Various Artists – Athens, GA – Inside/Out (review)

Various Artists – Athens, GA – Inside/Out (Omnivore Recordings) review

Now and again it happens – the perfect combination of talented artists, accommodating venues and enthusiastic crowds come together to create a scene.  Just as in the late Sixties in San Francisco, and the early Nineties in Seattle, the mid Eighties were all about Athens, Georgia.  The small college town gained notoriety when R.E.M. began making waves nationally, first on college radio, then in the mainstream media.  Directed by Tony Gayton, Athens, GA – Inside/Out attempted to capture what that scene was like.  Omnivore Recordings has just released the long-out-of print film, along with its accompanying soundtrack, which is making its debut on CD.

Opening with a scene of a tractor, you get the sense that Gayton’s intention isn’t to glorify the scene, but to capture it, honestly.  Everything about this movie exudes a “lived-in” feel, from the candid artist interviews, many done in their houses, to the live performances, filmed at some of the local clubs.  And, the crew didn’t just go after R.E.M. clones in documenting the music.  From the wacked-out excitement of the Kilkenny Cats, to the extremely odd Time Toy, we get a better picture of what the entire music landscape was like.  One of the highlights is the mostly-instrumental band Love Tractor – what bassist Armistead Wellford does on his instrument should send other bassists back to the woodshed.  And, their cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” is good fun.

As with any scene that gains national attention, things were blown out of proportion in Athens.  Honestly, out of all the bands, only R.E.M. and the B-52’s went on to any significant success outside of their hometown.  But, it was their unlikely popularity that helped open the doors for countless alternative bands, including Nirvana, years later.

Of course, there’s plenty of emphasis on art for art’s sake, as the director interviews slam poets, avant-garde visual artists, and even a preacher who sings gospel music with his wife – all adding to the vibrant colors of the scene.  Of course, there’s no better example of this than the legendary Pylon, who had broken up by the time this had been filmed.  The interviews with former band members are some of the movie’s best – lead singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay seems completely oblivious to the hero worship that surrounded the band, while a story of how they turned down a slot to open for U2 further adds to their mystique.

The movie finds many bands in transition – Dreams So Real are seen in the recording studio, sounding very jangly – predating their move to Arista Records and some minor success on commercial radio.  R.E.M. was also changing.  They perform an acoustic version of “Swan Swan H” on an empty soundstage.  The rendition is great, but they seem rather small compared to what they would soon become.  In less than six months, they would storm the Top Ten with “The One I Love,” and the band, the city of Athens, and college radio in general, would never been the same.

Oddly, the band that turns in the best performance, the Flat Duo Jets, weren’t even from Athens (they grew up in Chapel Hill, NC, and moved briefly to Georgia, just in time to be in the movie).  Guitarist Dexter Romweber is spellbinding in his punk-infused juiced-up rockabilly.  Few artists of that genre, past or present, had that much magnetism, and it’s no accident that his band is featured throughout the movie.  The live performances are some of the best quality the band ever released.

The movie closes with another R.E.M. performance, the Everly Brothers’ ballad “All You Have to Do is Dream,” which is fitting, since a lot of making art involves dreaming of something larger.  There were greater things in store for R.E.M. and the B-52’s , while most of the others eventually returned to their day jobs.  Athens, GA – Inside/Out is an excellent time capsule of a town exploding with promise and is recommended to anyone who wants to further understand how things happened.

Of the bonus material, the interviews with Jack White and  Dave Schools of Widespread Panic show that the movie had quite an impact on future generations of musicians.  There’s a bonus scene of Dexter and Crow of Flat Duo Jets visiting a local store, seeking out a five-legged dog that was stuffed for all to see – what a hoot.

The accompanying soundtrack features performances recorded exclusively for the movie.  Since it’s never been put on CD, many of these tracks have become quite collectable.  It’s nice to have both R.E.M. songs in their original context.  Of the remaining tracks, “Golden” from Dreams So Real is excellent and Love Tractor’s “Pretty” is hypnotic.  The Flat Duo Jets get a pair of tracks, the ferocious “Crazy Hazy Kisses,” and the the groovin’ instrumental “Jet Tone Boogie.”  The remainder of the tracks don’t stand up as well without the accompanying video – there’s nothing truly that spectacular about several of the audio tracks.  They have added five bonus cuts to the soundtrack – many of which were in the movie.  Love Tractor does several covers, including “Got to Give it Up,” “Search and Destroy,” and the Stones’ “Shattered” featuring Peter Buck of R.E.M. –Tony Peters