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Triple Feature, Part Two: Camp-In in Athens posted on April 29th, 2024

by Brian Wheeler

“How would you like to go to a Camp-In in March?”
“Camping? IN MARCH?”
“No, a CAMP-IN…in March. David Lowery and Cracker are holding a Camp-In in Athens, Georgia in March. It’s actually their tenth Camp-In. But it sounds like it’s going to be a blast. No ACTUAL camping required.”
“I’ll check hotel availability!”

And that’s how the next music adventure was to begin.

I’ve wanted to visit Athens, Georgia since I was in high school. It’s a cool little college town about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta. R.E.M., The B-52s, Pylon, and Widespread Panic hailed from Athens and were lighting up stages while I was in my youth, and great bands like of Montreal and Drive By Truckers continue to represent the city well. This fertile musical ground had to be explored, and I finally had the chance to do it. Ground zero is the 40 Watt Club, a music venue that was established in 1978. Although the club has moved a few times, the spirit of the venue has followed throughout. The 40 Watt has been at its current location at 285 West Washington Street since 1991. Capacity is 460, but a few more manage to squeeze in during the big shows.

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40 Watt Club Marquee

Nearly all of the Camp-In performances over the four days were to be held at the 40 Watt, so my wife Stacy and I became well acquainted with the venue. David Lowery and Johnny Hickman have been the battery of the band Cracker since their inception in 1990, and were to be the main feature at each event. They’d bring in a slew of talent to complement nearly every performance and morph each evening into something different and wonderful.

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40 Watt Club Stage

Why was Athens chosen for the Camp-In? David Lowery earned an Ed.D. from the University of Georgia and now calls Athens home. He lectures at the University of Georgia on behalf of their Music Business program. His wife, Velena Vego, is very active in the music community and is the talent buyer for the 40 Watt, as well as manages Cracker. Celebrating their 10th year in Athens, The Camp-In has held other names and locations including “Campout” at Pappy and Harriets in Pioneertown, CA and “Campout East”, at Crozet, VA.

My wife Stacy and I were actually looking forward to the drive from Atlanta’s airport to Athens. We planned a fairly circuitous route, including a visit to an ever-growing cultural phenomenon in the southern United States: Buc-ee’s. I’d heard of Buc-ee’s some time ago, but I really didn’t give it a second thought. Since then, evidence of Buc-ee’s (mainly via their t-shirts) have slowly migrated their way north to my neck of the woods in Minnesota. But alas, we still have no Buc-ee’s anywhere near us. I HAD to take the opportunity to introduce Stacy to the wonder that is Buc-ee’s. I first experienced Buc-ee’s as I drove my newly obtained music collection (see my other blog post regarding that adventure!) out of Texas under the cover of night. This time, we’d be taking it all in during the heart of the day in the middle of Georgia. This Buc-ee’s location was well out of the path toward Athens, but we had no other pressing obligations. Approaching the Warner Robins Buc-ee’s location, my wife saw the sprawling Buc-ee’s compound featuring more than 100 gas pumps, tens of thousands of square feet of shopping bliss, and restrooms that would dwarf the footprint of most convenience stores. It was a monument to convenient capitalism. We poured ourselves a huge tankard of diet soda (99 cents!), grabbed Beaver Nuggets and deep-fried pecans, even nabbed a Buc-ee’s t-shirt. I told her that their brisket sandwich was better than it had any right to be, so we picked up one of those as well. She now knew the wonder that was Buc-ee’s. Fully stocked with snacks for the weekend, we hit the road for Athens.

Night One of the Camp-In was David Lowery and Johnny Hickman performing acoustic renditions of mostly Cracker favorites. In attendance was a rag tag group of superfans lovingly called The Crumbs. The Crumbs are in full force at each Camp-Out and Camp-In, and they are very much like an extended family to each other. They’re largely friendly folks and are eager to share stories, pictures, and any manner of homegrown swag they may have created on their own. We collected a couple of different stickers to memorialize Camp-In 10 from some friendly Crumbs mere moments after we entered the venue. The performance itself was cozy, intimate, and quite entertaining. Stories, inside jokes, and a relaxed atmosphere made the experience worth the trip, and we were only at night one of the 4 day event.

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David Lowery and Johnny Hickman

Since all the performances but one were scheduled for the evening, we had our days free to check out the lay of the land. I’ve been a big R.E.M. fan since my school days, so we decided to hit Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods. Weaver D’s is a restaurant that has been serving soul food classics since 1986. Weaver D’s was a regular stop for Michael Stipe, so much so that R.E.M. approached restaurant owner Dexter Weaver to ask him for permission to use the restaurant’s slogan “Automatic for the People” as the title for their 8th studio album. Dexter agreed, and his restaurant has been a pilgrimage destination for R.E.M. fans ever since.

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I spoke to Dexter Weaver himself after our delicious meal, and he told me the story of being approached by the band management about using his slogan as R.E.M.’s album title. He was hesitant at first, not knowing what their angle was. When he realized that the band was simply a fan of his establishment, he was happy to agree to their request. I loved that, in our conversation, Mr. Weaver peppered his responses with “Automatic”, using the word as an affirmation. We found ourselves doing the same thing for the rest of the trip.

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Stacy and Brian with Weaver D

We couldn’t help but hit the area record stores as well. How could I not? One of the local shops is virtually next door to the 40 Watt, Low Yo Yo Stuff Records. The owner and proprietor of Low Yo Yo Stuff was taking a lunch break but graciously let us in to peruse his aisles. He was a real character as many record shop owners can be. He had great stories, some interesting perspectives, and was quite helpful in finding some hard-to-find nuggets for my ever-growing music collection.

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Next on the list was Wuxtry Records. This was the shop I’ve always heard about, and it definitely scratched my record store itch. If Wuxtry was in my town, I’d spend a ton of time (and way too much money) there. It had a great balance of old stock and new releases, and I spent a lot of time just looking at the walls and imagining all the people that had walked these aisles while listening to the sound of fingers flipping through vinyl. It felt like a meditation. R.E.M. was essentially BORN here, as Peter Buck worked in this very shop and met Michael Stipe here. Kate Pierson of the B-52’s also worked here. Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) worked here! Pretty cool stuff.

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Signed Radiohead record (signed by Thom Yorke) at Wuxtry

While attending the Cracker Camp-In, I made fast friends with Scott Munn. He manned the merch table at each event and was clearly a music head as well. I couldn’t tell if he was more of a music head or a sports guy, he seemed so well-versed in both topics. Considering the fact that he’s been a tour manager and stage manager, I’m going to slightly lean toward Scott being a Musichead. We chatted a lot and I learned that he hosts a podcast called “Braves Country Podcast”. After some good-natured ribbing regarding the 1991 World Series victory the Twins had over the Braves (“*cough cough* CHEATER *cough cough*”, Scott would say in reference to the well-documented Ron Gant/Kent Hrbek incident), we found we had a lot of common ground as well. His podcast juxtaposes sports (mainly Braves baseball) and music. They’ll talk baseball, then he’ll have an interview with a musical guest from time to time as well. Cool stuff. Recent guests include The Indigo Girls and Mike Mills of R.E.M. I invite you to check out his podcast.

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Brian with Scott Munn

Night two of the Camp-In featured Lowery, Hickman, with friend and rock-n-roll soldier Ike Reilly. The evening was referred to as a ‘song swap’, in which each artist exchanged solo performances, intertwined with stories and laughs. It was a thoroughly entertaining evening once again, with an intimacy rarely enjoyed in live music these days.

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Lowery and Hickman with Ike Reilly

I was first introduced to Ike Reilly during an infrequent day drinking session with some close friends of mine many years ago. We strolled into The Turf Club in St. Paul for libations and people watching. One of my friends strolled over to the juke box known for its eclectic selections and plugged a quarter in to play the last track from Ike Reilly’s critically acclaimed album “Salesmen and Racists”. I was instantly hooked. I told Ike that story after his set with Lowery and Hickman and he lit up, proclaiming that he was playing the Turf the following week. We then talked about how he plays a venue in the Twin Cities every Thanksgiving Eve, and he said he’s done that for the past 20 years. I asked him why, thinking he had family in town or something. He said “I’m a creature of habit.” I laughed while he also acknowledged he gets good turnouts for those shows. Makes good sense to me. If you haven’t checked out Ike Reilly, you should. He’s Chicago tough, but I’ve never had a bad interaction with him.

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Brian with Ike Reilly

There were two more nights of plugged-in performances at the 40 Watt and one afternoon solo performance at a coffee shop by Johnny. Johnny Hickman is a fantastic guitarist, the vocal foil for David Lowery, but also quite the storyteller in his own right. He’s got the charisma of a front man and can hold an audience with his smile, his wit, and his chops. It’s really no wonder he and Dave have worked together so long. They seem to complement each other very well. The two plugged-in performances also brought the other current Cracker band members and a cadre of supporting artists that joined the band on stage. Among these artists was Megan Slankard, who opened for Cracker for the first electrified performance. Aaron Lee Tasjan and Anne Harris opened the second night and joined in on the performance, with the latter Harris captivating the audience song after song. She’s an expressive violinist that effectively elevated each song like nothing I’ve ever seen. All additional musicians brought their own flavor to the shows and performed admirably. Even the young steel guitar player only known as Cannon, a University student of Lowery’s, showed remarkable skill and showmanship when summoned to join toward the end of the final performance. The final show ended with a couple of Camper Van Beethoven tunes from Lowery’s early days, effectively bringing down the house.

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Anne Harris rocking the violin onstage with Cracker

David, Johnny, and the rest of Cracker were also quite accessible during the Camp-In. So often there’s an impenetrable barrier between the band and their fans. Not so with the Cracker Camp-In. Meet and greets seemed casual yet organized. A lunch date was planned at a local eatery and David and Velena appeared, enjoyed lunch with fans and Crumbs, exchanged stories, took pictures, and hung out like friends would. A pizza party was organized on another day before David took the stage and played some solo tunes. The vibe was casual, and the performance was always entertaining. What made the whole experience even more rewarding were the many emotional moments that seemed to organically happen. Just a few of the memorable moments was a particularly heart-rending take on Cracker’s “Almond Grove”, a deceptively pensive song that took on a new life with the stripped-down Hickman/Lowery arrangement. Ike Reilly battled through his underrated tune “Born on Fire” in the song swap and inspired the audience. Anne Harris nearly stole the show with every flourish she applied to the Cracker set on the final night. She’s simply a force, that’s the best way I can say it.

David Lowery’s battles with the music industry are well-documented. He’s walked the walk as well, taking a new approach to how he sells his music, promotes his band, and has clearly taken some different paths in touring and performing. I don’t know if this Camp-In model would work for all artists, but I’m very glad that we took a chance on the Cracker Camp-In and got to know Athens in the meantime. Athens is a town rich with charm and steeped in history.