fallen for a voice, an author’s pen, a positive energy? I’m trying to still the palpitations by covering my hands over my chest. C’mon, Lee. You’re not a fan girl. You have seen and derided those.
But now Ought stand before us. In a flash, dudes upon dudes swarm the space around me. Their very presence scandalizes me – how do all these college blockheads, who discuss what’s on Netflix and where to buy more beer, understand the internal crises that Darcy speaks of? But no, I just have to see and hear and I’m fine – and my goodness. Yes, one can and should mention the incredibly well-oiled machine of Tim Keen’s clockwork drums and Matt May’s casual organ tones, grooves shifting and swapping with rolling ease over the painted lines of Ben Stidworth’s understated bass. But I can’t keep my eyes off Darcy. Performance electrifies him; every ounce of devotion to honesty, to clarity, it’s all in his face, in the way he delights in every word. My goodness. Something’s wrong from the get-go, though – I can’t tell what, but Darcy sprints to the side of the stage in the midst of the first song, without missing a beat (“Sun’s Coming Down”, FYI). By the end, he’s sporting a new guitar.
Oh. Oh my. No. Stop. I clutch my chest often, as to stop my fluttering heart from lifting me away. But I’m telling you, I can’t help it. The electricity. And this too – there is, in Darcy, a negation of gender, the sort of subtle androgyny that suits gentlemen, which excites me to no end. You can hear it on record, the way his voice slips into a velvety femme fetal; and I can see it now, in slight gestures. The finger wag over the guitar nearly kills me. But yes – of course Ought play “Beautiful Blue Sky”. Of course they play “Today, More Than Any Other Day”. Of course everyone in my vicinity is shouting all the words. I’m tempted, but I won’t. I can’t. I want to hear Darcy do it. I’m also happy to hear ‘Around Again’, the one with the “we have reached the intermission / and the Lord is in attendance” part at the end that always tickled me; and ‘Never Better’ is, indeed, a satisfying closer, particularly to hear and see Darcy pour over the final lines “I am driving a truck with everything / this is the high watermark of civilization”. They also play one that I don’t recognize, a slow ballad-type song with rose petal verses, clearly not the mature clattering credos of Ought’s current output. But you couldn’t look Darcy in the eye that night and express yr disgust, no – he bows to these bluer tones, he quails beneath them.
Unlike Deerhoof, Ought do not expect an encore – when they sign out, the lights go up. I’m still in thrall. The fear that had thrust me to the exit last night has evaporated. Some bloke from the college says hello to me; I can’t fathom why, but I let him exchange pleasantries with me. I’m trying to be casual again, trying to be objective to folks I talk to (though indeed I do still wonder why Ought didn’t unleash ‘Men for Miles’ – too close to home, maybe?). But who am I kidding – once I catch up with Natalie, the whole façade slips. I’m just waiting, I told her.
Now, having just finished Juliana Hatfield’s excellent autobiography, I’m minding my distance. In the book, she advised her readers to give the band a breather after they play. They have to come down. OK, then, I tell myself. You wait, then. And then I see Darcy descend from the ramp – and I can’t help myself. I’m following.
I should’ve stopped myself. I should’ve just abandoned the whole idea. The problem is, this image emerged months ago – that somehow, I could introduce myself as a writer to another writer, and thus something would click between us. Something like a conversation, at least. But I am a fool – I am talking fast, my hand brushes through my hair three times. I introduce myself as the one who wrote their bio in the guide, and he thanks me mutely, and we reach a dead stop. What else were we supposed to do? We’re both drained – he has ascended outside of himself to the realm that all musicians want to hit in their stride, and I have been overcome by his aura in that state of bliss. Who am I to intercept Darcy like this, to intercede in the already drawn-out process of packing away (which, in their case, was complicated with several loaned instruments)?
So nothing clicks. Of course nothing clicks. It doesn’t matter. The palpitations are still mine. I could write a million words, enhance my lexicon so that eloquent words could better express what ordinary lingo cannot, and yet I could never replicate in me the fluttering in me as I sailed home. Oh yes, Friday shone bright and clear – anywhere I turned, someone was there to validate my presence, and music lifted me out of my miserable mundane routine of a life, again and again. But what kept me up that night, well into 3 AM, was this: what is this trembling? Latent symptom of spending a day enmeshed in music? Consequence of that extra cup of coffee? Or mere awe before perceived intellect, honesty, bravery, command over the written and spoken word? Please, please, be anything but love.