First, let’s dispel rumors of any hidden meaning in the Wrecking Ball name. “We didn’t want it to be another ‘Something Festival,’ so we were playing around with names like (New York’s) Governor’s Ball,” explains Greg Green, the festival’s co-coordinator.
“We wanted something punky, like Riot Fest, but ‘riot’ is too strong a word,” adds Elena de Soto. “Wrecking Ball seemed about right. And then our graphic designer went with a wrecking ball running through a city and everyone’s asking what’s going on,” she laughs.
Given the accelerating gentrification of its Old Fourth Ward environs (the property backs up against Atlanta’s Belt Line, and the Ponce City Market development is right across the street), questions about the Masquerade’s future are understandable. Green waves them off, though. “There’s a double entendre there, of course, but we’re hanging on.”
Concerns over the club’s longevity intensified with the recent disclosure that real estate firm SWH Residential Partners had acquired the property, with plans for “repurposing the Masquerade building.” Green offered no further comment on this turn of events, but a July 28 post on the Masquerade’s Facebook page states “We are continuing with our booking through 2016 and all shows are going forward,” while simultaneously hinting at the possibility of relocation.
This summer’s inaugural Wrecking Ball happens to coincide with the Masquerade’s 25th anniversary, placing it among Atlanta’s longest running music venues. Green has been in the mix for all 25 of those years- he’s a vice president within the ownership group- and forms a healthy symmetry with de Soto, who interned at the club while pursuing her photography degree at the Savannah College of Art & Design before signing on full-time upon graduation a year ago. “Atlanta has a lot of good genre-specific festivals,” she opines, “but there was no punk and emo- the stuff I listen to- among them.”
Fifty-six bands are slated to play across the Masquerade’s four stages Saturday and Sunday August 8th and 9th. The lineup includes many leading lights of the punk, emo, and math rock scenes: the Descendents, Desaparecidos, Coheed & Cambria, Failure, the Get Up Kids and Thrice, for starters. The Coathangers may be the most recognizable local name on the roster, but de Soto quickly rattles off a litany of area bands: “Big Jesus, Microwave, Blis, Foundation, Criminal Instinct, I hope I haven’t forgotten any.” Green is particularly enthusiastic about Atlanta’s own Microwave, who recently signed to SideOneDummy records and is using the Wrecking Ball as the jumping off point for their first national tour.
In booking the fest “we took into account bands that had played a big part in the Masquerade over the years,” according to Green. “I believe every single band (on the bill) has played here at one point or another. Or if they haven’t, they were about to.” The venue’s multi-level layout is well suited for the rapid changeovers and parallel play required at festivals, as well as providing flexibility for nightly booking decisions. Its smallest stage, Purgatory, accommodates roughly 250 spectators. Hell holds 550 people, before larger acts ascend to the main stage in Heaven. The more seasonal Masquerade Music Park has hosted outdoor events as varied as the Dave Matthews Band, Radiohead, and the first Van’s Warped Tour. The combined capacity of approximately 5,000 promises to make Wrecking Ball substantial, yet more manageable and communal than many other music festivals.
The Wrecking Ball will be all ages, as is the case with most Masquerade programming “unless an act or outside promoter prefers otherwise,” says de Soto. As for how stages are selected on regular nights, “it depends on what the band is comfortable with. No one wants to play to an empty room, but no one wants it to sell out in ten seconds either.” “It’s nice to be able to develop bands,” adds Green, “so they can start in Purgatory, and the next time through town they can move to a bigger stage.”
The Masquerade’s physical plant dates to the turn of the 20th century. Its first life was as an excelsior mill (a now obsolete packing material made of wood shavings). Prior to its 1990 reincarnation as a full-time music venue it served as a restaurant and cinema/draft house; its backrooms housed the industrial kitchen for the Mellow Mushroom pizza chain in its early days. The club’s ownership has been surprisingly stable given its long tenure, weathering even the mysterious 2013 death of group president Dean Riopelle. Initially ruled an accidental overdose, the case received renewed scrutiny a year later when Riopelle’s girlfriend was charged with manslaughter in the death of a California man under somewhat similar circumstances.
While rock clubs frequently become unwelcome neighbors in the gentrified neighborhoods they helped to germinate, Green proudly points to strong civic relationships. “The city likes us- we involve ourselves in a lot of charitable work in the community,” he says, pointing to their efforts on the Freedom Barkway dog park in collaboration with the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood associations, as well as the Operation P.E.A.C.E. preschool initiative for the nearby Boulevard area.
The imminent full-scale opening of Ponce City Market will undoubtedly create traffic challenges on nearby surface streets. Paradoxically Green sees a potential upside for his venue, as a new parking deck will come online across North Avenue with plenty of space outside traditional business hours. Here’s hoping the Masquerade can keep the wrecking ball at bay- except when they choose to swing it each August.
By Glen Sarvady