‘Pylon Live’ documents Athens’ musical heyday

Pylon Reenactment Society

With Armistead Wellford and friends playing Love Tractor, Swimming Pool Q's. Doors open at 8 p.m. July 29. $15-$18. The EARL, 488 Flat Shoals Ave. S.E., Atlanta. badearl.com.

With Armistead Wellford and friends playing Love Tractor, Swimming Pool Q's. Doors open at 8 p.m. July 30. $10-$12. 40 Watt Club, 285 W. Washington St., Athens. 40watt.com.

It was 33 years ago, and one of Athens' finest bands was about to call it quits, but not before one last show in front of the hometown crowd.

“We thought at the time that it was the last time we’d ever stand there together and play,” said Pylon’s bassist, Michael Lachowski.

Vocalist Vanessa Briscoe Hay remembers only snippets of that night at Athens’ Mad Hatter.

“Watching (drummer) Curtis Crowe finish building backdrops at soundcheck. Watching the cameramen set up a camera on a track in front of the stage,” she recalled. “(Oh-OK’s) Linda Hopper giving me a string of beads, which I broke onstage. Friends like Jimmy Ellison dancing onstage during ‘M-Train’ and drinking some champagne together afterward.”

Those cameras were there to document Pylon's final gig in its original incarnation. It was captured for an "Austin City Limits"-style show that was never picked up.

“It was a failed pilot for something called the ‘Athens Shows,’ which two local businessmen — John Fuller and Bob Gentile — were promoting for a possible TV series,” Hay said. “Only four or five songs survive on video from each band who performed that night. The project was shelved after only being shown to the public once in February 1984.”

The complete four-track audio, however, survived. Monday, that audio is being released as a double vinyl album (and digital download), "Pylon Live," on what would have been late guitarist Randy Bewley's 61st birthday. Bewley died after suffering a heart attack in June 2009.

The album is a fitting tribute to the guitarist, documenting the clang and thump of a band at the height of its power. It was a singular sound that drew on the bass-forward danceability of disco and the cacophonous clatter of punk, now preserved in its natural environment, onstage. Bewley’s jagged musical shapes, by turns percussive and decorative, leave plenty of space for Lachowski’s earworm basslines and Hay’s exhortations to “turn up the volume” and dance. Crowe’s insistent thump keeps the train moving at a brisk pace.

It’s a sound that still resonates today. Critically revered Atlanta band Deerhunter has covered Pylon’s debut single, “Cool.” You can hear the sound in the work of bands on DFA Records, too, including label co-founder James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem. It’s no coincidence that DFA reissued Pylon’s first two albums, 1980’s “Gyrate” and 1983’s “Chomp.”

“Hearing this after so long has been great, especially since it was discovered, compiled and tweaked so carefully by Henry Owings, (Jeff) Calder and Derek Almstead, ” Lachowski said, speaking of Chunklet Industries CEO Owings (who is releasing the album), preservationist (and Swimming Pool Q’s frontman) Calder and mixing engineer Almstead.

“I was surprised that the performance was so tight and professional, kind of amazed that we were breaking up when we sounded so good,” Lachowski said.

Though this album preserves the final show of the band’s original run, there would be reunions in the decades that followed, both in the late ’80s and early ’90s and in the 2000s. Since Bewley’s death, however, Pylon no longer can be complete.

That doesn't mean you can't hear Pylon's music the way it was meant to be experienced. With the blessing of Lachowski and Crowe, Hay has drafted a batch of stellar musicians for the Pylon Reenactment Society, to bring the music back to the stage. At a February show at the EARL in East Atlanta, Crowe even joined in, taking his seat behind the drums for "M-Train."

This weekend, they’ll do it again in Atlanta and Athens to mark the release of “Pylon Live” and honor the memory of Bewley. They’ll also screen the surviving video from 1983 show — and you can even dance.

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