AthFest 2016

Words by Connor Gruver. Photos by Austin Steele.

If you love the sound that music makes, you probably appreciate what it means to live in Athens. And if you have been checking your Gregorian calendar incessantly for weeks now, it’s because you know that the summer solstice is on its way. And you remember that the summer solstice always falls right around Athens’ biggest party of the summer: AthFest.

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This year June 22-26 will find six square blocks of downtown Athens, from the Caledonia to the post office, devoted to the free music festival, which for 20 years now has been an exhibit for the music of the color, grit and noise that Athenians thrive on. And since a 20th anniversary is a big deal for any organization, we decided to catch up with Jill Helme, executive director of the non-profit organization “AthFest Educates,” to see what that means for audiences this year.

What Jill told us is that the team is pretty much sticking to their winning formula — two free outdoor stages and a two-night wristband-only club crawl — but they decided to spread the love a little further. They’ll be selling a two-disc compilation CD featuring a mix of Athens’ “best of” from the past two decades and from the town’s current up-and-comer’s. The fest’s annual Gretsch guitar auction will feature a 1999 Gretsch 6118 complete with signatures by the city’s own Drive-By Truckers.

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But that’s not even the fun part. While AthFest does stage a pretty massive live event, Jill says the organization’s mission actually has shifted a bit since 1997 — shifted in age, that is.

“When AthFest got started twenty years ago… it was intended to showcase local music, but also to boost the summer economy. The idea for doing grants probably came up five or six years ago.”

That was around the time “Educates” was added to their handle, in order to make it clear what their top priority was. The grants to which Jill is referring are the $235,000 that AthFest Educates has since donated to local public arts and music programs. That money is raised through proceeds from the festival and the annual AthHalf half-marathon. It is then donated to elementary schools that use it to buy musical instruments and art supplies, fund field trips, and provide training for teaching professionals.

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However, this year, one specific grant is being used to celebrate this year’s anniversary and to continue beautifying the city (a job that artists know is never done), Educates says it is “prepared to invest up to $20,000” in a mural project that will involve a number of local youth and is set to be installed in the coming weeks, before the festival kicks off and the bands themselves start showing out.

When that moment does finally roll around, Athenians and visitors alike will be able to see around 60 artists take the stage, led by local favorites Mothers, Family and Friends, and Kishi Bashi as well as Atlanta natives Arrested Development and the Black Lips. And while these acts are very highly anticipated, Jill recommends checking out KidsFest (which hosts a number of breathtakingly talented high school bands), as well as the Latino and hip-hop showcases being sponsored by AthFest this year.

“Undoubtedly, the vast majority [of the music] is still independent rock, but… it’s not the only piece of music that’s happening here.”

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Jill says that she admires the hip-hop culture in Athens due to its “more cerebral approach to things” comparing it to the hip-hop being made in cities like Atlanta. “The local hip-hop scene has a strong youth development background… and it’s focused much more so on the community than [on one] individual artist.”

If there’s one thing about AthFest that everyone definitely comes for, it’s the experience of a community at work, and if there’s one thing that we should leave with, it’s understanding that the artists that populate Athens all started somewhere, at some right time in their lives.

“I think music and art just teach young people to be more compassionate people and to develop those creativity skills… and it’s a great way to keep young people focused on their education as well.”

So, for younger artists, who says that time and place can’t just be here and now?