Automatic for the people

April 3, 2012

According to Livability.com Athens, Georgia was named the #1 music scene outside of Nashville, NYC, and LA.  Woo hoo!  Although most Athenians probably know about the music scene and history here, the Classic City is definitely worthy of this national recognition.  I’m pretty pumped about the article, gives me some more support for my thesis…that pile of Athens info is getting rather large.

There’s a long and growing list of musicians that have called Athens home: B-52s, R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Randall Bramblett, Vic Chesnutt, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor ControlElf Power, Pylon, The Drive by Truckers, Of Montreal, The Whigs, Packway Handle Band…the list goes on and on

With a long list of established musicians, Athens is home to some significant venues as well.  Beginning with mid-century urban flight , historic theaters located in the urban core began to degrade as people shifted to the outskirts, and the big screen cinema followed.  Many incredible theaters and venues have been lost due to disrepair or demolition to make way for “bigger and better” venues.  Thankfully in recent years, there has been a resurgence in theater preservation.   In Athens, Georgia we are lucky that most of our significant venues are still standing and celebrated.  This post is dedicated to the venues that have set the stage for amazing performances by local Athens artists as well as those passing through.  There are so many important venues in Athens; my list is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Georgia Theatre

The Georgia Theatre has a long history in Athens starting in 1889 as a YMCA facility.  It has served the community as a Methodist church, Masonic temple, Sears and Roebuck, furniture store, movie theater, and finally a music venue.  June 19, 2009, the Theater caught fire and the building was gutted.  The Athens community and music lovers from all over came together to help raise money for the rebuild.

The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation assisted theater owner, Wilmot Green in creating the Georgia Theater Rehabilitation Fund, making possible for the theater to accept donations for the rebuilding process.

Georgia Theater Rehab Fund
Georgia Theater Rehabilitation Fund

Local Athens brewers, Terrapin Brewery, released the Georgia Theater Sessions, a beer series dedicated to the Georgia Theater’s history.  Funds generated by the sale of these beers will go to aid in the theater’s rebuilding.

Terrapin Brewery
The Georgia Theater Sessions

After a two-year rebuild, the Georgia Theater is open and thriving.  Located on the corner of Clayton and Lumpkin streets, the original theater was the first YMCA in Athens, and was an impressive Victorian structure with large turrets on the sides.  The ground floor was retail shops, and the other floors were occupied by the YMCA.

Old YMCA building photo courtesy of UGA Hargrett Special Collections Library

When the Elite Theater moved into the building, they decided to bring the theater into the popular Art Deco style, losing the majority of the Victorian stylistic elements.

When the theater was rebuilt, the theater facade was restored back to its Art Deco roots  (notice the paint around the commemorative plaque, it covers the entrance facade).  It has been inspiring to see the community and local Athens businesses come together to support this Athens landmark.  The Georgia Theatre continues sit on the corner of Clayton and Lumpkin streets and is listed in the Downtown Athens National Register Historic District as well as the Downtown Local Historic District.  The Georgia Theatre is once again alive and well in downtown Athens, serving up rock and roll every week.

Georgia Theatre entrance

commemorative plaque

interior photo taken from balcony
original brick walls

behind the marquee
art deco ceiling at entrance circa 1920s as movie house
GA Theatre Grand Opening
Grand Re-Opening poster
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Gillian Welch, one of my favorites, performing with David Rawlings August 14th.

The 40 Watt Club

The 40 Watt Club originated from an impromptu concert on Halloween in 1978.  The show was held in a loft on College Avenue owned by Curtis Crowe, of the band Strictly American.  A guest of the show dubbed the 40 watt name because they had nothing more than a single 40-watt light bulb to light the event; and with that an Athens legend was born.

poster 1981

This Athens, Georgia venue, along with others like CBGB and Whiskey a Go Go, helped catapult “New Wave” music onto the scene in the 1980s.  The 40 Watt club’s first location was on Broad street across from UGA’s North Campus, in a small space above what was once a sandwich shop (now the upstairs of Starbucks).  The 40 Watt moved several times, outgrowing each space, and in 1989, moved to its current location at the end of Washington Street downtown.  The 40 Watt isn’t on the National Register (yet), but it is included in the Downtown Athens National Register Historic District.

40 Watt Club

The club has a hefty show roster of artists, spanning a variety of genres that have played the 40 Watt.  Some of the notable: R.E.M., Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Indigo Girls, Nirvana, Modest Mouse, Drive by Truckers, Run DMC, Smashing Pumpkins, Ween, Wilco, Widespread Panic, b-52s, Pylon, Love Tractor, Sonic Youth, and Salt n Peppa…this list also goes on and on.  It remains a must go for music lovers everywhere.

Ween 40 Watt poster by Matt Leunig

Ween is another one of my favorites to see live, and they graced Athens with their presence at the 40 Watt in April 2011.  Tickets went on sale in January for the show both online and at Schoolkids Records.  Determined to get tickets, I headed downtown at 9:30 am to stand in the already long line to snag the coveted tickets.  It was well worth it waiting in the freezing cold.  Check the setlist.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AR-89BCf5Z0&w=560&h=315]

had to share this video- love some Bowie

The Melting Point

The Melting Point is one of the newer venues in Athens, compared to the aforementioned.  It is however, housed in the old Athens Foundry from the 1850s.

This foundry forged the iconic University of Georgia Arch, the cast iron fences that surround the Univeristy’s North Campus, and the double-barrel canon from the Civil War, that never saw battle.

Sitting on the edge of downtown Athens, this industrial property was largely forgotten until the 1970s.  It survived a brief stint as a motel in the 70s and 80s, and in the late 1990s a new developer came in to create a boutique hotel that incorporated the historic structures left on the property.  The Foundry Park Inn was completed in 2001 and the Melting Point occupies three of the brick structures left from the old foundry complex, and serves as a music venue, restaurant, and special event space.  The owners wanted to preserve a piece Athens’s industrial past, allowing the original brick and masonry to be seen in the new venue space. The Melting Point has excellent acoustics, and is a multi-level structure allowing fans optimal seating and standing room.

Tony Rice and Mountain Heart by Ryan Hines

This past January, Ryan took me to see one of his favorites, Tony Rice, perform with Mountain Heart at the Melting Point.

Mr. Tony Rice photo Ryan Hines

About halfway through the show, Tony was on stage alone with his guitar and he began talking about his time spent playing with Jerry Garcia.  The two had met via David Grisman when Rice worked with Old and in the Way in the 1980s.  While Rice gave a heartfelt shout out to his fallen friend, the room was silent.  He then said this one’s for you and proceeded to play “Shady Grove” for us.  It was a memorable moment; being in a smaller venue, so close to the stage watching one of the greats pay tribute to one of his best friends.

The Morton Theatre

The Morton Theatre is a designated Athens landmark and community-based performing arts center; it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Morton Building

The theater is part of the Morton Building, built by Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton, a prominent African American business man.  Situated on the corner of Washington and Hull streets, the “hot corner” was the center of African American life in Athens.  There were restaurants, a barber shop and the Morton Building that housed the offices of many prominent black professionals, a number of black-owned businesses, and the Morton Theatre.

courtesy of Morton Theater

The theater opened with a performance by classical pianist Alice Carter Simmons of Oberlin, Ohio Conservatory, attended by both black and white patrons.  Then came Vaudeville and The Blues; it is believed that Louie Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Blind Willie McTell graced the stage here.  It became a movie theater in the 1930s and remained a meeting hall for the African American community.  Sometime after the 1930s renovation, a small fire broke out in the projection room and the theater was shut down, however not affecting the rest of the Morton Building businesses.

The Morton family continued ownership until the 1970s, where it changed hands several times.  It was finally purchased by The Morton Theater Foundation in the late 1970s, in hopes to restore the theater to its former glory.  The foundation sought help for further renovation of the theater and the community came to its aid in 1987, when the renovation project passed as part of the Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax (S.P.L.O.S.T.). The SPLOST included granting $1.8 million for the restoration of the theatre, whose roof had since caved in.  The Morton Theater is currently owned by Athens-Clarke County, and managed by the Morton Theater Corporation, and is a popular community performing arts center.

Before the renovation in the late 1980s, the B-52s used part of the building as a rehearsal space, and after the renovation, R.E.M. filmed the video “The One I Love” here.

pressed tin ceiling in the lobby

In 2010, the Morton Theater celebrated 100 years in Athens, Georgia.  It has and will continue to be a stronghold in the vibrant performing arts scene here.

Anybody out there have a favorite Classic City venue or show seen in Athens?? Do tell…

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