College is a chance to discover the real person that’s been cultivating under the parental units for the last 18 or so years. For some it’s exploring the vices their parents attempted to curtail, others it’s the chance to think differently how they were raised, but in general it’s a time for self-discovery.
A few braves souls chose to do this in front of crowds atop one of the many stages in Athens. The music scene in Athens is unique as the influx of new blood from the university allows for a large diversity of musical acts to form and flourish.
The constant flow of new musicians is sadly accompanied by the older generation leaving Athens as they graduate or decide to move on. While the desire to play may linger on, it can be extremely difficult to continue when members may be scattered across the country. As their time in Athens comes closer to the end Wes Gilbert of Smizmar and Evan Amerio of Apemode spoke of their personal experiences.
If the 16 bars of Athens were people, the Smiling Skull Saloon would likely be the quintessential representation of Athens.
Affectionately referred to as “The Skull” by its loyal patrons, the dive bar represents the small, Southeastern Ohio town itself: the perfect fusion of faithful “townie” population and the transient students who call the city home for four years.
From its patrons to the decor covering the walls that pay homage to an interesting history of its owner and the bar itself, the Skull is the perfect mix of seedy dive bar and beloved hang out. Settled into its Union Street location in 2000, the Skull has spent 16 years acquiring character and meaning to its loyal customers. From old license plates and photos hanging on the wall to the tables defaced with carvings of people’s names, the saloon embodies a sense of tradition and home, even if it does smell a little and is in a desperate need of a powerwash. The 116 year old building housing the old watering hole only adds to the air of history.
One does not have to order a drink to enjoy the Smiling Skull; one only needs a childlike sense of wonder and a natural affinity for people watching.
After walking the streets of uptown and peeking into bars like the Crystal or JBar, the world of bargoers begins to look monotonous. All the faces begin to blur together. It isn’t until one finds a biker-esque man dressed as Santa with a full, belly-lengthed beard perched on a stool at the Skull that that tedium is broken.
From the dogs often running around off-leash in the bar to the warbling of townies and students alike trying their hand at open mike night, the Skull exudes that feeling that just makes Athens Athens.
Athens, Ohio may not seem like a music hub, but as it turns out there are many local acts that call this small college town home. Athens Music Scene.net listed more than 80 musicians in Athens. Here’s a breakdown of five diverse musicians in Athens, Ohio and where they play.
CHRIS KEESEY’s music embodies Athens’ rural atmosphere.
Listen to Keesey play at last summer’s Pawpaw Fest.
Chris Keesey grew up in a family of musicians. He said that he didn’t have much choice but to start playing. He started playing drums and piano at the age of seven, and he’s been doing so ever since.
“In 2012, I had weird voices in my head telling me to write songs and tell stories. So, at age 41, I bought my first guitar and started writing songs. Songwriting has become an unexpected passion and I have written over 100 songs since that time,” Keesey said.
He described his music as rural.
“Most of my songs have a very rural thread and often a very local flavor about them. I love writing the stories of hard living and hard working; whether it’s tragic tales of old mine towns or funny fictitious lovable losers. I am a huge fan of classic country and Americana music. The stories are so strong. I get a lot of inspiration there,” he said.
DJ B-FUNK gets the crowd dancing.
Listen to DJ B-Funk play at the last Halloween block party.
DJ B-Funk is the co-founder of Dave Rave. The locally based music company produces EDM (Electronic Dance Music) and plays at dance events throughout Ohio and the Midwest, according to DJ B-Funk’s Sound Cloud page.
STEVE ZARATAE sings to a variety of audiences.
Listen to Zarate play at the Athens Public Library about photosynthesis.
Steve Zarate came to Athens as a freshman at Ohio University in 1978. He started his musical career singing during open mic nights. Sometimes, he would station himself near the Burrito Buggy with just his guitar in his hands, he said about his early years.
He said that he couldn’t stop playing, because music was just in his nature.
“I didn’t want to be someone that said I wish I could have done something,” he said.
Since 2006, Zarate has been living independently off of his music. He said he has three modes. One is playing his own music that he writes (his CDs are available at local music shops). At other times, he’ll play buy request. “Baby boomer” music is one of his specialties, he said. The last is providing a musical atmosphere at restaurants or events. He’s played at many places in and around Athens: OU Inn, Jackie O’s, and Hickory Creek, to name a few.
“Athens is a rich place for music and there’s lots of people to play to,” he said. For more information about Zarate and his music check out his Facebook Page.
MATT SHONKWILER is an up and coming local musician.
Check out some of Shonkwiler’s tunes.
Matt Shonkwiler plays at Donkey Coffee’s open mic nights and he’s opened for Near Hills, another local act, at Donkey Coffee earlier this year. Mostly, he does home recording. He specializes in digital recording and has a Master’s degree in Media Arts and Studies. He commented that his musical style varies.
“It’s kind of like the weather here. It’s always different. I recorded an EP (extended play is a musical recording that is longer than a single) in May that was kind of poppy and electronic. It used a lot of artificial sounds and a bunch of harmony. Then I recorded a bunch of punk music. Just loud guitars, drums, and my terrible voice. I recently did a handful of covers from old Nickelodeon shows in that style too. I guess I have two styles: sad, electronic-pop music and aggressive rock music,” he said.
When asked what inspires him, Shonkwiler said he felt called to it.
“I don’t have too many other hobbies, so when I spend enough time to myself I’ll start writing music again. I was always a huge Bright Eyes fan growing up. Also Sufjan Stevens. That kind of stuff. But on the other hand, A Wilhelm Scream, NOFX, Against Me!… complete opposite ends of the spectrum,” he said.
Shonkwiler uses the internet to market his musical compilations. He has an EP on CDBaby and a SoundCloud page.
DRUID rocks at venues such as the Smiling Skull Saloon located on Union Street.
Hear Druid play some heavy metal.
“Druid has earned a reputation locally for how loud their shows are and their sharing of vocal responsibilities. They have released a full length self-titled album, as well as a three song EP and have played numerous shows across the state of Ohio in places such as Athens, Columbus, Cincinnati, Lancaster, and Bowling Green,” they state in their Facebook Page.
Part of what makes Athens so great is there is so much to do when the sky turns dark. The nightlife scene makes Court Street come alive, with bars lining both sides of the street. There are even bars a little off the trail of Court, and every bar is unique and offers something different.
On a recent evening, I decided to compare two very different bars across town to see just how different tastes can be in Athens. I was also hoping to catch karaoke night at both, but was only successful on one front. And when determining which bars would make the best comparison, it became clear that it couldn’t get much different when it comes to the Smiling Skull Saloon and Red Brick Tavern.
So in the name of good journalism, I trekked out to visit these two bars. I also dragged my best friend along for support and to enjoy what I assumed would be mediocre karaoke.
Before this little experiment, I had never been to the Smiling Skull. Upon entering, I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in. We arrived at 9:15 and the bar was pretty dead, so it was easy to remain low-key and grab a table.
An older couple was running the karaoke table and I couldn’t wait to see who would step up to the microphone. The clientele was mostly middle-aged with a sprinkling of students, so it was going to be an interesting night. First up was a man who, unsurprisingly, sang a country song. He was actually really good.
A slew of slow karaoke songs followed that started to put me to sleep. But things got interesting when a man decided to give all he had to his performance, including dancing/flinging himself all over the stage. His wild performance gave new life to the night.
A duo of young women sang “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood while their friends videotaped them and cheered along the entire time. Shortly after another duo led the bar in a sing-a-long of “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani.
The best performance of the night was a young woman singing Tina Turner. She was so effortless. My friend and I had been chatting and not really paying attention, but as soon as she started singing we were locked in and focused. What made it even better was that she was casually sipping a beer while singing.
Once The Skull got packed, we decided to make out way over to Red Brick. I was honestly a bit embarrassed I was going there as a senior and for any reason besides Brick Break. But I swallowed my pride and went in. I was surprised to see it so busy (I guess freshmen have to go somewhere) and disappointed to find it wasn’t karaoke night.
I have been to Red Brick for karaoke once before, and I was sad I was missing out on the disaster that it is. None of the people I saw sing here were even close to being a good singer, but they knew that and still made it wildly entertaining. Just picture a bunch of freshmen boys belting out the oldies with the occasional somewhat current song and that is Red Brick karaoke night.
Freshmen are too wild for me and I felt like a grandma this night. Watching a young couple argue right next to me was awkward but I couldn’t look away. People bumped into us and didn’t apologize. My best friend and I exchanged “I’m too old for this” sentiments.
Despite feeling like the oldest gals in the room, we had fun and danced by ourselves in a corner by the bar and people watched. People watching at Red Brick is really something.
These two bars are vastly different, but still offer a good time to their patrons.