Athens band still Squallin’ after all these years

Beloved band celebrates an archival live album.

Many participants of the early Athens music scene bonded in art classes at the University of Georgia, forming bands and developing performance projects as a creative outlet. But for Squalls founder Bob Hay, the road to the stage began miles away from the art and music party scene of Athens-Clarke County.

While working as a waiter at a lobster restaurant in Maine in the late ‘70s, Hay would occasionally jam with like-minded musician friends — including a decidedly free-spirited hipster named Ken Starratt. “I lived in a house in Kennebunk, Maine,” he recalls. “But Ken was living in a teepee outside of town. I think he’d lived somewhere in Georgia the year before. One day, he said he knew ‘something was happening’ down there in Athens. So the next time he headed this way, I decided to go with him to check it out.”

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

In November 1978, Hay and Starratt trucked on down toward the Classic City in a VW Van (of course), following the Grateful Dead’s tour of the East Coast. After stops in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, they finally arrived at their destination. “I looked around, felt the 70-degree winter day of Georgia and I liked it.”

As he settled into the city’s vibe, Hay’s musical palate expanded from extended jam excursions to the punk-injected bursts of the nascent music scene. After a string of informal collaborations, often with his co-workers from the Eldorado Restaurant — including “Big Al” Walsh and keyboardist Diana Torell — Hay’s writing style began to embrace the pop and new wave motifs of the times, blending them with late-‘60s / early-‘70s-style psychedelia. A friend described the burgeoning band’s swirly get-togethers as “squallin’” — referencing an obscure Southern slang term for an infant’s incessant wail.

After dubbing the band Squalls and adding Mig Little and Mark Cooper Smith to the mix, the group was born, officially brought into the world on Dec. 6, 1981, at the West Clayton Street location of the now-world-famous 40 Watt Club. “It seemed like there were only about five bands around here when we started,” recalls Hay. But the scene grew quickly with Squalls becoming one of the city’s most popular live draws. Every few months, the band would pack ‘em in for exuberant dance-fests at the most popular spots in town, with a specific fondness for the 40 Watt.

Credit: Courtesy of New West Records

Credit: Courtesy of New West Records

The celebratory feel of a Squalls live show is wonderfully captured in the new release “Live From The 40 Watt.” Coming this month from Strolling Bones Records, the double-LP package captures highlights from five different shows at the iconic nightclub, recorded, produced and mixed by the venue’s legendary soundboard wizard T. Patton Biddle.

The album is the first new product from the band since 1988. “Yeah, I guess it’s been a little while,” chuckles the soft-spoken songwriter. “But I think it’s time to sort of look back on all those Watt shows. We played there over 60 times and I remember how much fun it was to play that place. The first time we ever played on a real stage — and not just in the corner of a room somewhere — was there. It’s hard to believe it’s been over 40 years now since we started. Where does the time go?”

One the highlights of the band’s history was a featured appearance in the 1986 documentary “Athens, GA: Inside/Out.” The Squalls song “Na Nanana” was released by IRS Records as a single from the film’s soundtrack album. “You know, I hear that movie inspired a lot of bands over the years and that’s cool. But I do think it’s funny the featured song was written in just a few minutes. It was a reaction to the news that the old Eldorado was going to close. That’s where I worked when I got here and we did some early music there, so I was a little sad that scene was ending.”

Before and after the film, the classic Squalls lineup toured the country and issued a number of independent releases, eventually splintering off into various projects by the end of the ‘80s. For the past two decades, Hay has explored the songs and poems of Robert Burns in solo and group performances.

“I knew he was a poet but he also wrote songs,” Hay says, enthused by the subject. “I did some research at the UGA library and I found out about all these great pieces. During the pandemic, I started adding harmonica to the tunes, which is sort of a throwback to the acoustic folk music I loved when I was growing up. Dylan, of course, but it goes even further back than that. So I guess now I’m progressing and regressing at the same time.”

On Aug. 18, the night before the album is officially released, Hay — backed by an all-star line-up of veteran scenesters and guests — will return to the 40 Watt to play a rollicking set of music. Expect a collection of classic Squalls tunes, a batch of ribald Robert Burns material and a special performance by the Pylon Reenactment Society. For info and tickets, visit the club’s website, www.40watt.com.

In advance of the album, Strolling Bones is releasing a series of four digital singles from the 24-track collection.

The AJC has premiered two of the unique video collages, “Cindy” and “Bride Of Frankenstein,” assembled by Hay’s partner, singer-songwriter-artist Vanessa Briscoe Hay, co-founder of Pylon. “I wanted to feature a lot of movement and happiness,” she says of the catchy and colorful projects. “I just wanted to show the fun of letting go and dancing to a great little song. That’s really how it was in Athens in the ‘80s, everybody danced and we all just enjoyed being there in the moment.”


CONCERT PREVIEW

Squalls Album Release Party

8 p.m. Aug. 18. $10 in advance. 40 Watt Club, 285 W. Washington St., Athens. 706-549-7871, 40watt.com.