Preface: Five years ago this past June, I completed my doctoral dissertation on the music scene in my hometown and the corresponding website CBLocals. On p. 15, I wrote…
CBLocals provides a more quotidian example of locality in music scenes not often found in current literature. Many recollections of music scenes from both scholars and the masses center on large urban centers…music communities stemming from or near Athens, Minneapolis, Boston and Washington are given prominence in music scene narrative due to the prolific number of nationally recognized bands that emerged from them (Azerrad, 2001).
Yet for every Athens, Georgia, there are hundreds of small communities such as industrial Cape Breton. Today, hundreds upon hundreds of bands play to small local audiences and will never be heard by a mass audience, Internet exposure notwithstanding. (This is actually as true of urban areas as well although these bands at least possess greater proximity to national media). These examples bear further analysis as there is much to learn from how people develop music scenes without the amenities granted by urban locations. This is especially important in how participants of music scenes articulate a sense of, alternately, pride and disappointment in the music scenes that they feel helps to define them.
Where I was 20 years ago today is either fitting, ironic or a little bit of both when you consider where I was a couple of Saturdays ago.
I attended the second of three massively attended Outkast shows at Olympic Park here in Atlanta. For someone who moved here in August 2003, nothing could be more emblematic of re-living a zeitgeist. Because it wasn’t but for a few weeks after I moved here that The Love Below/Speakerboxx completely took over the earth (or at least it seemed that way). “Hey Ya!” was everywhere you could look and after a decade of hustling and five full length releases, Andre 3000 & Big Boi had officially staked their claim as the city’s newest “most famous sons.”
Normally, events like #ATLast are eschewed by the “I knew them back when they were next-to-nothing” crowd but quite frankly, the Outkast shows attracted everyone from the most casual to hardcore fan and with absolutely everyone loving it. For many of the over 60,000 people that attended one or more of the shows, the Outkast reunion represented nothing less than the ultimate homecoming. I noted that the song that produced the biggest reaction of the night was not anything from the aforementioned album, but rather Big Boi’s 2005 cut “Kryptonite” in which he triumphantly declares that on any given night, you can “find him in the A.” One fan told a newsreporter on Friday that the events was like a home game for the Braves, Hawks or Falcons. I would argue that would be selling it short: Atlanta’s known to be pretty transplant-friendly for road teams in sports. Outkast is as unanimous a home team as it gets for the ATL.
In sum, there’s fewer things can make you feel more of Atlanta than seeing Outkast, all these years later, in Atlanta.
So where was I 20 years ago today, (I made) you ask? Over 3050km north of what wasn’t quite yet Olympic Park and certainly not among tens of thousands of people of multiple races, ages and creeds in an open air venue. Instead I was among maybe 250ish mostly teenagers (and mostly white teenagers at that) at what was then known as Steelworkers Hall for a Thanksgiving Sunday event called “Gobblefest.” And I’m pretty it sure it was mostly teenagers because I was one of them.
Some of that year’s Gobblefest strikes me as embarrasingly hokey in hindsight. There were still not a lot of original local bands to make up a 23-band show so some cover bands had to make up the space. I remember some band covering John Mellencamp’s “Wild Night” and me being one of three people in the room for it. Yet the room was packed when Saucy Jack covered Lenny Kravitz and had us all moshing (this is my secret shame).
But the 1994 Gobblefest was the first time I remember paying money to watch bands that were a) from my hometown and b) no more than a few years older than me and in a few cases, as old as me. The highlight for me was Smiling Uniks because two of the members of the band were high school seniors I’d been in the same classes with since Grade 7.
Only minimal damage to the case after all this time…
I’m treading into long-retold “wow, anyone can do it” punk rock clichés, I know. But here were actual honest-to-goodness teenagers writing their own stuff and playing it. Oh sure, I’m sure if an unsentimental distant spectator listened to it, s/he’d write a lot of it off as grunge posturing. But some of the music stuck with me– Try listening to a song in which the lyrics consist solely of “Bubblegum, bubblegum, I like bubblegum,” then try to get it out of your head. Come to think of it, it seems more subversive and clever at age 37 than it did then…
Gobblefest didn’t turn me into a musician (although I kept writing lousy poetry for a couple more years). But it did have a transformative effect on me. I knew now that there was something going on in my hometown that was fun, energetic, creative to which I could relate. And for the non-quotidian indie rock places, that’s pretty important. I have nothing against the fiddle music of Cape Breton, but at the time, none of it made me feel happy to be of Sydney like being at Gobblefest did.
SIDEBAR: I’m acutely aware that’s really silly given how amorphous indie rock is vs. Cape Breton fiddling. No need to point it out. 🙂
I stayed home for college and my sister cajoled me into going to the student org fair because college wasn’t going to be more high school: I had to get involved in something. So I made a beeline to the “college radio” table even though the “college radio station” had no frequency (literally) and 19 years later, it still doesn’t. But oh the work they do…
Gobblefest became a three-day event that year and it was the first of six that I’d volunteer for (a couple of which I co-organized). You can openly laugh at me finding that a profound weekend of my life because I didn’t utilize a single creative skill at the second Gobblefest. At least that I can remember.
I didn’t go on any poster runs, trusty staple-gun in hand, but I remember mixing cola and coffee together at the merch table on a dare. I didn’t design any posters or write any press releases, but I remember selling a shirt for a band (as in…the lead singer literally hen-scratched the band’s name on one single shirt and one single person bought it for…$10?). I didn’t network with anyone to make any band come to the show, but I remember talking to the members of Plumtree and harboring a typical college crush on them (gosh, they were so nice). I wasn’t in on the budget planning for the show, but I remember being told at the end of the night to “keep all the juice bags” (if you have to ask…).
There was always lugging stuff. That I remember. That and seeing a lot of cool bands.
…and everyone had a good time
I’m reveling in recalling minutiae because that was my first volunteer gig and before you knew it, I’d be finding bands for shows, plastering posters all over town(s) and lugging gear in my mom’s Cavalier because my cheap sorry college self still couldn’t afford a car. (Sorry Mom! I like to think the 37-point turns out of the back of MusicStop carrying amps the car wasn’t built for didn’t harm the car’s transmission, but it probably did).
I still find everything I did then cropping up in my work life: This will be the third year in a row I will do a panel at CMA/ACP on review writing. I have to write up press releases before and after events all the time. Organizing MMC requires a lot of the same networking skills. I talk about things running on “rock time” all the time (hint: a lot of things in my life run on “rock time”). Watching students get to the verge of disavowing each other for life on time-intensive assignments (I’m looking at you, newspapers…) and having to be the “voice of reason” when the project still needs to complete itself inside 48 hours.
I once attended a leadership retreat for GSU and when the last session concluded in what was essentially cafeteria space, I told the students in my group to clean up everything and pack it out because “you need to leave the venue better than you found it.” The co-owner of the location- a fairly religious individual- was impressed at my mantra.
“Yup. Y’know where I learned that? Indie rock shows.”
She seemed a bit surprised…I think she figured I’d learned it from my parents (not that they didn’t try…). But in Cape Breton, you often had to rely on church halls to supply the venue. They weren’t listening to your loud, raucous music…you sure as hell were going to leave the place much more spic-and-span than you found it.
So why’d I bother mentioning Outkast in the first place? Well, see, when the first Gobblefests were happening, over 1900 miles away in Atlanta, a college radio station with a 100,000 watt frequency was playing Outkast on the weekends. And as a grad student, I found myself repeating my “let’s go try out for the college radio station” ways for that outfit and witnessing the whole process of people finding their place repeat itself anew.
The truth is, none of the bands you’ll see at Gobblefest may ever “rule the earth” like Outkast did (and one could argue that in this age, no band will ever “rule the earth” period but that’s a whole other story). So I might see it as a tad pointless to go to see a band when they’re “just this small band.” Still, it might end up being a neat fringe bonus point and I like to think that somewhere in the crowd at Centennial a few weeks ago were the GSU students who were convinced they were the only ones on campus who knew who Andre & Big Boi were then. I hoped it made them smile.
So if getting to say “I saw X Band when they were just playing at New Dawn” ten years down the line is appropriate incentive for any Cape Breton kids to check out this year’s Gobblefest this weekend, then by all means, seize it. It can happen in Sydney too, maybe not as easily but just the same, heartwarming homecomings are fun when you get older.
But really, more importantly, Gobblefest for me was the beginning of making friendships with fellow organizers and volunteers. It was also getting a chance to watch current and future friends be rock stars at least for a few days. One of my friends got a whole crowd of teenagers to sing his song in an arena concourse. Another rose out of a coffin to start his band’s set. Another one did his show with his arm in a cast because he’d broken it during a show in his resident province…and he had shirts that told the tale of his injury and how he actually returned to the club on the same night to see his favourite rock band.
That’s just fun.
Back Pocket Material at Gobblefest, circa 2011
All of which is a long way of saying, I mostly linked this on my social networks for people I know who either have kids, or know people who do, in Sydney. Tell ’em there’s an all-ages Gobblefest on Sunday and tell them they should go. And tell them that they are going to see talented and creative people and they’re not from another planet and they’re not from “big town, Canada/USA,” they’re either your parents’ friends– and yes, those people can be cool too– but more importantly, they and the audience are just the friends in town they haven’t made yet.
During one of the Gobblefests (I’ve long forgotten which one), one of the logo designs simply reused the same expression we’re all told during Thanksgiving (Canadian or American): Give Thanks. Even though I’d heard the expression in a hundred different places and times, it never resonated with me as much as it did on a Gobblefest poster.
So I give you thanks, Gobblefest. Go break your turkey leg this weekend.