Monday, April 14, 2008
Athens, OH. 2008 update
A discussion with Donkey Coffee booking agent Leo DeLuca
So today I would like to talk about the Ohio city of Athens.
This also reminds me that I have been meaning to go through those City Features (to your right in the links) and update them all. It's been more than a year now and a lot has changed overall across the Midwest. We've had a ton of attention, but mostly because the bands moved to New York.
Back to Athens: I'm worried.
Lately I have been feeling as though the city is losing it's charm of irony that used to permeate everything it stood for. At one time - even last year - you could go out for a night of music in Athens and catch numerous folk bands, a few of what I like to call "I Don't Give a Fuck Punk Bands," some singer-songwriters, some loud roots rock, and you'd be hard pressed to not have a good time.
It just seems like the amount of bands coming from Athens is slowing down. Too many are disappearing. So what is happening is the "I Don't Give a Fuck Punk Bands" are filling every slot.
For those who read PWAH on even a mildly regular basis, you'd know that I love punk music and I love pop music (roots pop, not Brittany). I even like avant garde experimentalism. But for some reason I hate "I Don't Give a Fuck Punk Bands."
Maybe it's because they symbolize the utter lack of creativity that punk music slowly became. Maybe it reminds me of Columbus' Bernies at its worst in the late 1990s. It's just that I would AT THE VERY LEAST like to see a band think about what they're doing. Maybe even once. They could be stoned at the time. I will allow that. Maybe they will forget it an hour later. But as long as they HAVE thought once, I'm fine with it.
Maybe the one thought that glanced their brain was incomprehensible? Sure, that counts too.
So I recently had a discussion with Leo DeLuca, drummer of Southeast Engine and also current booker of Donkey Coffee in Athens. It was recently named "Ohio's Best Coffeehouse" by Ohio Magazine. The bar is looking to embrace the culture of Athens that seems to be falling by the wayside. It's trying to cultivate a venue where people go to actually hear music. Nothing more and nothing less. We're not talking about creating a scene. We're not talking about wearing huge glasses like Cheryl Tiegs and shopping at American Apparell, then standing next to a wall. We're just talking about music.
DeLuca explains that Donkey Coffee has become a haven for stripped-down folk and rock music. Rock bands are encouraged to play acoustic, with brushes, etc. The venue has hosted shows by Jorma Kaukonen (of Jefferson Airplane), Jonathan Richman (of The Modern Lovers), Sam Rosen (Vampire Weekend's touring buddy), Nat Baldwin (ex-Dirty Projectors), White Hinterland, Deer Tick, his own Southeast Engine, The Black Swans, and more.
"Shows at at Donkey are the antithesis of your typical rock concert. Listeners are very present and attentive, rather than distracted and loose-lipped," DeLuca said. "As a whole, people are there to focus on the music, rather than focus on what the person next to them is wearing, who's doing what after the show, etc. It's really nice to offer that to musicians. Obviously, performers long for their audience to listen. Amps are often cranked at rock shows to drown out all the yappers. Donkey provides an environment where musicians can play quietly and people will still listen. It's really nice."
DeLuca also commented on my worries about Athens' ironic culture being lost. It used to be the place that defined the granola hippie, co-mingling with the Charles Manson hippie of anger and the hipsters, alongside the college-aged baseball cap douchebag. Just imagine other colleges, but more fighting, cooler people and less posing.
"I think the eclectic nature of the Athens scene still flourishes, but 'I Don't Give a Fuck Punk Music' does seem to be growing luxuriantly. Actually, it seems to be dominating a lot of Ohio right now. To be honest, I really kind of like it. When Southeast Engine was at SXSW, the Austin paper did a whole article on the Columbus "shit-gaze" scene. I was pretty proud of old Ohio," DeLuca said. "The part I don't like is when the fever spreads at the expense of other molds of music. I agree with you, punk / shit-gaze / lo-fi is great, but we definitely need variety. The problem with that type of music is that it's often very elitist and closed-off to other genres. And when it's put in a dominant position, it tends to quell the voices of artists from different strains. You don't have to play dirty or lo-fi to not give a fuck. Listen to Bob Dylan, listen to Johnny Cash. Sure, the fidelity on some of their stuff was on the lower end, however, the vast majority of their work was very put together and very accessible."
So now it's time to reasses the current Athens music scene. Are there any new bands I don't know about? How does a good touring group from Cleveland get into Athens these days?
"Athens is hungry for a new band with an amazing sound and a lot of gumption," DeLuca admitted. "My favorite in the local scene right now is this band called Silo Circuit."
But he said the band is a pretty strictly Athens, not venturing into other cities yet.
However, this is exactly what I think the town needs. Touring bands need to know that there are groups they can count on in other cities to bring the people out for them. Out of town bands are trying to build their draw and if the local band doesn't have one, it leaves them back to square one.
"They generally draw a crowd," he said about Silo Circuit, "and I'd like to see them play outside of Athens. So I'd definitely encourage trying to trade shows with them."
DeLuca said Aquabear Legion - a community network for creative people - is based in Athens as well. It can be a good source for show trading.