AthFest looks to future and R.E.M.-bers the past

AthFest 2001

Earshot 5487
Photo credit: Courtesy of Paul Butchart Collection
Early REM flyer

In Athens’ historic Morton Theatre, Paul Butchart and Todd Ploharski pore over boxes of posters, pictures and collectibles as they prepare the Athens Exhibit of Musical History. The multimedia event runs in association with AthFest, the fifth annual citywide celebration of the Classic City’s music and art.

Butchart has been collecting Athens music artifacts since the late ’70s. “The music scene was very small then,” he says. “Everyone knew each other and we knew we had something very special.” A former member of the Side Effects, one of Athens’ pioneering new-music bands (along with R.E.M., Pylon, Love Tractor and Oh OK), Butchart has been active in the scene for more than 20 years. Ploharski, a dealer of vintage vinyl and music memorabilia, operates Low Yo Yo Stuff, a record store inside the 40 Watt Club building.

“People from all over the world come to see some proof of what’s happened here musically,” says Meredith Davey of the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau. Though the exhibit will only be available for public viewing during the four-day AthFest, the Athens Development Authority currently is working on a more permanent home for the items. “This is just a first step to see if people are interested in getting involved locally,” says Davey, adding that the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon is planning an Athens exhibit next year as well.

When he first heard of plans for this exhibit, Butchart was planning his own artifact show on Milledge Street in the house where the B-52’s first performed. He volunteered part of his collection to serve as the basis of the Morton Theatre show. Ploharski soon became involved and the two began seeking out fellow collectors who wanted to share their goodies with the world.

Among the collectibles on display will be Peter Buck’s first guitar, large birdheads from R.E.M.’s “Can’t Get There From Here” video, B-52’s items, photographs, set lists, lyrics, flyers and magazines. Once home to the B-52’s rehearsal space, Morton Theatre’s exhibit area will dedicate roughly half of its space to R.E.M.-related items, with assorted displays and continuous video showings in the front room. “This will be like the world’s coolest Hard Rock Café,” Butchart says.

Though this year’s AthFest occurs during Athens’ 200th anniversary celebration, the event won’t be totally nostalgic. “That’s the cool thing about AthFest, this year especially,” says festival spokesman Jeff Montgomery. “People can come and check out the history exhibit and then walk right down the street and see what’s going on in Athens now.”

Montgomery and Troy Aubrey, AthFest 2001 booking committee chair, also are behind the new Athens website, an outlet for local band information and music. The site offers CDs and LPs for sale from more than 200 different local artists, past and present.

Butchart points out that in the old days there was only one big show per night and there wasn’t competition between bands. “Everybody worked together, like we are doing here,” he says, holding a vintage ‘81 flyer for R.E.M. at Tyrone’s, a long-defunct Athens club. At AthFest, attendees can walk between more than 15 venues during the nightly club crawls, getting a wildly diverse look at bands — the majority of which are local and unsigned. Daytime activities include two outdoor stages for free music as well as an artists’ market and a children’s area.

Like the dusty old pictures of Athens’ past being exhibited at the Morton, Aubrey says Athfest is “a great snapshot of our still-thriving music scene. Athens operates just fine outside of the major-label music business world. While most festivals focus more on the commerce side of things, we showcase artists.” With 150 bands playing over four days, chances are good another band or two will make a lasting impact. So, save all the flyers and posters you can. Who knows, they might be museum pieces one day.

AthFest runs June 21-24 in downtown Athens. For more information, check or call 706-548-1973.??