HIGH FREQUENCIES: What’s old is new — or at least an escape from the present

A reunion, tributes and carrying on the legacy ...

Photo credit: Photo by Terry Allen. Courtesy Tony Paris Archives.
CIRCA 1990: Outtake from a photo shoot for Michelle Malone & Drag the River's "Relentless" album cover.

Maybe it’s the political climate in this country causing so many people to want to take a musical journey through the past. Some might say music was better “back then,” but they’re just living in the past. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of opportunities for you to turn back the page this week. To return to a simpler time?

Having emerged from the Decatur acoustic music scene, Michelle Malone strapped on an electric guitar and wowed crowds at the end of the ‘80s with Drag the River, a rockin’ band of renegades that included guitarist Jonny Daly, bassist Phil Skipper, keyboardist Joey Huffman and drummer Billy Pitts. The band, minus Daly, who declined the invitation to re-blast the past, regrouped last Spring for a reunion at the Vista Room, performing tracks from the band’s Arista Records debut, Relentless, along with many of the raucous covers that were part of their long, long encores.

In a telephone interview, Malone laughs when asked about why she decided to reunite the band — which will be performing Sat., Sept. 30, at City Winery — saying she had some time off from her busy schedule as a solo artist and, “feeling sentimental ... wanted to hang out with the guys, so, I thought, ‘Let’s just make this happen.’”

While most of the group were up for “getting the band back together,” Daly declined. Malone “decided to go ahead and do it anyway,” hiring guitarist Doug Kees to join them. “He has his own reasons,” Malone acknowledges of Daly’s decision, “and we all respect that, but, at the same time, Jonny should be (with us) ... but, we’ve gotten past that,” even if the show at the Vista Room, “was very difficult emotionally,” for her.

“The thing that really stood out to me, more than the performance, was the energy in the room,” the songwriter, now in her third decade as a musician, admits, cautioning it may sound like a cliche, but, “it just felt like a giant love fest.

“I’ve never seen so many smiling faces at a Drag the River show,” she remembers, laughing again.

Indeed, it was rare to even see Malone smiling onstage back then. “I mean, that was never what we were about! It was about partying and being in your face and being loud ’n’ proud and rough ’n’ tough ... 

“That was great when I was 20, but, now we’re older and our fans are older and everyone has a real sense of,” she pauses for the right word, “gratitude. I know I do. I can probably speak for the guys in the band, too. We’re all really grateful to be able to play shows together and to have people show up and enjoy them. Nobody has really changed. We’re older and wiser, sorta, but we haven’t changed. The dynamics are still the same, it’s just what we do. It’s the chemistry of the band and the music, only (now) it’s a more loving thing,” adding, "it felt so good (that) we wanted to play some more shows."

That night at the Vista Room found a sold-out crowd anxiously awaiting the band’s performance, and, when the musicians took the stage, their set was, as the title of their debut album declares, relentless.

The set up of the Vista Room, with its open floor in front of the stage, certainly lent itself to the band’s energetic show and the audience’s wanting to be right up against the stage, as close to the band as possible. With City Winery having more of a dinner club atmosphere, with tables and chairs lined right up to the stage, will that impact the show?

Malone brushes it off. “It’s still a pretty rocking room,” adding, “they’re going to take some tables out so people can stand up. The people who want to stand up can.”

As well, “there were an awful lot of people who reserved tables at the Vista Room who wanted to sit, so, there’s that option, too. I don’t think the show’s going to be that different.

“The main difference is that we’re not nearly as scared as we were before the first show! Oh my God, I had butterflies like I hadn’t had in ... I don’t know the last time I had butterflies. I was SO nervous. But, as soon as we got onstage, they all went away.”

After this weekend’s gig, Malone’s priorities return to her solo career, concentrating her energies particularly on Slings And Arrows, the new album she’s readying for release in February.

Musically, she says, “it’s a bluesier Michelle Malone record — and it’s got a lot more slide on it.”

More importantly for the artist who has never been afraid to speak her mind, “it’s focused on the past year I’ve had since since the election, without focusing on the election, but the things that have caused me to reevaluate what I do and how I want to do them, my relationships, friends and family. I try to keep the glass half full, but I’m still all about standing up for human rights and equality and fighting the good fight.

The past nine months have made everyone reflect.

“It’s really been too divisive, and I hope this can bring people together. Because it’s music. And music is supposed to bring people together, since the beginning of time, it’s supposed to bring joy and build community. That’s what I’m hoping to do.”

Copy, Cover, Tribute Dept ... Tribute bands have quite the draw these days. Witness the popularity of Yacht Rock Revue and ATL Collective. It makes sense, I guess, given the exorbitant prices of concert tickets, so many still-popular recording artists being dead and other acts no longer touring. I’ve never been one for tribute bands, unless its something like the ragtag fun of Pin Ups, the local David Bowie tribute band.

This year, the Candler Park Fall Fest includes a “tribute night” Sat., Sept. 30, featuring music of the Allman Brothers Band, INXS and the Clash, performed by Tribute, New Sensation and Clashinista, respectively. Such neighborhood festivals are  important and much-needed showcases for both established local bands and those just beginning to make their mark, commonly exposing their original music to an audience that may not otherwise search them out in clubs. That a night is dedicated to well-rehearsed cover bands shows how people are clutching to the past. The safe. The familiar. Are all Atlanta-based. To possibly balance the scales, Sunday’s schedule offers “locals only,” a highlight of which is certainly to be the Atlanta Legends of the Blues bill with Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Luther “Houserocker” Johnson, Sandra Hall and Maurice “Houseboat” Nazzaro, though again, reaching into the past rather than looking to the future. The two-hour set, scheduled for 5:20 p.m., is bookended by Dave Franklin in the afternoon with Gurufish closing out the evening.

 Music From Dept. ... Had Bob Dylan never left for Woodstock, New York, to “recuperate” from his motorcycle accident in 1966, the sleepy little musicians and artists colony two hours north of New York City may have never become a part of the rock 'n' roll dialogue. Woodstock certainly wouldn’t have the mystique it has now, and, chances are Dylan may never have hooked up with the Band for Planet Waves and his 1974 tour. And, to be clear, none of this has anything to do with  the event held held some 58 miles southwest of Woodstock on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, NY.

In the late ‘70s, you might have thought Woodstock was moving to Atlanta. With the opening of Axis Studio, a one-room recording facility bought from the LeFevre Family gospel singers, Atlanta had yet another studio where the abundance of then-emerging bands and musicians could cut tracks. Singer/songwriter Robert Lee arrived from the tranquil setting of Woodstock in upstate New York to work at Axis, followed shortly thereafter by that town’s session staples, Jim Weider and Richard Bell. Along with studio manager/engineer/producer George Pappas, they created a thriving place for creative ideas to be put to tape. Atlanta turned out to be but a stopping point for Weider and Bell, who, along with Rick Pierce had formed their own band, Pyro, attempting to capitalize on Atlanta’s then just beginning to shine in the national spotlight. Weider moved back to Woodstock in ’85 when asked to join the Band. Bell, too, left Atlanta, returning to his native Canada, before joining the Band in 1991 on keyboards. The death of Rick Danko in 1999 marked the end of the Band. Bell died from multiple myeloma in 2007. Weider continued working with Band drummer/vocalist Levon Helm until Helm’s death in 2012. 

Weider returns to Atlanta this week with the Weight Band, a group of musicians who all have had some association playing with members of the Band. Not so much a Band tribute as attempting to carry on the legacy they inherited from the founding musicians Danko, Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson, the Weight Band, appearing at City Winery Sun., Oct. 1, will be playing classics from the Band canon, along with new material inspired by the Band’s distinctive style. Expect their set to include “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag” and, of course, “The Weight” It won’t be the same as any of the incarnations of the Band since Robertson’s departure after The Last Waltz, but the Weight Band certainly brings with it musicians onstage who are a few steps closer to the original musicians whose music they play rather than the usual six degrees of separation of band members in such groups. 

You (We) Voted Dept. ... Thurs., Sept. 28, Creative Loafing’s Best of Atlanta 2017 celebration takes place at Terminal West. Readers will get a chance to see firsthand ATL Collective, performing a special set of what’s being billed as both “all ATL music” and “songs inspired by the city of ATL.” With those parameters, the song choices could be most frightening. It will be interesting to hear what they come up with. See you there!

Got a tip for the High Frequencies column? Contact Tony Paris at cl.highfreqs@gmail.com.

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