Athens, Georgia, is a culturally diverse city with over 80 bars downtown, renowned celebrity chefs, SEC football and numerous iconic music venues. With over 35,000 students enrolled at the University of Georgia just steps away from downtown, Athens continues to thrive as one of the best college towns in America.
Renowned artists such as the B-52’s, R.E.M, Zac Brown Band and Corey Smith performed in historic local venues, such as the Georgia Theatre, 40 Watt Club, and Morton Theatre, in the beginning stages of their careers, and continue to return to the Classic City for performances.
The Georgia Theatre is a world class concert venue with a rich history dating back to the late 1800s when the original building on site was the Athens YMCA. On June 19, 2009, the concert hall was devastated by a fire that left the theatre closed until August 1, 2011. Renovations took nearly two years to complete, with a lot of stress and uncertainty at the beginning for owners Dr. Randall Smith and Will Green.
“Neither my partner nor I had ever been involved in this kind of project,” said Smith. “There were a lot of people who said we couldn’t do it.”
However, the fire brought the entire city together as a community.
“There was a huge outpouring of support and goodwill from the community which helped,” said Smith. “Most people wanted us to succeed. Many needed us to. We realized there were families that had several generations with memories from the Georgia Theatre.”
The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation partnered with the Georgia Theatre in handling unsolicited donations towards rebuilding the theatre, allowing people the ability to get a tax deduction for their donations. The partnership was Smith’s idea, as he believed this was the most practical option in giving back to the people that were giving to the renovation project. Green spent countless hours working in the new design of the building in order to insure the best possible combination of form and function, according to Smith.
In a 2015 Huffington Post release, Athens was ranked as the ninth greatest music city in America, following Atlanta as seventh. When asked about his prominent role in the success and restoration of the iconic Georgia Theatre venue, Smith was humble in his comment: “I am glad that I got to play a small part in making sure the Theatre is a place that people will get to enjoy for generations to come.” He gives most of the credit to his business partner, Will Green.
August 2014 was the month Smith and Green sold the Georgia Theatre after co-owning it for 10 years.
Thanks to the previous owners, the theatre lives on as a celebrated music hall for upcoming artists such as one of the biggest upcoming musical acts in Georgia, Walden.
Walden is a local Athens band formed four years ago by four University of Georgia students: Richard Becker, Eric Hangartner, Andrew “Rew” Mendel and James de Lange. The group has collectively known each other their whole lives. Growing up in East Cobb, the four students all graduated from Pope High School in 2013.
Walden first headlined the Georgia Theatre Feb. 23, 2016.
“It was an absolute honor,” said Walden’s lead singer Richard Becker. “I have seen some of my favorite bands play at the Georgia Theatre. So to put ourselves on that same stage as these professional bands is just an incredible feeling.
“It also takes away this gap between us, a local band, and these professional touring bands. It makes the dream of playing music for the rest of our lives seem a lot more tangible, because we realize that they are just normal people like us who make good music and know how to put on a great live show.”
One of Walden’s first ever gigs was at Nuci’s Space in Athens, Georgia. The venue is a non-profit organization for musicians who don’t have the money or resources to have a practice room, or have certain instruments they need. During Walden’s performance the crowd was having so much fun the band played about an eight song encore.
“We were playing songs that we barely practiced before and we’ve never played live,” said Becker. “It was a perfect way to start this journey in Athens.”
The culture of Athens has been built around food, game days and music. The people of Athens can experience a new musical act nearly every day, and the crowds know how to get down to the music creating magical experiences for everyone involved. The students at the University of Georgia play a vital role in fan base development for upcoming Athens performers.
From Corey Smith to Walden, UGA organizations and students supported these bands from day one. Over the last three years Walden has performed for UGA Heroes’ Kickoff Event, Relay for Life’s Night of Relay, and UGA Miracle’s Dance Marathon.
“Those are some of the biggest philanthropy events at UGA, and as a local college band, that is the biggest honor to have played for them,” said Becker. “We only could have done that by being students at UGA.
“It’s actually amazing how our fan base developed. So we have our friends who have supported us since day one, and those friends brought their friends that they met in college to our shows. Then those friends brought their friends, and then the philanthropy and Greek life squad started showing up to shows, and eventually all these different groups of people from UGA collided into one giant Walden fan base.”
Becker finds it amazing that some of the band members most loyal friends have been to more than 20 of Walden’s shows. Looking out into the crowd at many of their performances, they see people that have been supporting them since day one.
“The reason we have a following is because of you all, so I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart because we wouldn’t be anything if it wasn’t for our friends and family who have been there since the beginning,” said Becker.
Earlier this year Walden competed in Bonnaroo’s Road to Roo competition, and won. The state competition for Road to Roo took place at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Georgia. At the end of the competition, a band from each state of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee were supposed to perform at Bonnaroo between June 9 – 12. Due to an age requirement technicality, Walden was not allowed to play at Bonnaroo. A band members 21 birthday was on the same day as the opening performances, June 9, 1995. The band along with its fan base was heartbroken, but winning the competition will only be the beginning for Walden’s music career.
“I know the Bonnaroo situation ended somewhat unfortunately, but we won that competition because we have the best fans in the world,” said Becker. “Those shows were seriously something special. Those shows were the perfect demonstration of Athens fans and Walden fans at their finest.
“We love you Athens.”
Walden has their next headlining show at the Georgia Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 29, with the Lonely Biscuits and Lily Rose. Tickets are $12. Music starts at 9 p.m. Check the band out on Spotify and iTunes until then.
The Foundry in Athens, Georgia, will be holding an event called Athens in Harmony on October 30, 2016, at 7 p.m. hosted by Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Scott Freeman and activist Mokah-Jasmine Johnson. The mission of the event is to improve race relations and break racial barriers within the community. Athens most talented musicians will be singing duets to encourage unity through music and promote social change.
Athens is not only one of the best towns in college football, but also has a rich musical history making it one of America’s greatest music cities. Athens diverse culture and plethora of venues continue to create endless opportunities for emerging and established performers.
Go Dawgs and Go Greyhounds.