Athens, Ohio is not like any other town. Ohio University, with an enrollment of over 20,000 undergraduates, attracts students from all over the world. While the young adults come here for the education, they bring with them their own contributions to the culture of the city.
That includes slang; any Pittsburghian can be identified by their use of “yins.”
It includes fashion, watching West Coasters shiver as the seasons change with unfamiliar – and unexpected speed.
Perhaps most dramatically, it includes music.
The indelible influence of major metropolitan cities on the Athens music scene is undeniable. The native sounds of folk and Americana embedded in the soil of Athens provides a foundation on which other sounds can be laid. This musical melting pot has resulted in a proliferation of echo chambers, where residents can bask solely in their preferred sphere of sound.
But it also provides innumerable opportunities for residents to find new music, often outside their comfort zones – and world views.
It is no secret that Athens is home to a vibrant music scene, occupied by skilled musicians. But for amateur players, live performance opportunities can be rare.
The interest in live music in Athens has prompted some businesses to host open-stage nights where musicians of any skill level can play on the same stage that professionals use during the weekend.
For those not accustomed to the limelight, a night at the Smiling Skull Saloon could be a better choice. The large, open room with a small platform stage is not the intimate, acoustic experience found at coffee shops. Most weekends, the bar hosts rock and punk bands.
Caleb Brown is a regular performer at the Skull. He’s also been the emcee there for the last two and a half years.
“I started going to open stages back in high school,” Brown said. “One of the reasons I love Athens is because there’s such a vibrant open stage scene. Pretty much every weekday there’s an open stage you can go to, if not two.”
Of all the open stages, The Skull provides performers the longest sets. Brown’s strategy is to get everybody on stage and let them play however much they want, which is usually about 20 to 30 minutes.
Where the Smiling Skull appeals to lo-fi folk-punk mixes, Casa Nueva attracts more developed acts as the bar has an audio technician on staff all night. That and a crowd of older, experienced musicians is what contributes to Casa being one of the most well-attended open stages, so it’s best to arrive early unless a 1 a.m. slot is desirable, according to event host Chris Biester,
Casa Nueva offers the largest stage for performers, one that encompasses nearly an entire wall of the bar. This platform allows for multi-person acts, more so than any other open mics. The larger space is especially attractive to up-and-coming bands in Athens. Acts such as Caamp, who have since risen to regional fame with over two-million monthly listeners on Spotify, used to play the open stage every week when they were students here in 2015.
Compared to other open mics around town, the Casa open stage tends to skew more folk, and part of that can be attributed to its emcee, Chris Biester. A mainstay in the Appalachian folk scene for decades, Biester built a name for himself touring with Appalachian Death Ride, a garage-folk trio, in the 1990s. But since ADR dissolved about a decade ago, its last album coming out in 2006, Biester has pivoted to the role of Athens’s resident folk hero, drifting in-and-out of shows like a character from a Woody Guthrie song.
When the fall weather settles over Athens and the jackets come out, the town’s live music market retreats to the warmth of the city’s many taverns. In years past, Jackie O’s Public House & Brewpub was the mecca for jam-rock bands in Southeast Ohio, much the same way The Union Bar was hallowed ground for punk rock. However, Jackie O’s has stepped away from hosting live music, opening the door for other bars to fill the need.
Since reopening in 2016 after an 18 month hiatus forced by fire, The Union Bar has reclaimed its place as the pinnacle of rock in uptown Athens. The venue and tavern is the middle ground for bands with expanding audiences, as the upstairs stage area can accommodate well over 100 occupants. Prominent mid-sized bands touring the midwest are always sure to stop by The Union and play alongside local Athens groups.
“The set up allows for a great connection between the crowd and the band,” Andrew Maughan, rhythm guitarist for Boot Bandits, said. “Although you may not be as close as you are to each other at places like Casa and Skull, there is still great opportunity for energy to move back and forth between the band and its fans.”
The other main drag for lovers of live music is Casa Nueva. Whether it is the open stage on Wednesday night, a free show on Thursday, or either of the multi-band bill shows on Friday or Saturday, there are always sounds coming from Casa.
Casa provides the widest swath of musical smatterings, with international DJ dance parties, hardcore punk shows, acoustic openers and heady jam-bands all in the same weekend; there is something for everybody each weekend.
Athens residents who aren’t completely satisfied with local musical offerings have an alternative to paying five dollars to see a band they have never heard: have your own show. Students with the connections, ambition and real estate have been planning shows at their houses for years, and often offering them to the community free of charge.
Of course, planning these events takes months of preparation and nailing down logistics. Finding the bands to play (often for free), obtaining sound equipment, facility management, the list goes on.
“It’s all about networking,” said John Nespeca, a senior studying business management at Ohio University who has organized and hosted multiple house shows over the past two years.
Nespeca’s last show, Kind Fest, which took place at his house on High Street, saw well over 100 attendees and performances from five bands from all over Ohio. The event was sponsored by The Mess Media, a student-run publication at Ohio University who helped publicize the event with a preview of the acts.
Emmett Mascha, another architect of Kind Fest, has experience in concert planning and promotion going back to his high school days in Cleveland.
“It started in high school, ’cause I had a band,” Mascha said. “And we were relatively prolific but sometime we had to have people doing the event management.”
Since coming to OU as a freshman in 2015, Mascha has had a hand in planning nearly half-a-dozen shows at his houses and others. Even after so many successful attempts, he says he doesn’t quite have a “system” in place, but simply does what needs to be done.
“I like to make [shows] as interesting as possible,” Mascha said. “Which involves communicating with artists and looking for places where we can have a sizable amount of people and have enough space and security for the bands too.”
As a musician himself, who has played more than enough free shows for one collegiate career, Mascha is able to empathize with the bands he is trying to get for free. In the end, he says, it’s better to play than to stay silent.
“You spend thousands of dollars on guitars and equipment,” Mascha said. “It’d be foolish to do it for money. Nobody does it for money.”
And that quote about sums up the Athens music scene, “nobody does it for money.” In a town of 20,000 students, at least a third of them know how to strum a guitar. Nobody is down here trying to get rich off licks. Whether it’s at open mic nights, house shows, or the holy grail of a bar show with a cover, students and residents alike just want to share their music with the community.