Listen my children and you will hear a celebration of a remarkable blossoming that has transformed Athens and the surrounding area in the past four or five years. It has happened so gradually that many relative newbies to Athens don’t realize that life in this community until a few years ago was dark and graceless, little better than marking time in an industrial ghetto in late 19th century London.
Yet, you have the audacity to respond, “Huh?!”
OK, then, I might be exaggerating a tad here, but the positive transition I’m speaking of really is worth noting. It involves the revolution in outdoor music opportunities in Athens and beyond, both at annual festivals and more regularly scheduled events at bars and other fixed venues.
If you go back far enough, to the ’90s in Athens, we had a community with hardly any outdoor music festivals or venues. (I put the emphasis on “hardly any” just in case I’m forgetting something – and what do you know, I did forget a few events – the Athens County Fair and Parade of the Hills in Nelsonville always had bands and performers, Poston Lake’s bluegrass festival took place every June, and the Dairy Barn Arts Center held an annual Barn Raisin’ outdoor event with multiple bands for many years.)
Plus, Ohio University for several years in the mid to late ’80s and early ’90s held end-of-school-year outdoor concerts on the Mill Street fields, with beer and food. Raising of the drinking age to 21 effectively killed that event. And, good lord, I almost forgot to mention the uptown Halloween block party, featuring bands (but not beer) nearly every year since 1974 and still going strong.
Beyond that daunting pile of exceptions, however, it wasn’t until the late ’90s and early 2000s that a flood of new warm-weather festivals and celebrations began showing up on the local event calendar. They included the Ohio Pawpaw Festival (1999), the Nelsonville Music Festival (2005), Ohio Brew Week’s (2006) outdoor events (including Last Call and the BrewBQ), and Boogie on the Bricks in uptown Athens (2005). Number Fest (which celebrated its 16th year in April) should be mentioned, though it’s much more a student-centric event than anything for the community at large.
Each of those annual events, some multi-day, featured (and still feature) full lineups of outdoor stage entertainment, some of them with multiple stages.
This set the stage for local commercial and nonprofit venues to hold more frequent outdoor live-music events, usually with beer and food on hand. Stuart’s Opera House (creator of the Nelsonville Music Festival) around 2008 began holding a monthly summer music series tied to Final Fridays. Each one featured a nationally touring musical act playing on a stage set up on the Public Square adjacent to the Opera House. That event was discontinued in September 2016, perhaps temporarily, when the Stuart’s leadership began directing their efforts toward creating new physical spaces and the programs, activities and events to fill them.
Since then, the floodgates have opened, with the following venues holding weekly or monthly outdoor music during the warm months, nearly all of them with craft beer and food sales:
• The Dairy Barn began its own summer music series last summer, and it has continued every Friday this summer. Top local and regional acts play out on the new patio. These are very well attended.
• Little Fish Brewing Company on Armitage Road has music two or three times a week in its laid-back, scenic outdoor area. Every Wednesday evening is old-time music night.
• Eclipse Company Store & Craft Beer Hall in The Plains has music two or three times a week on its outdoor stage, usually nationally touring acts.
• Jackie O’s Taproom frequently has live music outside.
• For several years, Shade Winery has been featuring singer-songwriters and bands on its outdoor patio every Saturday evening when the weather is nice. For a commercial venue, they probably have the longest-standing outdoor performance series in Athens.
• This is the spot where you the reader can mentally add anything that I’m neglecting to mention. Apologies in advance if I’m not aware of other outdoor music events or just forgot about them.
The most recent addition to the outdoor music trend in Athens took place last weekend with the Saturday block-party component of the two-day Athens Community Arts & Music Festival. From noon to 9 p.m. on the main uptown block of West Union Street (between South Court and South Congress), arts and music events and performances took place. Volunteers from Stuart’s Opera House staffed a beer booth featuring Jackie O’s products, and artists and craftspeople set up booths on each side of the street.
The vibe was very “Athens-centric,” and a stellar lineup of local, regional and national musical acts provided a grooving soundtrack. The final act, Wesley Bright & the Honeytones, brought the house down with old-school R&B and soul, capping off what everybody I talked to agreed was a great new event on the Athens calendar.
During and after the event, various folks involved in the block party floated the idea of making it more of a regular event in Athens, not limited to once a year during the ACA&MF. On social media, a few people suggested moving it to other uptown blocks, to spread the wealth so to speak.
Whatever they do, I’m just thrilled the outdoor live music, craft beer and food truck model has become the norm in Athens. It really wasn’t until the last several years.