Review and Photos by Max Stewart
For live music fans, a vibrant local music scene is something to cherish. A city’s scene can change the trajectory of popular music, much like the jazz stemming from New Orleans or the twang that came from Nashville. Even a small town with three local punk bands and a lot of heart can shape the identity of the community. The sense of pride that comes from a familial music scene ultimately becomes part of the cultural DNA of the city. In Georgia, so many iconic musicians found their footing in places such as Atlanta, Athens, Macon, or even in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
When the Fox Theatre Institute announced an event dubbed “Revival: Celebrating Georgia’s Historic Theatres,” it was easy to assume some southern musical sparks might fly in the enchanting hallowed ground of Atlanta’s fabulous Fox Theatre. The initial lineup included Athens’ Drive-By Truckers and Atlanta’s Drivin N Cryin and Michelle Malone, as well as Dodd & The Councilmen. Certainly a superb lineup, but it was unclear how the night would play out in terms of impromptu sit-ins, surprise guests, etc.
Suffice it to say, sparks indeed flew in Atlanta. In fact, what transpired throughout the evening will definitely go down as a historic Georgia music reunion. As a native Atlantan, it was hard to process the revolving cast of local legends gracing the stage.
The evening kicked of with Dodd & The Councilmen, a band consisting of Dodd Ferrelle, mayor of the City of Winterville, as well as R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry and famed Athens producers John Keane (R.E.M., Indigo Girls and Widespread Panic) and David Barbe (Drive-By Truckers, Deerhunter, the Glands). Ferrelle graciously mentioned how the Fox Theatre Institute has already has improved his community, and praised the efforts of the FTI in maintaining other theaters, auditoriums, and art houses in need throughout the state of Georgia.
The host of the evening, Drivin N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney, provided some spoken word in honor of the late patriarch of Atlanta music, Col. Bruce Hampton, while Mike Mills of R.E.M. layered in bass arrangements. The presence of Hampton seems to be felt in every corner of the Atlanta musical tapestry. Especially upon stepping into the Fox, it always feels as though Hampton’s aura is in the glistening ceiling star lights looking down upon the stage he passed away on during his 70th Birthday.
Immediately following Kinney’s reading, fans were greeted with the biggest surprise of the evening. Mills was joined onstage by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Bill Berry, who reunited to play songs with a rotating set of Georgia musical talent, including: Kevn Kinney (who sang R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” and “Fall on Me”), Rick Richards of Atlanta’s The Georgia Satellites (singing The Georgia Satellites’ “Battleship Chains,” with Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers joining Kinney and Mills on vocals), Vanessa Briscoe Hay of fellow Athens band Pylon (performing Pylon’s “Crazy”), and Tom Gray of The Brains (who joined to sing “Money Changes Everything,” a song that hit the mainstream after Cyndi Lauper’s cover). Mills also sang “Texarkana,” the tune in which he provided lead vocals on R.E.M.’s Out of Time. It was a hell of a way to get things started and everyone around me was beaming with excitement.
The night marched on with masterful sets from Michelle Malone, Drivin N Cryin, and a headlining performance from Drive-By Truckers. Atlanta’s Malone jokingly mentioned having nightmares of following The Rolling Stones in concert, and added that following members of R.E.M. wasn’t too far from that. Malone and her band’s performance certainly kept the high energy momentum rolling, with her unique combination of rock, blues, and americana soul.
Atlanta’s rock staples Drivin N Cryin brought every bit of southern flare that one would expect, with the hometown crowd singing along to the heavy-hitting “Fly Me Courageous” and “Honeysuckle Blue,” as well as the timeless, “Straight to Hell.” Kevin Kinney and the band sound as tight as they ever have since forming in the mid Eighties, with founding member and bassist Tim Nielsen, the guitar acumen of Laur Joamets (formerly with Sturgill Simpson), and drummer Dave V. Johnson.
Athens’ Drive-By Truckers rounded out the evening with a well-balanced mix of their gritty southern gothic rock. Singer Patterson Hood reflected on when he moved from Alabama to Athens, GA: “Life really started then.” Beginning the set with The Dirty South‘s “Tornadoes,” the band proceeded to play a mix of songs throughout their career, including three new tunes from the upcoming album, The Unraveling. 2001’s Southern Rock Opera was well represented, including rousing versions of “Women Without Whiskey,” “Ronnie and Neil” and “Let There Be Rock” (in which lyrics shifted in honor of Rick Richards in attendance: “And I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd, but I sure saw The Georgia Satellites.”) As is standard, Hood and Mike Cooley switched off routinely on lead vocals, and Cooley took front and center for strong renditions of “Marry Me” and “Zip City.”
The night ended as many folks who had performed throughout the evening joined DBT for a cover of Neil Young‘s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” with smiles, laughs, hugs and general joy emitting from the stage. It felt like a homecoming of sorts, with unforgettable performances in support of a wonderful cause. We must preserve the soul of our music scene in the rooms where these types of unforgettable live events take place, and kudos to the Fox Theatre Institute for keeping that ethos financially supported with this concert. One can only hope that this September night at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre will be the first of many similar events.