The year in local music

As usual, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times:
MIS-LABELING. This time last year, it seemed like Atlanta’s place as an American music mecca was a whole lot more secure. Both LaFace and Daemon Records had celebrated 10-year anniversaries, both still fulfilling the goals set out by their founders. And Capricorn Records appeared ready to capitalize on its national successes by focusing homeward, with its sights on taking a handful of promising Georgia bands (Jucifer, the Glands, Jack Logan, Hayride) to the big time. This year, however, things changed. While Daemon celebrated its 10-year anniversary for the second straight year, LaFace dissolved in all but name only when its president, L.A. Reid, moved to New York to head LaFace’s parent company, Arista Records. Capricorn, meanwhile, found itself without a distributor (after parting ways with Universal), without its biggest acts (after Cake and Widespread Panic departed, Gov’t Mule faced a death in the band and 311 sued for release) and, after laying off the majority of its employees, without much of a staff. By the last week of the year, unconfirmed reports indicated that a deal to sell Capricorn’s assets to New York-based Volcano Records had been reached; if proven true, it would effectively spell the end of the label in Atlanta as well.
Hell, but it wasn’t all bad news for local labels. While urban imprints such as So So Def, Worldwide and Freeworld continued to grow, OutKast launched its own Aquemini Records and scored a No. 1 rap hit with its first release, Slimm Calhoun’s “It’s OK.” And on a more limited level, rock labels such as Moodswing, Demagogue, Terminus and Secondheaven (more later) established themselves with notable releases, and Athens’ Kindercore celebrated its 50th release with a weekend-long festival.
CLUB HOPPING. Lots changed in clubland as well, but doesn’t it always? Eddie’s Attic went smokeless at the start of the year (increasing its life expectancy by a decade already), while the rest of Atlanta’s nightspots retained their “the-smokier-the-better” policy. To clear room for new development in booming Midtown, the Cotton Club moved out of its Peachtree Street location and shacked up with its big brother the Tabernacle downtown. Apparently in bold defiance of the impending wrecking ball, dance club the Velvet Room jumped right in to fill the Cotton Club’s vacancy on Peachtree. Up in Buckhead, meanwhile, even the clumsy maneuverings of the City Council couldn’t keep out the drunken revelers. But no doubt, Buckhead daughter-in-chief Melanie Massell’s awful theme-song recording, “It’s Buckhead,” succeeded in scaring at least some people away.
While humble blues joint Fat Matt’s Rib Shack celebrated the considerable accomplishment of lasting 10 years, two venues that were pivotal to the development of local music communities expired. The Austin Ave. Buffet, where many a fledgling country/ “redneck underground” act cut its teeth, opened for the last time on Jan. 1, in defiance of its expired liquor license, which ran out at midnight the night before. Owner Jessie Bearden died on May 29, from what many viewed as a broken heart. In addition, the Yin Yang Music Café, which had been the focal point of the city’s new-soul scene, closed down in September.
Venerable Little Five Points music club The Point had already been closed down for a year, but in late June the workmen came around to tear the murals and signs off its walls, erasing all traces of its existence. When asked to comment on the travesty, one of the gruff workman said only, “Hand me that pry-bar. There’s one nail up here that’s a real bitch.”
It wasn’t all about shutting down, however. After jumping ship at the Tabernacle a while back, House of Blues returned to town with its sights on Midtown’s underused Center Stage. By the end of the year, the company had announced plans to expand the venue and book acts there regularly. Also late in the year, the West End’s AHOP (African House of Peace) began presenting hip-hop, rock and other live music, though it’s not clear yet whether the venue has plans to sell pancakes. And up in Roswell, the Swallow at the Hollow brought some cultcha to the ‘burbs when it began importing songwriters from Nashville’s venerable Bluebird Café to perform on weekends.
In other club news, an inordinate amount of instability seemed to surround the normally instable world of music bookers. The year saw changes in the folks who arrange live music at four of intown’s best-known clubs, the Star Bar, the Echo Lounge, The Earl and Dottie’s. While Dottie’s, in particular, seemed to have trouble ironing out consistent booking, the club suffered its biggest blow Dec. 12. After a long illness, Dorothy “Dottie” Ann Hart, the woman who owned the rowdy little club that bore her name, went to that great doublewide in the sky, bringing to an end a long, colorful era in the history of Atlanta’s music and performance-art scenes. “To me she embodied all the joy, strength and adventurous spirit of Southern women,” musician Amy Pike said, “especially after I saw her kick a girls’ ass in the parkin’ lot, wearing her roller skates!”
BANDS PLAYED ON. Just like the clubs, bands inevitably came, went and switched personnel this year. Athens perennials Dayroom broke up at the start of the year, while long-standing Atlanta group the Pleasantdales called it quits at the end. In one of the stranger splits, Eddie’s Attic regular (and CL contributor) Blake Guthrie announced he was breaking up with himself (and in fact, he stopped gigging for most of the year). Local soul singer/Goodie Mob spouse Joi accepted an invitation to join urban supergroup Lucy Pearl when former En Vogue vocalist Dawn Robinson quit; Joi will continue pursuing her solo career as well, with a CD out next year. Ultrababyfat bassist Britta Phillips accepted an invitation to join New York’s Luna, and she’s splitting her time between both bands. Bassist Corey Parks quit Nashville Pussy, leaving a huge hole in the band’s fire-breathing Amazon appeal. Catfight! drummer Ann Ciovacco left the all-female trio, disrupting a lineup that lasted five-and-a-half years (about a millennium in local-band years); she was replaced by Lust’s Suzanne Gibboney. And, of course, the members of TLC routinely quit and then denied it throughout the year; for now, as long they’re away from each other pursuing solo ventures, they’re apparently still together.
On the bright side, there were almost as many new arrivals and comebacks as there were departures. Bands including Adom, White Lights, Red Level Eleven, New South Creative Ensemble, the Telepathics and Casionova made impressive debuts. Kathleen Turner Overdrive returned to rock the Music Midtown locals stage; Arrested Development re-formed, with plans to release a new CD next year; blues singer Sandra Hall bounced back from a heart attack to continue performing; and R.E.M.’s Bill Berry returned from a self-imposed life of privacy to appear on a Tourette Syndrome benefit compilation, Welcome Friends (not that that’s opening him up to a whole lot of personal intrusions).
Conversely, Smoke and Opal Foxx Quartet frontman Benjamin, who died two years ago, refused to go away, and his friends and admirers wouldn’t have it any other way. The year started with a Benjamin celebration at The Earl and ended with a local run of the acclaimed documentary on him, Benjamin Smoke. In between, there were Smoke and Opal Foxx reissues and CD tributes to him as well.
DOT-COMATOSE. As with the rest of human civilization, dotcom euphoria descended upon local music this year, and hasn’t entirely worn off. In February, Launch Media purchased, run by Robert and Allen Shaffer of Another Man Down, for over $11 million in stock options. Given recent downturns (Launch sold at $23 a share in February; it now sells at around $1.75), let’s hope they’re able to unload the shares while it still buys them new guitar picks. In other ridiculous overvaluations, awarded Ultraphonic a $250,000 record contract, whatever that means (it certainly didn’t mean cash in their pocket), and Sloppy Meateaters, an obscure punk-pop band from Rome, Ga., were selected to appear on the TV show (no contract was forthcoming). Most ingratiating of all, local Internet music company PlanetJam somehow managed to attach its name to the Cotton Club, making the venue’s new official name the PlanetJam Cotton Club. So now we’re obliged to actually call it that in print, and we still don’t understand what it is PlanetJam does.
If there was a bright side to these Internet shenanigans, it was, a local label that debuted this year and released uniformly high-quality releases by the Drive-By Truckers, Kenny Howes, Slim Fatz, the Stimulants and others, proving by example that all the techno-gibberish and stock options in the world can’t make your company fly unless it has the nuts and bolts; in this case, good musical taste.
CLASSICAL IN SESSION. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra finally appointed its new conductor/music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, then promptly announced a 2000-2001 schedule that barely features either (relax, the two don’t actually start full-time until next season). Anyway, the real action on Atlanta’s “classical” scene was happening at the darker end of the art-music street. Influential contemporary composer Pauline Oliveros arrived in Decatur early in the year to spend a semester as Agnes Scott College’s artist in residence. And in the summer, local label Table of the Elements released Inside the Dream Syndicate — featuring long-suppressed seminal minimalist recordings by La Monte Young, John Cale, Tony Conrad and others — and (with CL’s help) quickly reignited the decades-old feud over who’s the actual composer of the material.
CRIME PLAYS. The So So Def crew couldn’t seem to get our legal system straight. Da Brat, brought in on battery charges that were later dropped, went before the judge for having allegedly done something she shouldn’t. Jermaine Dupri, meanwhile, found himself in trouble for not doing something he should: after skipping jury duty, the court threatened to throw him in jail. Others found themselves on the other end of the crime game. The Drive-By Truckers had their van broken into twice this year, once in Chattanooga in March, and once in New York in November. While the band suffered loss of property (mix tapes, song lyrics), guitarist Scott Lambert of the Fabulous Lounge Punks was not so lucky. When Lambert intercepted a thief breaking into his car in East Atlanta, he was shot repeatedly in the face with his own gun. Fortunately, Lambert survived and returned to the stage a few months later.
SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE. A bunch of local music celebs got hitched and/or became parents: Goodie Mob’s Cee-Lo married his sweetheart and TLC’s T-Boz made rapper Mack 10 an honest thug, both celebrating nuptials in time for the births of their babies. And the marriage of Black Crowes beanpod Chris Robinson and Almost Famous actress Kate Hudson (no heifer herself) is rumored to be impending (whether or not Jimmy Page’s back holds out).
In other happy news, Santana producer Matt Serletic, as well as TLC, TLC’s producer Dallas Austin and songwriters Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, Kandia Burruss and Tomeka Cottle won Grammys this year. Burruss also became the first female to win ASCAP’s Rhythm & Soul Music Award for songwriter of the year. And camera-shy DJ Klever won the prestigious DMC turntablist championship in New York in August.
R.E.M. fans won, too. While the CSX railroad managed to force the closure of Decatur’s Freight Room music club two years ago, their planned demolition of the rail trestle over Trail Creek — pictured on the cover of R.E.M.’s debut album — was thwarted when Athens’ mayor, responding to cries of protest from fans as far off as Norway, halted the wrecking ball. The Skylarks enjoyed a more limited album art-related triumph. To promote their CD, Suitcase City, the band paid $75 to display its graphics for 30 days on the small window panel of Moreland Avenue record shop Wax ‘n’ Facts. That was in November ‘99. Exactly a year later, the art was still there (although the space has since been claimed by Underwater).
IN-FESTED. Music Midtown got a little closer to actually being in Midtown this year, and the new site got generally good reviews from the huge crowds in attendance. Perhaps more ticket-buyers would’ve complained about the bottleneck that separated the site into two parts if there had been more bands worth pushing through the crowds to see. The National Black Arts Fest made a healthy comeback this year, though a music lineup highlighted by Ashford & Simpson hardly qualifies as cutting edge. The Atlantis Music Conference returned to find it had some competition from out-of-towner CMJ, which brought its ChangeMusic Conference to Atlanta less than two months before Atlantis’ August run. While (or because) ChangeMusic wasn’t about getting bands signed to major labels, it enjoyed more cred among the city’s more artsy and DIY music elite. Bully, who unlike many top local acts actually applied to perform at an Atlantis showcase, turned their rejection into performance art. In one of the year’s more memorable live-music moments, Bully frontman Joel Burkhart, during a band performance in June at the Star Bar, read the dreaded rejection letter aloud as if it were poetry and then torched it, hoisting it airborne (amid cheers and popping flashbulbs) until it crumbled to ashes in his hand. Better luck next year, guys.
-- Roni Sarig, with additional writing
and reporting by Gregory Nicoll