After a five year hiatus, Athens Popfest returned with a bang last week. The four day festival began the day before UGA classes started back, and as such, it felt like a last celebration of the townies before the students take everything over again. There were quite a few bands from out of town playing at Popfest, but it had a very local, homey feel — every artist I saw made a point to thank Mike Turner for putting the event on, many attendees had on shirts from local bands, and everyone gushed about what a great city Athens is.
The first act I caught was Nightblonde. The synth group hails from Nashville and were quite entertaining. The lead singer had a (very cool!) tattoo of a yellow submarine on her arm, though their style was way more Bowie than Beatles. All four members were dressed in all black with flamboyant glittery winged eyeliner. Their first album just released this summer. My favorite song description was of a poppy track called “Laughing”, which was described by a band member as being about “taking pills and watching your husband burn books.”
I wasn’t feeling too well and had to work the next day, so I didn’t see anyone else Wednesday, but Thursday I stopped by on my way home from work and caught the tail end of SHEHEHE‘s act. The singers were a bit screamy for my tastes, but for those who like garage/punk rock, they were great. I loved how the main singer stood in the middle of the crowd for a good bit of the set — though you had to how she kept from slamming into crowd members when banging her long hair in her face nonstop.
I headed back downtown that night to the Georgia Theatre for Dead Neighbors. I absolutely loved their instrumentals, though again, I prefer my pop more bouncing and less screaming. The diminutive lead singer was very emotive. They’re from Athens but this was their first time playing at the Georgia Theatre.
Next up was Antlered Aunt Lord. I wanted to love them because how great is that name, but I disliked them at first due to some songs’ tendency towards unmelodic screaming. I really liked their more musical songs a lot, the lead singer had a nasally, interesting voice. They definitely grew on me as their set went on.
Gauche was one of my favorite groups I saw at the festival, though I admit I am a sucker for anything with a sax. The eclectic lineup consisted of bass, guitar, saxophone, vocalist/cowbell player, synthesizer, and a drummer (who occasionally doubled as a singer). The end result was fun and very much reminiscent of the B52s. The group seemed like they were great friends having a fabulous time, which is always enjoyable to witness. I really liked when the drummer sang, she had a neat voice.
Grand Vapids, described by local publication Flagpole as “the breakout Athens band of 2015,” was the first band I saw on Friday. The guitar-driven four piece seemed a bit nervous at first, but the longer they played, the better they got and more comfortable they seemed. I would’ve liked a little more volume from the vocals — not sure if that was by design or an issue with the sound system.
FEATHER TRADE attracted a super-enthusiastic crowd that was very drawn to the charismatic pink haired lead singer. They reminded me a lot of My Chemical Romance’s early stuff — typically harder than I usually like, but I really enjoyed them. They got kicked off the stage for running out of time and the crowd was very upset, that was the only time I heard booing through the whole festival. Probably my favorite line of the week was the lead singer describing their t-shirts now available for sale that are emblazoned with “Athens, Georgia: rich kids pretending to be poor kids pretending to be artists” and the ensuing laughs when an audience member yelled out asking if it was okay if she used her daddy’s money to buy the shirt. The singer replied “I’ll take everything your daddy’s got.”
I wasn’t really sure what to think about Guerilla Toss. They were unique even for a town known for its unique music scene. The lead singer, a cute petite brunette with Pippi Longstocking braids, danced around on stage with a style and fervor usually only possessed by drunken club goers — she completely took over the stage and it was hard to take your eyes off of her. Her singing often transitioned between spoken word (almost rapping a few times) to screaming. There were rainbow lights and images on the screen behind the band that added to the whole strange effect.
Bastards of Fate was fun. Their attention-grabbing singer quite literally loved the spotlight — he carried around a lightbulb on a corded flashlight throughout the show. I was impressed by his ability to use it as a prop, from wrapping it around his shoulders to dancing with it to swinging it like a cat toy above the audience. The suit-donning band looked like a group of professors, but they sounded great — reminiscent of the Talking Heads.
I was pretty tired and only stayed for part of His Name is Alive’s set, but they were interesting — the lead singer was a girl with an angelic voice, the vocals were very dreamy sounding. The bearded guitarists looked like they were straight out of a 70s group. I liked them a lot and would love to see more one day when I’m not juggling work and a festival!
The next night, I came in as Elekibass was finishing up. They were extremely popular with the crowd and seemed like a bouncy, energetic group.
Next up was Ruby the Rabbitfoot — I loved her! She reminded me a lot of Taylor Swift. She played several songs from her new release, Divorce Party, which had come out the day before. She was very poppy and seemed thrilled to be on stage.
Eureka California was also fantastic — a hard rock two piece made up of a guy and a girl pretty much automatically brings the White Stripes to mind. They made a lot of noise and the drummer was fantastic == it hurt to watch her, she was so physical with her playing. They seemed a little uncomfortable in between songs when speaking to the crowd, but they were really in their element when performing & sounded excellent.
The headliner was supposed to be Daniel Johnston, but he was unable to make it due to a delayed flight, so Love Tractor instead performed a nearly two hour headlining set. They were phenomenal. I’m not usually a fan of instrumental music, but they were so, so good in their first performance in quite some time. It was easy to see why they were one of the fundamental groups from Athens in the 80s along with R.E.M. and Pylon. The music was simple and comprised of just a few chords, so it should have been repetitive, but each song had a unique buildup and I found myself humming everything the whole way home.
All in all, it was an excellent festival with a great variety of styles and I can’t wait for next year.
Check out more photos from Athens Popfest: