40 Watt lights way for musicians

A single bulb lights a cramped College Avenue apartment in Athens.

Just one story below, budding musicians Michael Lachowski and Randy Bewley strum their guitars. Curtis Crowe, listening to the riffs from below and observing the 40-watt bulb suspended overhead, jokes with his friend that the impromptu music venue should be named ‘40 Watt Club.’

That was over thirty years ago.

***

Today, many musicians like Crowe, Lachowski and Bewley can credit what became the “40 Watt Club” as its first venue. R.E.M., Drive-By Truckers, and Love Tractor all trace their roots to the club’s stage. The 40 Watt continues to light the path for up-and-coming musicians more than 30 years after its creation.

David Barbe, director of the University of Georgia Music Business Program, knows the club’s importance as well as any, having used the venue as a musician, professor and patron nearly every year since its conception.

“The 40 Watt might have played a bigger role in the development of the Athens music scene than any other single institution,” said Barbe, who first played at the club in 1983.

The club, which relocated from College Avenue to its current home on Washington Street, has served as the core of Athens music since Lachowski and Bewley played their first note together in 1978. A 1996 New York Times article cited the club as proof “that a modest college-town scene could turn into a rock vanguard.”

Students in the early 1980’s flocked to see new artists like the B-52s perform live at the 40 Watt. Increasingly popular genres like alternative rock, indie and New Wave were taking shape, and Athens served as their unofficial capital, due largely to the 40 Watt. The club nurtured aspiring musicians in the new genres.

“There are so many rock scenes in America that took their cue from the Athens scene or were first introduced to the concept that became known as ‘alternative rock’ or ‘college rock’ at the 40 Watt,” said Barbe. “I think there’s a lot of respect for the history of the 40 Watt because of that.”

While the movements in the 1970s and early 1980s were the springboard for what has become a vibrant music scene in Athens, Barbe is not prepared to write that period off as the “glory days.”

“As easy as it is for people to wax rhapsodic about the old days of something, the music scene in Athens has never been better than it is right now,” said Barbe.

The 40 Watt continues to provide a variety of sounds to its patrons. In recent years, rapper Snoop Dogg, Grammy-nominated country singer Dierks Bentley, and Widespread Panic, as well as a vast number of up-and-coming artists, have played at the club.

“The [40] Watt is unique in that it has always been a place where newer bands can play and established touring bands want to play,” said Barbe, who acknowledges the history of the club and its importance to the Athens music scene is what brings in the established touring acts.

Barbe attributes the continued success of the 40 Watt to club owner Barrie Buck, former wife of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck.

“Barrie Buck is a true believer. There are a lot of people who would not have stayed in this business as long as she has and would not have strived to make it a better place every year,” said Barbe. “She’s a true believer in Athens, and she’s a true believer of all the music that comes through.”

Nuci’s Space executive director Bob Sleppy told the Washington Post in 2005 that the “friendly competition” among musicians in Athens “breeds great work,” and the same friendly competition rings true for the venues that host those artists.

After the reopening of the Georgia Theatre in August 2011, the music scene in downtown Athens was at high volume again. The harmonious relationship between the many music venues in the area played an instrumental role in the reclamation of Athens as a music incubator.

“Having the brand new beautiful Georgia Theatre open up down the street from is a challenge for any kind of music venue,” said Barbe. “It’s a testimony to both places that they have both maintained success and been on friendly relations with each other.”

According to Barbe, the stability of the 40 Watt is due to the treatment the club offers to musicians and fans.

“The 40 Watt staff makes you feel welcome,” Barbe said. “They treat the artists well, and if you treat the artists well, they want to come back. If the artists come back, the fans come. It’s as simple as that.”

The 40 Watt has always served as a breeding ground for new musicians to get off the ground, but by no means is its mystical stage a setting for any ‘open-mic’ nights.

“It’s definitely a rite of passage for a young musician to play at the 40 Watt,” said Barbe. “If you’re going to perform in front of ten people on a Tuesday night, it’s probably not the best place for you. Once you have had a few people to come out and see you, it’s still very welcoming as a creative wellspring for new artists.”

The club may remain a magical venue for artists, but the 40 Watt has the luxury of bringing in a wide variety of budding musicians from a high-volume talent pool in the Athens area.

“There were 20 bands here in the early 1980s. There are probably 600 now,” said Barbe, who also works as a producer and engineer for Drive-By Truckers and other area bands. “There is no way that the 20 we had when I was in school created more great music than the 600 that are here now.”

With such a range of venues and artists in Athens, some may speculate that the 40 Watt’s allure is fading, but according to Barbe, despite its rich history, the club’s prime may still lie ahead.

“Having been involved in the music scene the entire time, I can say now are the ‘good ole days,’” said Barbe. “Tomorrow will be even better.”

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