Past the entrance doors into the lobby of America’s Best Value Inn in Athens, and down a few steps into the Trace bar room, the place has its own distinct feel, that of a dimly-lit, smoky tavern adorned with the distant clank of glasses and the soft clamor of raised voices.
The bar is to the left, fully stocked with an impressive array of spirits and beer. But the main draw for attention on Saturday, July 1 was to the right, down just a few more steps, and opening up into an area with two pool tables, beyond which is an expansive dancing area. You would have found musicians, painters, and poets, plying their trade, and communing together in this dusky locale for the second annual Underground Arts Fair.
Kicking off the event was Athens’ own Korii Satterfield of the band Selective Perspective. Accompanied by her ukulele, the young songstress offered up a quaint variety of songs from the Grateful Dead to the Flaming Lips, including a mixed medley of songs from the Beatles to Bob Marley, with musician, Shane Rendon, supporting on guitar and vocals.
Gun Barrel City native George Lloyd’s acoustic set followed after, highlighted by his cover of “Collide” by Howie Day, and his original “Jamie’s Song,” a pining tale of desperate wanderlust.
Next, local troubadour Shane Rendon again took the stage, regaling the audience through a voice that was slightly gruff, yet at times quite resonant. His blues stylings included fresh takes on classics by the Band, as well as originals such as his song, “Deep Ellum Blues.”
Rounding out the unplugged segment of the evening was Sharon Walker, whose long, silver hair accented her kind smile, and whose interplay of classic country ballads, 70s folk songs and homegrown, earthy originals seemed to capture the spirit of the evening.
Afterwards, Libertarian Party Executive Committee member and Texas Governor candidate Kory Watkins gripped the audience with his platform spiel, which included highlights of pro-gun rights, marijuana legalization and a strong preference for free-market principles and lower taxes.
His tag words, “Love, Freedom, and Innovation,” served as a reminder that the event, at its heart, was a celebration of countercultural self-expression.
And self-expression takes many forms, as exemplified perfectly in Jeff Callaway, the self-described Texas Outlaw Poet.
Callaway took to the stage, the dim, amber lighting serving as backdrop, and the slack body language, shaggy hair, and loose fitting clothing serving as a decoy, hiding his focused, fierce and shameless – no, proud – personal revelations through his spoken-word performance. Between drug abuse, stints in jail and harrowing life experiences bordering on nightmarish, no topic was off-limits.
Make no mistake, though, Callaway takes ownership of his past, and transforms what might otherwise be construed as regret and despair, into a turbulent, poignant catharsis of the injured soul, and we were all better off for it.
If the Texas Outlaw Poet was a change in pace from the first half of the event, the 2-man, Dallas-based rock group, “Ed is an Island” pulled the reigns into whole new terrain.
With one foot on the bass drum, and the other on the snare, Dave Mabry immediately took to his electric guitar, strumming short, chunky riffs with one hand, while tapping, beating and clashing on drums and cymbals with the other.
There was chemistry to this chaos, however, as Mabry could keep tempo on his instruments, or change it up if necessary, while at times employing stream-of-consciousness thoughts and rhymes – J.B. Amason’s eerie keyboard synth perfectly complimenting the cacophony.
Three-piece Paris, Texas progressive rock band Nine Month Fall closed down the bar with a mix of polished and driving cover songs of the band, Tool, and their own engaging and thoughtful originals.
While the main stage was used for performance art, the left and right walls of the dance floor were used to display canvas art.
To the left, Tyler-based artists, Lenora Hill and Sean Smith, exhibited and sold recent works, and to the right, the artists themselves, as well as fellow Tyler artist Allison Matlock, continued a live mural painting upon the very walls of the building itself, a continuous project which began on the first annual Underground Arts Fair.
The concept was one of musical birth and growth, with Matlock adding a New Orleans-style frog, sat upon a stool, and blowing a sort of bugle, from which the rest of the mural sprawls musically along the wall, linearly to the right.
The walls of the dimly lit room were spotted occasionally by small decor lights shining upon the sections of brick wall where each artist worked, offering a warm, inviting climate.
The walls wrapped in artwork, the stage shuffling with musical and poetic talent, the low lighting causing a near-glow effect from the slight haze of the smoke in the room were all ingredients for a psychedelic cocktail of an experience.
The second annual Underground Arts Fair, as a forum for creative expression of the worst and best of the human experience, through film, art, music and poetry, was served well in the Trace bar, and offers a promising platform, for the greater Athens area and beyond, to gather for future installments.
Special mention to Billy Keith Bucher for accompaniment on percussion, and to event coordinators Shane Rendon and Jeff Callaway. Here’s to next year!