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U Rock, U Roll
For a Crash Course in Today's Music, Head for Three Southern College Towns

By Ben Brazil
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 27, 2005

Pink Floyd told us that we don't need no education.

I don't want no argument with rock-and-roll royalty, but perhaps the band failed to considered higher education. I say this because -- to borrow one of Jack Black's lines from the movie "School of Rock" -- colleges quite clearly "service society by rocking."

Think of it this way: Without colleges, we would have no college towns. And without college towns, we'd be out a lot of great music. No Athens, Ga.? No R.E.M. Get rid of Charlottesville? Get rid of the birthplace of the Dave Matthews Band. Axe Chapel Hill, N.C.? Lose the launching pad for the piano tunes of Ben Folds.

These college towns are laboratories, creative enclaves where music bubbles, swirls and mutates into more infectious strains. They are the primordial ooze in which some of the best American music evolves -- or, if you prefer, is created.

I'm no music clerk, but I knew all this in a book-learning kind of way. But to really understand the workings of college music towns, I needed more than that.

I needed a field trip.

Days would include driving, browsing record stores, hanging out in coffee shops and strolling leafy, attractive campuses. Nights would be spent partying like a rock star -- or, at least, with one.

My planned stops -- Charlottesville, Chapel Hill and Athens -- are three of the Southeast's classic college music towns. In addition to bad parking, each has a vibrant music scene and a good record store or two. They also support a variety of small and mid-size venues: That means you can chat with musicians after sets, not just squint through binoculars or stare at the Jumbotron.

So in mid-September, I was excited to leave my home in Atlanta for my first stop. The moment reminded me of another great rock-and-roll movie: It was 550 miles to Charlottesville. I had a full tank of gas, half a box of Wheat Thins, it was daylight and I forgot my sunglasses.

Hit it.

Charlottesville

Eight hours later, my Blues Brother impression still sucked. But I had arrived at the home of the University of Virginia, whose elegant Rotunda and stately "academical village" were designed by Thomas Jefferson himself.

A stroll around the U-Va. grounds was tempting, but my first stop was the downtown mall, a pedestrian corridor paved in bricks and lined with restaurants. I passed the afternoon and early evening in the area, snacking on cantaloupe gelato in the shade of willow oaks, surfing the Internet at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, and eating oysters and egg rolls at Bang!, an Asian-accented tapas restaurant a couple blocks off the mall.

Yes, I'd already morphed from rock-and-roll pilgrim to yuppie tourist.

Then again, Charlottesville didn't immediately strike me as a punk-rock kind of town. The Corner, a classic collegiate strip across the street from U-Va.'s grounds, has bands, bars and debauchery, but music there seems to serve mainly as background for college kids drinking and socializing (the relatively new Satellite Ballroom is a noteworthy exception).

The mall and its environs have better venues, but the bookshops, boutiques and art galleries there ooze an easy, affluent cosmopolitanism. That's not bad, but it's a vibe more conducive to music that's fun, mellow or rootsy -- Matthews, who took off here in the early '90s, seems to fit, as does the bluegrass-inflected Americana of the up-and-coming Hackensaw Boys.

Yet you can't quite pigeonhole Charlottesville -- not when one of its more successful bands is Bella Morte, which established its dark, gothic sound on releases like "The Death Rock EP."

This mix of styles can carry over to audiences. My first night out, I hit Gravity Lounge, a bookstore/art gallery/music venue off the mall, where I joined a roughly 40-person melange of mohawked punks, middle-aged couples and even a toddler-toting mom. The audience was united only by the rapt attention they paid to raven-haired Lauren Hoffman, a Charlottesville singer-songwriter now based in New York who is, apparently, possessed of a history of passionate yet ill-fated romance.

"Don't ever fall in love with a solipsist," she sang under a line of blue lights hanging from the ceiling.

Good advice, but I ducked out to grab a table at Miller's, a top spot for jazz and a magnet for Dave Matthews pilgrims who know their idol used to tend bar there. Gushing about Matthews at Miller's will only make locals roll their eyes, but there are other reasons to visit -- like jazz trumpeter John D'earth, who's also the U-Va. music department's director of jazz performance.

With a lanky frame and burst of white hair, D'earth has played with Lionel Hampton, Bruce Hornsby and a slew of Charlottesville artists, including Matthews. D'earth's current group, the Thompson D'earth Band (singer Dawn Thompson is D'earth's wife), still squeezes just inside Miller's front window on Thursday nights.

That's when I visited, sipping a Pabst Blue Ribbon and watching band members trade solos as red neon glowed behind them.

The next night, I joined the shaggy-haired and white-kids-with-dreadlocks crowd at Starr Hill Music Hall, perhaps Charlottesville's premier venue. Drinking a microbrew produced at Starr Hill's own brewery, I watched high school and college kids stream up the stairs until I felt ancient . . . at age 28.

Reinvigoration came from the reggae beats and high-energy vocals of New York's Easy Star All-Stars, who got me -- and everyone else -- dancing on the hardwood floor. So this was current Charlottesville music, I thought: folksy, jazzy and funky, but without a hard edge.

Then I headed to the Outback Lodge, a restaurant and nightclub a short drive from downtown. Kim Dylla, singer for local metal act This Means You, was pacing the stage in fishnet stockings and a leather two-piece. Her primal shrieks convulsed a small mosh pit dominated by a large man with a mohawk, tattoos down both arms and a black tank top reading "Die Yuppie Scum."

Afterward, metal fan William Drumheller complained that such performances were too rare in Charlottesville. "Nothing coming out of this town," he said, "is something your parents would hate."

Chapel Hill, N.C.

A 1999 graduate of the University of North Carolina, I always find Chapel Hill pleasantly isolated from the world, with students ambling along brick walkways and beside the town's low stone walls. East Franklin Street, the main drag, distills the college town essence: It's got an old-timey drugstore (Sutton's), a neon movie marquee (at the Varsity Theatre), a killer indie music store (Schoolkids, in two adjoining storefronts) and a string of bars and cheap restaurants.

But for a hip, vaguely countercultural atmosphere, you've got to go to West Franklin Street, where fine dining restaurants and wine bars mix with stores selling everything from vintage clothing to bongs and hookahs ("All products intended for tobacco use only," says the sign at Hazmat). At Internationalist Books, you'll find literary magazines and left-wing periodicals with names like the Northeastern Anarchist.

Happily, the music listings in the Independent, a free weekly newspaper, led me to a West Franklin venue: Local 506, a concrete-floored, smoke-filled club whose entryway is covered in handbills and whose vertical gutters are plastered with band stickers.

Inside, in the glow of a black light, I scanned a club schedule before moving to the building's back half, where boxy, riser-style benches (not to mention a cage for dancing) lined a small room with a modest stage. From an inky corner near the soundboard, I watched two local bands open for the Makers, a punk rock/glam rock hybrid that records on Seattle's Sub Pop label.

The Makers exploded onto the stage behind frontman Michael Shelley, who looked like Prince and strutted like Mick Jagger. Given his persona, it didn't seem too surprising when Shelley pulled down his shirt mid-set so a female audience member could touch his nipple. It did seem a bit odd when she massaged it with an ice cube before about 30 onlookers.

Nipple icings aside, Chapel Hill's scene struck me as darker, edgier and weirder than Charlottesville's. The town's top clubs have less light, more graffiti in the bathrooms and a spareness that occasionally verges on dilapidation. One, the Cave, has been plastered to resemble a dank tunnel.

The gritty ambiance jibes with Chapel Hill's reputation as an indie rock town. In the early 1990s, it was widely tagged the "next Seattle" because several local bands -- indie rockers Superchunk, Polvo and Archers of Loaf -- seemed poised to duplicate the meteoric rise of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the rest of Seattle's grunge scene. Instead, it was Ben Folds's piano, as well as the Squirrel Nut Zippers' hot jazz, that went big time.

Since grunge was still a dominant influence at the time, those artists were innovators, local music journalist Gavin O'Hara told me over coffee. "Some of the most restless and experimental music in the country has been made here."

It's not just rock, either -- bluegrass, alternative country and hip-hop (though that scene is more Durham-centric) live here, too. Grammy-nominated Tift Merritt, for example, whose mix of country, rock and soul sits a bit outside the Nashville mainstream, launched her career in the area.

You have to go to nearby Carrboro for Cat's Cradle, the local scene's most prestigious (and possibly dirtiest) venue. Still, I was at Wetlands Dance Hall, a newer spot near campus, when I saw one of my favorite bands of this odyssey, Chicago-based Palaxy Tracks. After a set of wistful, slightly melancholy rock, I told one of the guitarists they'd played a great show and that it was a shame it had been to a nearly empty room.

He smiled and thanked me. The band had, in fact, already joked about the "crowd" from the stage.

This is what you don't learn at stadium shows: In music, you'd better have a sense of humor.

Athens

All that remains of St. Mary's Episcopal Church is a red steeple, a chunky, orphaned monolith with vines crawling across its cupola. Three letters carved near the steeple's plywood-covered door explain why I was staring as if I'd found a Mayan pyramid. They read "R.E.M."

Back when those initials referred primarily to a stage of sleep, not to a collection of stadium-filling rock gods, the band practiced and played its first show -- a 1980 birthday party -- at the church. Its steeple is now a stop on the Athens Music History Walking Tour, produced by Flagpole, a free weekly paper.

The fact such a tour exists -- much less that it attracts visitors from Europe -- underscores the influence of a music scene that began its rise to international prominence in the early 1980s, when bands such as Pylon, Love Tractor and R.E.M. played house parties and small clubs. Wuxtry Records, a music-geek heaven downtown, also operates the Athens Music Museum, a room filled with memorabilia including concert handbills and rare releases from acts like the B-52's, the original Athens party band.

Mike Richmond, guitarist and vocalist of Love Tractor, couldn't quite put into words the magical atmosphere that has spawned so much creativity. Instead, he showed it, driving me though neighborhoods -- a Southern Gothic world of white-columned mansions and small-but-elegant porches -- where he and others lived, partied and played shows on staircase landings.

"Everyone lived in these houses and it was cheap, you know, it was just really out of the spotlight of the world," Richmond said. "It was kind of a paradise, the deep, sleepy South."

"Sleepy" no longer describes downtown Athens.

Legions of bars and restaurants populate its Victorian storefronts, tables spilling onto sidewalks. Mutually hostile tribes of khaki-clad University of Georgia frat boys and hipsters with unkempt hair and canvas Converse sneakers roam the streets. The latter's home turf, though, is the epicenter of the music scene: West Washington Street, which hosts venues like the 40 Watt Club -- Athens's best-known rock spot -- as well as the Pain and Wonder Tattoo shop, its windows edged in painted flames.

The sheer number of musical options on any given night is daunting. Flagpole publishes a music directory that lists nearly 550 local bands and solo artists and more than 30 music venues, the best of which are within walking distance of each other.

On a Thursday evening, I started out with an early show by the Box Devils, a trippy, psychedelic blues duo who played the intimate Flicker Theatre and Bar, another West Washington club where a lamp in the shape of an owl sits atop an upright piano and wall lamps cast gentle puddles of light.

Then I faced a choice: the fun, synthesizer-laden pop that Of Montreal was playing at the 40 Watt, where I could commandeer a ratty sofa? The reunited Pylon, playing at Nuci's Space, a music-resource center next to the R.E.M. steeple? Or the heavier sounds of Cinemechanica at the Caledonia Lounge, a bare box for indie rock?

In the end, I split time between Of Montreal and Cinemechanica, mostly because they were playing almost next door to each other. Both good shows, but I later learned that Michael Stipe and Mike Mills of R.E.M. -- who still live in Athens -- had been dancing to Pylon.

Now that would have been cool.

Beginning with the arty alterna-rock of the early '80s, Athens's music has gone through phases; the late '90s and early 2000s, for instance, belonged to the psychedelic pop of the Elephant 6 collective, an amorphous group of musicians involved in such bands as Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. Widespread Panic, Phish's apparent successor as the nation's jam-band kings, has also left its mark.

Now, locals say the scene is diverse, with a strong bluegrass and Americana scene, as well as jazz, hard rock and country.

"Not only will you get to see anything, but you'll get to see great music," said Bob Sleppy, executive director of Nuci's Space. "I think one of the great things about Athens is that kind of friendly competition breeds really great work. The people sitting here watching you are musicians, too, so you want to put on your best show."

True. But after more than 1,200 miles driving, nearly 30 musical acts and many, many cheap beers, I needed sleep. And water. And probably hearing aids.

Luckily, I went out one more night, because I discovered my favorite band of the trip -- an all-female, Chapel Hill rock duo called the Moaners -- at Tasty World, a club across the street from the university campus.

Alternately reclining against the bar and the red steel girders that support the building's upper floors, I tapped my foot as singer-guitarist Melissa Swingle sneered her wicked Southern accent over a slide guitar. After the show, I made a halfhearted, exhausted attempt to strike up a conversation as Swingle ordered a beer, but she brushed me off.

Yup, time to go home. I was starting to feel like a groupie.

Ben Brazil last wrote for Travel on Ouray, Colo.

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