Back from the ashes the Union open again

     Resurrected from that destructive blaze in 2014 the Union has opened its doors again. A landmark of not only the Athens music scene, but that of the greater Ohio area. Inside its walls sits more than a bar, or a venue to see shows, the Union is a place where the people of Athens can come together and enjoy the town’s nightlife.
The Union is one of the few places in Athens that actually hosts live music, and the only place in Athens, that is not university affiliated, that can pull in bigger acts that the others can’t. This led to the Union grabbing some talented acts, some of which eventually move on to preform bigger venues. The Union gives bands a place to show off their talent and bring their music to Athens.
Famous acts like the Black Keys and the White Stripes have played their stage before they got big enough to sell out larger clubs. While they’re able to find some of the acts before they’re too big. While the Union likes to show off the talent they’re able to bring in, the Union is truly a place where anyone who wants to show off their talent can come and perform on decent stage.
On top of their music endeavors the Union will host performance pieces too. The open environment of the Union allowed for many groups to showcase their work without going through the university or leaving the Athens area. The local production of Rocky Horror Picture Show once had a lines around the block until the fire forced the local theater group to move locations.
When the Union caught fire in the early morning of November of 2014, with most of the roof gone with the fire, the situation looked grim for the Union. They weren’t the only ones affected by the fire, being in the middle of the fire’s path which took out several other neighboring businesses, forcing many to relocate and for others to shut down permanently.

A view of West Union today.
A view of West Union today.

     After a lengthy period being closed, the Union is finally back. Walking in it’s hard to tell there was ever a fire there to being with. The bar’s owners took care to not only restore the damage done, but to improve from what they were before, while keeping to their punk rock roots. When the fire took most of their roof, the Union sadly lost most of it’s music equipment to the combined efforts of water, smoke, and fire. However, this gave them the chance to seriously improve the sound quality in the venue upstairs.
The owners of the Union went through great lengths to make a nicer bar, but with the same feeling they had for decades. The Union is more than just a bar or a place to play music, it’s a center point for the local culture of Athens to show itself, while being exposed to acts from around the country. Deep down it’s still the same old bar, just with a much fresher look to it now.

Home for music and weirdos, I mean The Smiling Skull not my boyfriend’s house

Cheap beer, live music, and no ID requirements at the door. It’s basically what broke college student dreams are made of. While it may not be a gem to many the Smiling Skull Saloon is definitely a remarkable part of Athens.

Athens has a large music scene and The Skull is one of the many locations used as a venue to book shows for local and other up-and-coming musicians. Shows at the Skull tend to be more punk rock oriented with the occasional bluegrass band. This is only my second year at Ohio University but I’ve been able to see numerous bands at this small dive bar alone.

The crowds at shows tend to get very rowdy, especially after a night filled with drinking. Last year New York punk band, Bbig Pigg, was wrapping up the show for the night as last call approached. I was hoping to stay until the very end of show but during one of their songs a member of the audience stole the microphone from the vocalist. The microphone thief then smashed his beer bottle onto the ground. Shards of glass flew all over the place and I was so excited I didn’t realize some of the pieces cut my legs and were stuck to my clothing.

Graffiti wall inside the women’s restroom

In”Smiling Skull Saloon a sanctuary for students and townies alike,” Emily Bohatch captures the essence of the bar. She said the usage of old license plates and photos hanging on the walls as decoration of bar “embodies a sense of tradition and home.”

The vintage posters and photos hung around the walls surrounded by graffiti are what make the Skull some kind of time machine for me. Even though the bar is only 16 years old the graffiti is a sobering reminder that I’m only going to be here for four years. I should enjoy it just like everyone else who left their mark somewhere in the bar.

The decorations are not the only thing that make the bar remarkable for me. It’s also the people I’ve met and stories I’ve learned. There’s always an interesting mix of patrons which make up of bikers, ‘townies’, and college students.

The most interesting to talk to have always been the older crowd of bikers and ‘townies’ because they always have a story to tell about “back in the day” and you can see how people’s eyes light up when reminiscing.

One of the most notable characters I’ve met has been Santa. A tall, older man with a beard that reaches his belly who sits by the door greeting people. There hasn’t been a night in which he isn’t filled with jokes and compliments.

Everyone in Athens has a bar that they prefer, and the Skull is definitely it for me. Many people I’ve met are usually not too excited about the idea of going to a dive bar at first but it’s an experience they end up enjoying. The Skull stands out and is unique, just like its patrons.

Donkey Coffee: a refreshing alternative to corporate cafés

For seasoned Athenians, Donkey Coffee probably isn’t a major revelation. For many of us, the locally owned café, tucked just off of Court St., is just as prominent as the ever ubiquitous Starbucks, perhaps even more so, and for good reason.

While the difference in coffee quality is negligible for most anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a connoisseur, the atmosphere most certainly is not.

Sure, the baristas are just as young and hipster-esque as the ones in your favorite national coffee franchise but with them, you get a sense of authenticity that is immediately apparent. At Donkey you never feel as though the people behind the counter were chosen to fulfill some sort of preordained corporate diversity mandate. As the kilt-laden latte-ist elegantly prepares your coffee with a four-inch fixed blade sheathed at his waist, you get the feeling that the coffee shop you’ve found yourself in is in fact the antithesis of corporate coffee. You get the impression that even while they have a featured flavored concoction every month, a pumpkin spiced latte is as welcome in here as the bubonic plague.


The atmosphere of the sitting room is equally foreign to those of us who have grown accustomed to the predictable minimalism of big-name chains. Instead of carefully designed matching seats and stone-tiled fireplaces, there is a mismatched melange of tables and chairs seemingly scavenged from the attics of a hundred grandparents. There are old boardgames on every shelf, murals of 1960’s music legends on the walls, and a dim sort of lighting that makes one feel oddly philosophical. It’s the kind of place where you could feel welcome to sit for many hours studying for a big exam or else locked in spirited political debate without fear of having overstayed your welcome.

The fun doesn’t stop at coffee and good atmosphere, though. Donkey has that beautiful sense of “why not?” that one can only ever seem to find at a local joint. Twice a week, for instance, they host an open stage, one a slam poetry night in which willing wordsmiths gather to bare their beatnik souls and snap each other their praises; the other an open mic for amateur and expert musicians alike to spend some time practicing in front of a supportive audience. They also host a wide variety of concerts and performance art shows, a full list of which can be found on their site. I challenge you to find any of these things at your local Starbucks.

Donkey’s sense of its customers’ needs is never more clear, though than during exam week. During finals, Donkey is open 24 hours a day so that students can come and get their caffeine fix even into the wee hours of the night to fuel their marathon study sessions.

In short, Donkey is a fantastic coffee shop, but what sets it apart from all the rest is everything else that it is. So next time you’re thinking of stopping in at Front Room for your daily dose of java, consider walking a bit further down the road for an experience that’s a little bit different.

Review: T-Pain’s performance at Ohio University did not satisfy

Concertgoers never sat down and spent the entire night screaming and dancing, but T-Pain couldn’t keep up.

T-Pain sang some of his biggest hits and featured songs Saturday night at Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium for Ohio University’s Sibs Weekend Concert. The inconsistent energy displayed on stage and some edgy remarks made the show significantly less entertaining.

Blue lights flashed across stage as a band, a

T-Pain and Courtney James entered the Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial stage together.
T-Pain and Courtney James entered the Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial stage together.

DJ and back up dancers entered from the side. Members of the audience jumped out of their seats and lit up their phones in anticipation. T-Pain stormed the stage with his best friend Courtney James. The duo hit the stage hard and didn’t stop bouncing for a moment during the opening song “Boot Wurk (One Cheek at a Time).”

The dynamic between T-Pain and his best friend James kept the energy high — at least for the beginning of the show. The duo could captivate the audience by two-stepping and twerking, and they even took it a step further to engage the crowd by getting hands up in the air and people singing along.

And after a series of fast pace hits, the night slowed down with “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’),” which gave the night a little more of a R&B feel. The snapping and smoothness contradicted the high-energy moments before, but the crowd still seemed just as entertained by T-Pain’s old 2007 hit.

The intimate moment didn’t last long, which is partially because T-Pain sang only snippets of each song rather than the entire track. After switching to another upbeat hit, T-Pain paused, dabbed the sweat from his face and removed the chain hanging around his neck. The crowd intensively watched, and erupted when T-Pain removed his black shirt to reveal a green Ohio University t-shirt. Showing a little Bobcat pride was a nice touch.

After he shouted out some profanities to the crowd, he introduced everyone in his accompanying “clique.” James was quick to start poking fun at T-Pain with some jeering and even blurted out a “that’s what she said” joke.

The joke led to some retaliation and hip thrusting from T-Pain, which included gunshot sound effects. Despite it being a little odd and out of place, concertgoers continued to cheer and scream with excitement.

When T-Pain returned to the show, he was commanding of the crowd. He conducted the audience as if it were a large orchestra and managed to have the sold-out crowd swaying as one. He continued to bounce around stage, asking the crowd to join in.

“Y’all better sing this hit with me,” T-Pain shouted before continuing on with Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It (On The Alcohol).”

T-Pain and James sang to each other, danced in unison, and kept the audience on its feet. When it was clear T-Pain was losing some liveliness, it seemed James’ stamina was the only thing to keep him going.

T-Pain took time for another intimate moment, which showcased his vocals but dragged on for several minutes. He stood on stage with a red spotlight glowing him and repeated the line, “They don’t know” over and over again. The first time, it was impressive hearing a soulful and pure voice, but after several minutes, it grew boring. His constant repetition would be the equivalent to Lady Gaga singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl and only repeating “O say can you see,” over and over. (That would just be silly.)

But after showing the crowd that he could sing and continually running around stage, the audience only had one more request — “Bartender.” After every chant from the crowd, T-Pain responded with a snappy “Shut the (expletive) up.”

He continued the snappiness by comparing his show to sex, and he wanted to let the audience enjoy the night a little longer before he ended the concert. Many of the remarks coming T-Pain were a little off-the wall and ill-humored, but the crowd didn’t seem to care.

When the melody “Bartender” finally began playing, he shouted, “Are you happy (expletive)?”

After a few more songs, he bowed to the crowd, dropped the microphone and tossed his hands high the air. He left without an encore despite the audience’s chanting. The ending was abrupt and disappointing. But because the entire concert felt like listening to a scratched CD that skips constantly, the early ending was a victory for most attendees including the exhausted singer.

A Little Sunday Night Busking

Three musicians and a giraffe: a portrait of Near Hills from Athens, Ohio

Jamie Moriarty, Ben Leeson and Maddy Ciampa of Near Hills are just as authentic as the trio’s raw music style would suggest. I popped in to listen to a rehearsal at Moriarty and Ciampa’s home. Flopping down on the big futon couch in their twinkly-lit and bulldog-paraphanalead living room, Moriarty, who already had water boiling on the stove, offered me a cup of tea. Leeson, who does vocals, guitar and piano for the band, soon joined us. Ciampa, cellist and vocals, got held up at work. But that didn’t stop the guys from enjoying their tea:

Photo courtesy of Near Hills Facebook page.
Maddy Ciampa on the cello at Folk Fest, 2015. Photo courtesy of Near Hills.

Moriarty set a big mason jar of honey on the coffee table. The honey was, of course, made by none other than his uncle’s own honey bees. I spooned a big helping of the sweet mess into my heart-decorated mug of spiced chai, and chatted with Moriarty and Leeson about their music and why it matters to them.

The guys echoed each-other’s love of collaborating in a small group to create something new. Moriarty said, “I think I get my drive out of … being able to have that connection with each other, and being able to come up with something that just us did, that just we, ourselves did. And I think in that sense we’re simple, because it’s not that we’re not ambitious, we just wanna keep it holistic and keep it real. Just the three of us …That’s way more special.

Leeson, Ciampa, and Moriarty celebrating New Years in January, 2015. Photo courtesy of Near Hills’ Facebook page.

As we talked, a giant, 6-foot stuffed-animal giraffe, sitting on the sofa to the left of Moriarty, kept falling on him, its plush hooves wrapping around the musician, trapping him in a giant, giraffe embrace.

You might think that these musicians sound like your typical brand of Ohio University hipsters living in west Athens, but they exude a sense of humility and enthusiasm for their work that makes them not only likable musicians, but great foster parents to a slightly-creepy, 6-foot giraffe.

When I asked about what artists influenced them, Moriarty shared, “We bonded over our individual inspiration from Bon Iver.”

Leeson added, “He [Bon Iver]’s … from Wisconsin, [and] he recorded an album in a log cabin, when he was super sick, one time, and it became super famous. He just recorded it all himself and it’s just this really different kind of folky, soul — awe, I don’t even know how to describe his sound — it’s just so unique.”


“Super rustic and creaky. He captured a lot of the location, and I don’t think a lot of artists do that,” Moriarty piped in.

Near Hills describes themselves as “alternative musicians with folk instruments.” They use a lot of harmonies to create a simple, yet evocative sound. They played a little demo for me, Leeson shredding up the piano, and Moriarty strumming his guitar and stamping his Teva-clad foot to the beat:


Not bad, right? They call it “Fear of Anomoly.” I think Bon Iver might even like it.

If you’re interested, you can check out more of Near Hills’s music on SoundCloud.



Drinks and a show: 5 Athens bars with live music

Athens has never been accused of having too few places to drink. If anything, it could very well be the opposite. One way to wade through the pool of choices is to know what you want in a drinking establishment. So if you like live music, boy do we have five bars for you.

1. Casa Nueva

casa nueva

The first on the list is Casa, a local favorite known for its good food to pair with your drink. Casa has been known to draw bands from all over Ohio and surrounding states. This is the place to see upcoming bands that show promise. While the establishment is more spacy than others on this list, the stage is front and center and provides good sound for the whole joint. They also offer good specials, including one dollar PBR’s on Tuesday. Casa is one of the classier establishments on the list, and the visitors here tend to be adults, or at least older students. If you’re looking for a tamer atmosphere that’s still fun, this is the place for you.


2. Red Brick

red brick

The Red Brick Tavern has a reputation for being a bar where younger students go, but don’t let that stop you. They have an entire room downstairs devoted to live music, complete with a stage up front and a bar in the back. The bands that play there differ, and you don’t always have to pay a cover, which is a plus. They stage is also separate from the rest of the bar, which means that, on a crowded night, you might get some breathing room if you’re there to see the show. Also, don’t forget about karaoke on Wednesday, where you have the chance to be the star of the show. My advice would be to wait until everyone’s had a few dinks though.

3. Jackie O’s

jackie o's

In Athens, Jackie O’s is synonymous with craft beer. Their micro brewery is lauded throughout the state and their selection is probably the most diverse on this list. Their arguably most popular brew is called Mystic Mama, so be sure to order one if you happen to be in the neighborhood. Like Casa, Jackie O’s draws bigger names than other bars and you can usually bet on a good show. In short, you come for the great beer and stay for the good music.

4. The Union


Not to be outdone by anyone, the Union is another great venue to hear bands. They have as many local bands as out of town ones. Some have called it a hipster bar, but I’ve never seen that personally. I could not in good conscience send you to a hipster bar. There is one small problem, however. It burnt down last year. The reason it is still included in this list is because so many people choose this bar as their go-to haunt and they are in the process of rebuilding. Those with patience will not regret returning to the Union for a good show once it reopens in the future.

5. Smiling Skull Saloon

Photo By LeeAnn Marhevsky
Photo By LeeAnn Marhevsky

While some may turn their nose up at the Skull, it does have a certain atmosphere that some find enjoyable. The Skull is unashamedly rough and could never be mistaken for more upscale places such as Casa Nueva. They do offer some local entertainment, usually at least twice a month. The stage, while small, offers an intimate seat for everyone in the house. Fair warning, it will get loud. Most of the bands that play there are local so it’s a great place to hear new bands that aren’t as known. Like Jackie O’s, they also offer their own craft beer, called Skull Ale. However, tread lightly. Rumor has it nobody who tried Skull Ale has ever been seen again.