“For those of you who don’t know Mark, he’s a high-in-the-sky hippie.”
As I’ve learned from my friends in Monadnock region of New Hampshire, nothing beats a homegrown jam. The best local bands are always there, throwing down a little extra, and the headiest people in town come together, making for a delightful atmosphere. Good vibes are all around – it’s impossible to NOT be in a good mood.
Saturday night I was a bit down in spirits. I spent the greater part of the day inside, searching through job postings and thinking about my ever-draining bank account. Around 8pm I realized I’d better climb out of the dark hole dug myself into and do something fun. At the Athens Farmers earlier this week (held at Creature Comforts), I picked up a poster for the Fifth FranAllen Jam at New Earth Music Hall which now lay on the table next to me. After staring at the poster for a minute (it’s a pretty cool poster), I decided to go check it out.
Fran Cooper and Mark VanAllen – “FranAllen”
From the website, I learned that the FranAllen Jam is the creation of Fran Cooper and Mark VanAllen, and started out as what may be the most incredible wedding gift ever conceived. The first Jam was a showcase of bands that Mark, a killer pedal steel guitarist, had played and recorded with over the years and took place at a venue called Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, GA. It changes locations from year to year, with the number of acts varying as well. FranAllen Jam would be a benefit for the Athens Farmers Market and the UGA Honey Bee Program.
New Earth is tucked away on West Dougherty St. in Athens. During the day, passersby might not even notice the place exists. When I arrived there however, the patio was scattered with guests and warm light was pouring from the front door. The Jam, which started at 4pm, was well underway, and Wiley Eyes, Kristen Englenz, and the Shane Bridges Band had already played their sets by the time I arrived. I paid $12 at the door – not bad for a whole night of music – and got in just in time for Kick the Robot take the stage.
The inside of New Earth is surprisingly cozy and charming, The walls are covered with pieces from local artists and it the rough wood beam stage and sound booth give it the feel of a barn show. The light rig is phenomenal – they run it like pros – and the sound in the venue is superb. For me, New Earth is a familiar and friendly environment, it reminds me greatly of Nectar’s/Metronome in Burlington, VT, where I spent probably more time than I should have during my college years.
Kick the Robot got the crowd moving right away, throwing down some high-energy tunes. The three piece definitely “kicked the robot” out of their music, keeping it steady-rocking throughout the set. Featuring a hollow body electric guitar, their tone was heavily rhythmic, with great harmonizing on the vocals. As far as comparison goes, think Arctic Monkeys. They were a great band to start on, and they were fun to watch. The most impressive member of the band was the bass player, who was a stellar singer, and was gutsy enough to jump in and rage an impromptu bass solo when technical issues cut their guitar out for a moment. By the time their set was finished, I was in an infinitely better mood and was excited to hear the other bands.
“I love kids, but I’m fucking glad there are no children around.”
Before the next band, Greco, Fran and Mark took the stage to make a few announcements, thank the audience and bands for coming out, and even implied intentions to return the Jam to New Earth Music Hall in the spring. Mark then called up “some of [his] best friends ever,” giving introduction to Greco. “First things first,” frontman Johann Greco instructed before allowing the show to begin, “come a little closer.” The band then erupted into a heavy, blues-driven soulful rock. There was even some psychedelic sound in there, in the same sense that the Black Crows can be considered psychedelic.
I was really impressed with how heavy, but still well rounded their overall sound came off. Some of the beats had the kind of pounding rhythm to them that you’d expect from Audioslave. A little humor was thrown in during a song break, where Johann commented dryly, “I’m glad there are no kids here. I mean, I love kids, but I’m fucking glad there are no children around. I learned later that all the band members are actually brothers, with the exception of the guitarist on Les Paul/acoustic/keytar, who is their stepbrother.
VanAllen on slide pedal
Greco had me dancing hard the whole time, and I was happy to join forces with the one other person there who was doing the same. It’s a crowd activity! Dancing is always better with more people involved. Towards the end of the set, VanAllen joined Greco, sitting in on slide pedal for a few songs that took the band’s tone towards the soulful side of country, but still kept all the power of the rock machine they are. Johan said of VanAllen, “For those of you who don’t know Mark, he’s a high-in-the-sky hippy. He has some burnt-out commune stories.”
Van Allen stayed on the slide pedal to play with his band, Saint Francis, a six-piece group that knows how to put down a serious jam. They have a little funk in them, a lot of hot southern fuzz (think Allman Brothers Band), and the slide pedal adds a really neat element to their sound, providing a distinctive twang. I don’t usually go for the country sound, but they way Saint Francis blends it into their rocking rhythms and generous improvisation was quite impressive. The slide can create some crazy sounds and melodies, ranging anywhere from nostalgia and melancholy, to eerie and downright weird. I have never heard a band like Saint Francis before, and I’m super stoked to have been introduced to them – and at such a cool venue and event too! Notable songs were “Watermelon Man,” which Fran told me always makes her cry, and their classic, “Bubble.”
To my delight, the last band up was Runaway Gin, a Phish tribute band from Charleston, SC. These guys were great! I’ve seen a couple other Phish tributes, all of whom have their own styles and areas of the music the focus on, but Runaway Gin is the first one I’ve heard that pulls of some great lengthy jams and can segue pretty damn well too. They opened up their set with “Divided Sky,” touched on other popular songs from “Chalk Dust Torture,” to the Ween cover, “Roses Are Free,” as well as a raging “Run Like an Antelope” and a “Tweezer” with a super funky jam. I made a few more friends during this set, geeking out over Phish and dancing around like it was Summer Tour.
FranAllen Jam was a blast, and I will definitely go again if they do return in the spring. Otherwise, I found some great new bands to keep tabs on all based right here in Athens. I was a little disappointed to see that the crowd was still relatively small at an event like this, but I still enjoyed myself thoroughly, and the bands played their hearts out regardless. New Earth Music Hall is an awesome venue too and I will definitely be headed back there with some degree of frequency. I am proud to be living in a community with such distinctive and great talent. Cheers to Fran and Mark for putting this together!