Savannah Rock City

How a Charming, Historic Tourist Destination Became a Metal Mecca

Black Tusk by Geoff L. Johnson

Black Tusk  (L-R) James May, Jonathan Athon and Andrew Fidler. Photo by Geoff L. Johnson

It’s 9:30 on an unseasonably cool Atlanta August night, and I’m in Hell. Thankfully, I’m not alone. Members of ATL-affiliated metal bands big (Torche) and small (Wizard Smoke) are here too, as are four boys years below the legal driving age, and about 50 other folks, most of whom look about like the motley crew of outcasts you might expect to be hanging out in Hell on a standard-issue Monday evening.

Located right across the hall from Purgatory, and, naturally, directly below Heaven, Hell is one of The Masquerade’s three main performance areas. It’s an underrated space which allows the showgoer to get a few feet away from the performers on either side, stand in a pit, or watch from an elevated bar. Not a bad seat in the house, as they say.

We’re all here to see metal-by-way-of-hardcore-punk trio, Black Tusk, the latest in Savannah’s extremely promising crop of heavy rock ’n’ roll bands. Touring in support of its third album and Relapse Records debut, the excellent Taste the Sin, it’s the first time the band has played this larger-than-it’s-used-to venue.

Black Tusk

Black Tusk (L-R) Andrew Fidler, James May, Jonathan Athon

“I mean, when we were kids, we used to take our parents’ cars up there to go see shows, you know, and get in or sneak in, and we lived up there for a little while,” Black Tusk bassist Jonathan Athon remembers a couple months later. “I was there like six months going to school, and I used to always go to the punk rock barbecues when they had that going on. I was really stoked to play there.”

For Black Tusk, the show, which is part of a three-week nationwide tour stint with stoner-rock veterans Fu Manchu, is kind of a big deal, if only as a signifier that the band has managed to burst out of the Savannah bubble. Despite the fact that The Hostess City of the South sports arguably the best metal scene in the country right now, it doesn’t exactly nurture it.

“Savannah’s not very polite with bands practicing or house shows,” Athon says. “A lot of cities are pretty renowned for their house shows, but there’s no basements in Savannah, so neighbors just don’t really put up with it all that well. For a town that has a lot of music, like every single kind of music, no one hardly has a practice space. It’s really odd.”

At home, he’s a tourist

Summer Welch is spending part of his Saturday morning sitting on the patio of Hilton Savannah Desoto. Aside from the occasional motorcycle blasting by, it’s an idyllic, quiet place for a conversation. The hotel, a short walk from bustling River Street and Savannah’s historic downtown, has its fair share of tourists, but also isn’t annoyingly overrun with them. Welch, bassist for Baroness, likes getting a drink here sometimes, if only because it’s removed from the usual bar scene.

On Monday he’ll be having drinks on another continent, when Baroness begins a series of shows opening for Metallica in Australia. The trek caps a massive year for Savannah’s biggest band, metal or otherwise, including performances at major music festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo, and opening spots with Deftones, Mastodon and, of course, James Hetfield & Co. Baroness’ latest, 2009’s Blue Album, was lauded, cracking the Billboard 200 and earning the band a spot on the cover of monthly metal bible, Decibel. Indeed, Welch has come a long way since moving to Savannah in the early 2000s and seeing his inaugural Savannah concert. “The first show I remember that really had a major impact on me was when Kylesa, Municipal Waste and the Unpersons played at this old venue that hasn’t been in existence for a long time—a little [crappy] hole in the wall,” Welch says. “A friend of ours used to run this venue. I remember going to that show and really being like, ‘Whoa, this is cool, and this is here.’”

The members of Kylesa and what would become Baroness became fast friends, the latter’s guitarist and singer, John Baizley—who does the album and T-shirt artwork for Baroness, Kylesa and Black Tusk, amongst many others—driving the former on early tours. Baroness formed in 2003, during what Welch thinks of as the city’s heyday. “The scene here was small,” he says. “You know, it’s always been small, but everybody knew each other and every show that came through here [during 2003-2004], there was just some kind of magic going on that you couldn’t explain or really touch, but you knew it when you were there.”

Kylesa

Kylesa (L-R) Carl McGinley, Phillip Cope, Corey Barhorst, Laura Pleasants, Tyler Newberry. Photo by Geoff L. Johnson

So “small and magical” was the time that, when asked about her early memories of Savannah, Kylesa’s Laura Pleasants brings up that very same show. “I met John Baizley at a Kylesa/Municipal Waste show in 2002,” she says. “He told me that that show was the reason behind starting Baroness.”

Welch is extremely thoughtful with his answers, to the point of awkward pauses as he searches for just the right words. So it makes sense that he’s unfazed to go unrecognized around town, despite his bona fide rock star status. That Savannah Magazine has named local act Liquid Ginger its band of the year—for the last five years. That his city, by and large, doesn’t even know he exists.

“I’ve lived here and I’ve considered this my home for the past nine years, and to be perfectly honest, I prefer not to be known as … this dude from this band,” Welch says. “I like not being known here. I don’t really care because I know that the reasons I do it are my own reasons. I’m a pretty low-key dude. So when I do get recognized for being a part of this band, it’s like, ‘That’s part of who I am, but it’s not all of who I am.’ Like when you’re a kid and you’re like, ‘Yeah! [Freakin’] Gene Simmons! Amazing!’ [But] you don’t really know Gene Simmons; you know part of him. You know his stage presence and his tongue and that he’s slept with 10,000 women.”

Despite seven years of hard work, work that’s taken the band from playing house shows for 10 people to opening for one of the world’s all-time biggest rock bands in the Land Down Under, the members of Baroness exist as relative hometown unknowns. Obviously, to those connected to the scene, Welch and his crew are huge, but for the tourists walking by the Hilton, they’re merely guys with tattoos and more hair than usual. They’ll take a touring hiatus in 2011 to work on their new record, which will likely continue the band’s upward trajectory, likely without changing the band’s local stature. The dichotomy of scene versus city can be staggering to contemplate, but it doesn’t seem to ruffle Welch.

“I’d say that we’re incredibly fortunate to have got to the point where we are now,” he says. “I don’t take that for granted for a minute, but also, we never wanted to be a hometown band.”

Meet the originators

Whereas Baroness’ rise was relatively quick and Black Tusk’s is proving similarly, the members of Kylesa, especially Phillip Cope of ’90s Savannah legends Damad, are elder statesmen of sorts. “I’ve been doing this for close to 17 years,” Cope told Pitchfork in November. “There was a period of time when I was doing more psychedelic-influenced heavy music where there weren’t other people around. Mastodon wasn’t even around yet. I worked with most of those bands when they were coming up. Baroness and Black Tusk: I produced their earlier records, basically just because they asked. As it’s gone on, everybody’s put their own thing to it, and it’s gotten to the point now where everyone’s so busy that I hardly ever see anybody.”

Baroness (L-R) Allen Blickle, Summer Welch, John Baizley and Pete Adams

Baroness (L-R) Allen Blickle, Summer Welch, John Baizley and Pete Adams

Called Savannah’s “metal scene godfather” by Spin in 2009, Cope formed Kylesa in 2001 with Pleasants and his Damad bandmates. Fast forward to 2010 and the band has released its second fantastic record in as many years, Spiral Shadow. At press time, a notable music publication has yet to print a negative word about it, and it’s easy to see why: The record is by far Kylesa’s most accessible to date. “Don’t Look Back” is a particular standout, its guitars reminiscent of the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero,” its propulsive, motivational theme simply begging for inclusion as a sports drama TV theme and/or soundtrack to a summer blockbuster’s montage. It took a rather frantic five albums over eight years, but Kylesa may have a crossover hit on their hands. And they did it all without being based in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles—or even Atlanta. There’s something admirable about that.

“Living in Savannah has its advantages and disadvantages,” Pleasants says. “Living in a bigger city would maybe garner more respect or exposure, but it’s hard to function in a big city. The cost of living is so high. You can leave [a small town] for months at a time and not have to sweat the expense of high rent. Plus, there’s not a whole lot to do in Savannah; you have to create your own fun and that can be thwarted by the distractions of a large city.”

A tale of two cities

In downtown Savannah, the streets are filled, almost exclusively, with older white folks—tourists—walking around, shopping, creating long waits at restaurants. In Baldwin Park, where Black Tusk bassist Jonathan Athon lives with his girlfriend in a modest house, the streets are almost exclusively populated by younger African Americans, sparsely scattered, walking long stretches of lonely sidewalks near industrial areas and shuttered storefronts.

A woman carrying a cat smiles at me as I get out of my car and walk toward Athon’s house. It’s easy to find because it’s the one with a large van, trailer and motorcycle out front. Athon—dressed in a black Weedeater shirt that’s mostly covered by his foot-and-a-half-long ginger beard—directs me to a small table where guitarist Andrew Fiddler—wearing a different Weedeater shirt—sits, before serving the three of us cold Busch in a can.

His backyard is serene, overgrown with exotic plantlife of all kinds. A dilapidated shed sits to my left, its door propped wide open, a dartboard attached. Athon and Fiddler are planning to “yell at the TV this afternoon” during the Georgia/Tennessee football game.

black_tusk_sabbath

Jonathan Athon, Andrew Fidler and James May of Black Tusk. Photo by Geoff L. Johnson

Talking with the pair—part of the youngest band in the Savannah triumvirate—is like asking a hyperactive, plugged-in music lover what he’s digging these days. The two vomit forth names of bands—Two Days of Freedom, the aforementioned Damad and Unpersons, newer acts like Dead Yet—in a near-constant deluge. Clearly, they’re happy to be making and experiencing music all the time, and especially happy they can take it on the road.

“There’s so many blues and kind of folky Delta-type music groups in Savannah that’ll just blow your mind,” Athons enthuses. “They’re so awesome, but you’ll never hear them outside of Savannah. It’s kind of like they’re gonna be one of those legend things way down the road. ‘Check this out; I got this old CD.’ We’re one of the last bands around right now that’s touring, and it seems like every couple of years there’ll be another influx of bands. It’ll have that same kind of feel and passion, and some of those kids will start touring, you know?”

As I’m getting ready to leave Athon’s verdant backyard oasis, the conversation circles around to the same name it always does with Savannah metal bands: Susanne Warnekros, proprietor of The Jinx. Fiddler suggests I head to the club later in the evening. I decide that catching the country band he’s talking up will be fun, but also that going to her place of business seems like a convenient way to talk with Warnekros. But first, I head to a Mexican restaurant.

Keeping it hyperreal

T-Rex Mex burrito bar occupies a large brick building next to—perhaps a more accurate word would be “under”—a vintage clothing store on Broughton Avenue. The dark, eclectic, below-street space is marked by scattered tables and vivid paintings of Waylon Jennings and Marc Bolan, amongst others. The bar, installed by a construction company that at one time employed Baroness’ Welch and Black Tusk’s Athon simultaneously, is proof that parts of Savannah were literally built by its metal bands.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, given its myriad musical connections, T-Rex is the place where Hyperrealist founder Pat Mathis is finding some work between jobs. Mathis, who in 2002 started Hyperrealist—his second label, after the punk-leaning Passive Fist—released the very first Baroness recordings, the aptly titled EPs First and Second.Clad in a Lucero trucker hat, a plain gray tee, thin-rimmed glasses and a five o’clock shadow, Mathis takes a break from his prep work in the kitchen to discuss Savannah with me. Naturally, he’s known Kylesa’s Cope for a while. Mathis, now 36, met him when he was 15.

“I was in high school,” he remembers. “He was a year or two ahead of me but in a different school altogether, and I met him through a mutual friend I used to skate with who was like, ‘I know this guy, this kid who plays guitar; you should go hang out.’ That was like ’89, something like that, way before cell phones and Internet, so anytime there was something going on, a show happening or somebody wanted to tell someone [something], they had to, like, hunt each other down. It took probably six, eight, 10 months or so before we got in touch with each other, and after a few years we started hanging out. He’s one of my oldest friends.”

Mathis has made ends meet during his time in Savannah between labels and odd jobs, but now that the city’s biggest bands have moved on to bigger labels, he’s not exactly getting rich off Hyperrealist. There are no hard feelings, of course, particularly because these people are all his friends, but like the other members of the Savannah metal community I talk to, he acknowledges that these bands are outsiders. Like many cities with great scenes, they don’t have the safe haven of a brick-and-mortar retail establishment to congregate around. “Savannah doesn’t even have a record shop,” Mathis says, clearly frustrated. “I can’t go buy records in my own town. I have to drive a minimum of 150 miles in either direction just to go buy music.”

If nothing else though, to hear Mathis tell it, you can’t keep good bands down. “Everybody’s always found a way,” he says of the scene’s resilience. “I don’t know, I guess no one’s just gonna throw their hands up is what it is. You gotta just make do.”

Unity in diversity?

On the suggestion of Andrew Fiddler, I check out The Jinx’s happy-hour shenanigans, where I run into Athon, who might as well be the mayor by the way he knows everyone in the joint. From the bartender to the upright bassist to many a random dude walking by, he meticulously picks out half the room, detailing their history and other bands. The pedal-steel player, for instance, is a Russian fellow named Igor who plays in various metal and punk bands around Savannah and will be heading overseas with Black Tusk where he’ll serve as sound guy and translator.

Susanne_Guest_Warnekros-6

Susanne Guest Warnekros, proprietress of Savannah venue, The Jinx, and a tireless supporter of the local music scene. Photo by Bill Dawers

One person I never encounter, unfortunately, is Warnekros, though she happily answers e-mail questions later. To hear her tell it, The Jinx was founded on the notion that everybody’s invited to the party, which is exactly what it looks like the night I attend. Myriad demographics intermingling, with a talented, underheralded band onstage. Unfortunately, not everyone esteems the venue as a place where music and camaraderie are valued. “You’ve got lots of different scenes in Savannah,” Warnekros says. “You’ve got your true money blue bloods, which in my opinion only value music that appeals to the masses, and totally dismiss anything really new and original. I’m sure that [The Jinx is] looked at like that ‘freaky tattooed people bar’ and just [gets] dismissed. I’ll never understand the closed-mindedness in a town that is so full of artists. For example, it’s fine for Wild Wings to have a cover band—outside, mind you—playing [Jimmy] Buffet covers as loud as they want. But, if my metal band, inside, is too loud, I get the $700 sound violation ticket.”

I remember going to that show and really being like, ‘Whoa, this is cool, and this is here.’

Presiding over the evening is Damon and the Shitkickers, an excellent classic-country covers band with serious chops and a T-shirt that depicts an old car with longhorns mounted on the front and the words “This shit ain’t gonna kick itself.” On this particular evening, the venue is celebrating its seventh anniversary, but it feels like business as usual. The walls are covered with myriad metal ephemera, a Torche or High on Fire poster here, a Kylesa custom skateboard there.

About an hour into the set, The Jinx starts filling in with an astonishingly diverse clientele—couples in their fifties, punks in their thirties, more than a few folks who might best be described as “preppy”—and the band is encouraging requests. A Johnny Cash song is met with much joy, and everyone is having a helluva time. I leave during a spirited, sing-along rendition of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” emerging onto the street amidst the clacking of heels and a 50-person line outside of Paula Deen’s Lady & Sons restaurant. It’s an apt reminder of the strange, dichotomous world enveloping Savannah rockers and naturally, it provokes questions: how long can this last? Will it succumb to what amounts to cultural gentrification, with acts fleeing the city for more hospitable regions? At that point I remember something Baroness’ Welch said toward the end of our conversation that morning.

“I think one of the cool things about Savannah is that people kind of coexist, and everybody in different scenes hangs out and goes to shows and supports music,” he said. “Why? Well, I don’t really know why. It just works that way. There’s something you can’t really put into words or really grasp or define or write down on paper that connects everybody here. I think trying to [unpack] that would kind of ruin it. People always want to know why. Why is the sky blue? Why did you do this? Why, why, why? Just accept it in your heart. If it moves or inspires you, maybe you don’t need to know why. Just go with it, because it probably won’t always be there.”

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