When 28-year-old George Claussen IV looks in the mirror, he sees Augusta.
Not because he grew up in a nice home off Walton Way.
And not because he is a proud graduate of Richmond Academy.
And especially not because he comes from two well-respected local families: the Boardmans and the Claussens.
But because he has struggled in his lifetime.
Claussen, like the city of Augusta, has seen many ups and downs over the past 28 years.
“As a lot of people know, at one time I probably had the worst reputation of anybody in this town,” Claussen admitted without hesitation. “I was so bad when I was young and in college. I have been on that dark side. And I have struggled for many years. Now, I am eight years sober. And I have become someone people can look at and say, ‘He turned it around.’ I think the same is true for Augusta. Growth is happening all over this city.”
These days, Claussen is a true symbol of that growth.
Not only is he the founder of Friends With Benefits, the production and promotion company that brings incredible shows such as The Major Rager to downtown Augusta during Masters Week and the Riverwalk Revival Series to the Jessye Norman Amphitheater, but he is also co-owner of the popular barbecue restaurant Southbound Smokehouse on Central Avenue.
In addition, Claussen has worked in conjunction with The James Brown Family Foundation and the City of Augusta to honor the life, legacy and music of the late Godfather of Soul with the James Brown Family Birthday Bash on May 3.
“Mr. Brown never forgot where he was from,” Claussen said, sitting outside of Southbound Smokehouse on a beautiful spring morning enjoying a cigarette. “He truly loved Augusta. There are so many different people over the years like artists, business professionals and athletes that have come from this town and have moved on, but have never shed any light on Augusta. But not Mr. Brown. He made sure that every time he got up on stage, they knew exactly where he was from.”
Downtown Augusta will celebrate with the Godfather of Soul’s birthday with a show comprised of former members of the James Brown Band, as well as other musical legends such as Sharon Jones, Ivan Neville, Greg Hester, George Porter Jr. of The Meters, Ty Taylor of Vintage Trouble, Jennifer Hartswick of Trey Anastasio Band, Chris Rob of Nasty Delicious and Gavin Hamilton of Funk You.
“People do these James Brown tributes all over the world. For example, Phish over New Year’s at Madison Square Garden had these after parties called the James Brown Dance Parties,” Claussen said. “They had a couple members of the James Brown Band up there performing and it was just an awesome thing. And the question becomes: Why is this not being done here? If they can do this on New Year’s Eve in New York City, then why are we not doing this in Augusta?”
The truth is, some Augustans don’t want to properly honor James Brown because of some of the mistakes he made during his lifetime, Claussen said.
“All some Augustans want to do is talk about the negative things that happened to him in his life,” Claussen said. “They don’t want to talk about everything that was great that James Brown did and that he single-handedly made music what it is today. There is not an artist that is out right now that wasn’t influenced by the movement that James Brown started. But people here just want to talk about his demise. They want to talk about the things that he did wrong.”
The Godfather of Soul passed away almost 10 years ago and some Augustans are still trying to tearing him down, Claussen said.
“It’s time to move past that and look at his legacy,” he said. “And, as a community, this is finally an event that I think we can do it together. Whether your are black, white, young, old, male or female, this is something that we can all get behind. “
Claussen is also proud of the fact that the birthday bash will benefit the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils (JAMP), whose mission is to further music education for Augusta’s youth through the music of James Brown.
JAMP is run by James Brown’s daughter, Deanna Brown, and Brown’s former music director and lead guitarist Keith Jenkins.
“This James Brown Birthday Bash will be playing to what he wanted, what was actually in his will and testament, about his music academy,” Claussen said. “He wanted it to live on.”
Augustans should make sure that mission never fades away, no matter what people think of James Brown’s past transgressions, he said.
After all, mistakes don’t define a man, Claussen said.
“Me being an outcast, or me being the black sheep of my family, I was able to repair that reputation and turn it around, but it has been extremely difficult,” Claussen said. “However, at the same time, when you continue to make strides to do things better and help change people’s perception and continue to do what is right and good, it means that much more to the person who was saying those bad things many years ago. You proved them wrong.”
That is one of the reasons why Claussen feels such a strong kinship with Augusta and the challenges it has faced over the years.
“I feel like maybe in my world of what I had to go through is indirectly the same thing that Augusta is having to go through,” Claussen said. “From, at one point, having everything to suddenly having nothing and then repairing that back into something really great.”
Claussen sees the same momentum picking up throughout Augusta.
“In the next five years, we are really going to see the most pivotal time in Augusta,” Claussen said. “We are going to see what we can do and how much we can grow and I think everyone is going to be dumbfounded at the amount of stuff that is planning on coming in here. Whether it is new businesses, the cyber tech world, incredible concerts or amazing new restaurants, everything is happening. It is all coming together. And it is awesome to be here for all of it.”
While some Augustans might not see the progress, Claussen insists it is happening right under their noses.
“People in Augusta don’t realize the growth that has happened over the past few years because you see it every day,” he said. “But if you are away and out of the picture for a few years, you realize stuff is really happening here.”
About four years ago, Claussen began working for EastCoast Entertainment in Charleston. It is the largest full-service entertainment agency in the country that was founded about 40 years ago.
When he moved to Charleston, Claussen said he was shocked to see the positive changes that had occurred in that city over the past 20 years.
“Half of my family is originally from Charleston, on grandmother’s side, and I remember when I was younger that downtown Charleston was not thriving yet,” he said. “You went to the city market on King Street, but that was as far as you went. To see their growth over the last 20 years has just been crazy. And I know we are nothing like Charleston, but, at the same time, it really made me realize something.”
Claussen said he saw what great potential was hidden in his own hometown.
“One day I just said, ‘Hey, would you rather be in a city like Charleston that is the No. 1 destination city, or would you rather go back to your home where your roots are and you know everybody and be on the ground floor of what Augusta can be?’” Claussen said. “That’s when I decided to come home.”
Since that time, Claussen and Friends With Benefits have brought incredible musical acts to this area including Warren Haynes with his band Gov’t Mule for The Major Rager last year and Kid Rock for Mash Augusta at the Evans Towne Center Park last October.
Nearly 12,000 people came out to see Kid Rock, making it the largest concert in this area’s history.
Through its concerts and shows, Friends With Benefits has raised more than $100,000 for local charities just last year.
“To see Friends With Benefits start from a Masters party, literally as a bet I had with a buddy of mine in Charleston about how much money could be raised at a concert, to where it is today is truly amazing,” Claussen said. “If you told me five years ago that I would be sitting here today, giving an interview at a restaurant that I own, I would say, ‘Never. Never. No way.’ I would never have expected a little 500-person party would have developed into The Major Rager being a worldwide broadcast event during the week of the biggest sporting event in the world. It just shows Augusta’s true potential and how lucky we are as a city.”
This year, Friends With Benefits is proud to welcome back the jam band Umphrey’s McGee to The Major Rager on Thursday, April 7, starting at 5 p.m.
Umphrey’s McGee will play two sets, including an “All Night Wrong” set of cover songs. Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie Cressman of the Trey Anastasio Band, as well as members of James Brown’s band, are scheduled to sit in with the headliners.
The Revivalists and Earphunk will open the show.
“We have been able to do some cool things and bring in some cool artists,” Claussen proudly said. “We go over and above to make sure that these artists are taken care of and when they leave here, they say, ‘This wasn’t just another stop for us on the way to Atlanta. We want to come to Augusta because we have so much fun and we are taken care of and the fans are great.’”
Friends With Benefits wants to make sure that, not only the fans are having an incredible time, but so are the musicians.
“The Major Rager last year was so, so much fun,” Claussen said. “To be able to have James Brown’s cape man, Danny Ray, get up on stage and cape Warren Haynes was unforgettable. And to have Sharon Jones, who was just sitting in the VIP section, come run on stage and sing with Lettuce and for this to be played on a worldwide broadcast that I still hear being played to this day, that just doesn’t happen. It’s incredible.”
While audiences get to enjoy the final product, Claussen said there is a tremendous amount of hard work and extreme risk involved in each show.
“People wouldn’t believe the amount of stress and work that goes into these shows,” Claussen said. “There are hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line every time we get up to bat. It takes so much risk. People say, ‘You must have killed with that show?’ And the answer is, ‘No.’ To be honest with you, last year, we gave $10,000 to the local charity, Turn Back the Block, but we lost $20,000 on The Major Rager, regardless of how great a night it was. And it was great. And I would lose $20,000 again to do it, but that is what it is going to take to make things successful. People have got to take risks and big risks. That’s the only way we are going to be able to move forward as a community.”
And this season, Friends With Benefits is continuing to take a lot of risks.
“There is so much going on right now,” Claussen said. “On April 7, it’s The Major Rager. On April 19, Widespread Panic is coming back for the second time in two years and they’re not doing that anywhere else but Augusta. The fact that they are coming back here on their 30th anniversary is just huge. Then, on May 3 is the James Brown Birthday Bash and on May 8, Trampled By Turtles and The Devil Makes Three will be here for the Riverwalk Revival.”
That is a huge lineup of events that will not only thoroughly entertain Augusta, but, if the shows are successful, they could bring more and more national acts to this area, he said.
“This is the time to really see if Augusta has got it,” Claussen said. “There is a lot of big, big stuff going on that we need everybody to show up and support them.”
While not everyone may be familiar with bands such as Trampled By Turtles or Umphrey’s McGee, Claussen said it is important to turn out, buy tickets and show support for these concerts.
“Showing up and purchasing your ticket can have a direct impact on what future shows come to this area,” he said. “If these shows don’t do well, then these artists aren’t going to come back. And these promoters are not going to want to come and bring other musicians here. For us, it takes so much risk and the amount of the reward is never financial. Believe me, if there is any profit, it goes right into the next concert. I promise you that.”
But Augusta has already built a strong reputation as an inviting community that knows how to treat musicians very well.
“It is a vicious world in the music world,” Claussen said. “But when you have a band like Umphrey’s McGee who are not prima donnas, who are so easy to work with and are such great guys, you want them to have a great time. And it shows. They really care and they love Augusta.”
In fact, Ryan Stasik, the bassist for Umphrey’s McGee, traveled down to Augusta for the Kid Rock show and even stayed in Augusta to play a round of golf with Kid Rock.
“These are two artists who are on opposite ends of the spectrum,” Claussen said, laughing. “But for him to come down and show his support and stay with us and have fun, it was amazing. And, literally, the words that came out of his mouth were, ‘You know, we have more fun here than we do in any other city.’”
Claussen said he was blown away by the compliment.
“Umphrey’s McGee tours a 120 dates a year,” he said. “They go to every major city. They are from Chicago, but they are saying that about Augusta.”
The unfortunate truth is that many locals don’t appreciate or even recognize the wonderful amenities that Augusta has to offer, he said.
“You hear people say, ‘I’m not going downtown because of the beating that happened,’” Claussen said, referring to the South Carolina couple that was badly beaten on Riverwalk Augusta around 11 p.m. back in 2013 by two men demanding money. “It was extremely unfortunate and I absolutely hate that it happened, but it happened like three years ago and there hasn’t really been anything like that since then.”
However, that one attack prevents certain Augustans from stepping foot in downtown Augusta, Claussen said.
“People still bring that attack up all the time. It baffles me,” he said. “And that is the attitude that we cannot have or we will have no downtown.”
One glance across the Savannah River at North Augusta or a quick look at all the growth in neighboring Columbia County is a clear sign that Augusta needs the support of its citizens, he said.
“We need to focus back on Augusta,” Claussen said. “Don’t get me wrong, Columbia County is great and North Augusta is great, but Augusta is still the core. We need to continue to build up Augusta. Columbia County is getting a new city center and we lost the baseball stadium to North Augusta and now we are going to be looking at it across the river. So you see what is happening on either side of us, but we are still stuck in the middle. We have come so far, but we still have so much further to go.”
Augusta can be the next Greenville, S.C., but its citizens need to believe it is possible, he said.
“It is almost a blessing in disguise for everybody to see what is happening in North Augusta and Columbia County,” he said. “I think it will force Augusta to move forward. If everyone joins together with North Augusta, Columbia County and Richmond County, can you imagine the CSRA at that point? We would be a Greenville. We would be a Columbus. So maybe all of this is for a reason and it will force us all to work together and not get caught up in so much of the drama and the politics.”
But Claussen is the first admit, Augusta and politics go hand in hand.
Claussen said he learned that the hard way when he helped out with Scott Peebles’ campaign for Richmond County Sheriff in 2012.
“We got our 20-year-old crowd involved in that campaign because Scott is a great personal friend,” he said. “The amount of work that we put into that campaign was incredible and I remember, at the time, we had the feeling like we could do no wrong. Everything was just on top of the world. Then, when he lost, it was such an eye opener for me. I thought, ‘This is real. Things are out of our control, sometimes.’”
Despite his disappointment in the results of that election, Claussen said he has been extremely impressed with Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree and he believes the sheriff has done a “phenomenal job” over the past several years.
To this day, Claussen keeps a close eye on the local elections.
Just a few weeks ago, he met with Ramone Lamkin, the head of the traffic division for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, who is now running for Richmond County Marshal.
“This election in May could really shape what we are going to be doing in the future,” Claussen said, adding there are several seats up for grabs on the Augusta Commission on May 20. “We have a very diverse crowd on our commission, different walks of life, and they all have their own opinions about what is good for this community. But it is so important to unify and try to work together because all of these issues go hand and hand.”
But nothing will ever change if citizens do not get involved in the local government and vote in the May 20 election, he said.
“You can sit there and blame everybody for the reason Augusta is where we are at right now, but, at the end of the day, we are in control of the future,” Claussen said. “It is time to step up to the plate and take action. Talk is cheap.”
Claussen expanded his commitment to Augusta last year by opening up a new barbecue restaurant called Southbound Smokehouse on Central Avenue.
“After Masters and The Major Rager last year, my partner, Brian Brittingham, and I were looking to buy a venue or open a bar. Something we could get involved in,” Claussen said. “Brian was like, ‘Let’s open a restaurant.’ And I said, ‘We don’t know anything about restaurant.’”
But three weeks later, Claussen said he received a call from Brittingham asking to meet at the former location of Crums on Central.
“When I got there, Brian had already ripped out the bar,” Claussen said, laughing. “And I was like, ‘Shit. Here we go.’”
Opening Southbound Smokehouse last summer has been a “great learning process” for the owners, Claussen said.
“We were never expecting to be as busy as we were when we first opened,” Claussen said. “People really came out and supported us and I feel like, in particular, this restaurant pretty much sums up everything we are trying to do.”
While there are several fine dining restaurants in the Hill area such as Finch & Fifth, Sheehan’s Irish Pub and Abel Brown, Claussen said he wanted to create a casual restaurant that was “community driven.”
“You can come to Southbound with an upper echelon, or you can come here with your family and bring your dog,” Claussen said. “You can come here dressed in a suit or you can come here in a bathing suit and some Crocs, just getting off the river with your dog and your kids.”
By opening Southbound, Claussen said he has also discovered a marvelous bond between local restaurant owners.
“We have become very close with the owners of Solé Grill & Sushi Bar,” he said, adding the two restaurants trade gift certificates all the time and regularly eat at each other’s restaurants. “You see so much in Augusta that is always run or operated by people from Augusta, but Solé is not. It is owned by people from outside the area. They took a gamble on downtown Augusta and, now, to see their success is amazing. It has worked out so well for them.”
Despite what many people think, local restaurants and bars are frequently cheering for one another to succeed, Claussen said.
“People work together all the time, but the public doesn’t really get to see that,” Claussen said. “Whether it is John Beck at Sheehan’s or Shawn Ledford at Mellow Mushroom or Sean Wight at Farmhaus, if we need anything — like if we run out of something or if we need something — we know that in two seconds, it is just one phone call away. And not only will they give it to you, but they will even drive it over here. That’s the kind of support you need. And that’s right here in Augusta.”
All this community has to do is build on that support and that concern for each other, and there will be no stopping Augusta-Richmond County, Claussen said.
“One day, 20 years down the road, we’ll look back and say, ‘Remember when we didn’t have all this? Look how far we’ve come,’” Claussen said. “I can’t wait for that day. It is going to happen. We are seeing it now. We are seeing the footprint of what this city can be. And I’m just glad to be a part of it because I am damn proud to be from Augusta, Ga.”
For more information about the upcoming shows and concerts by Friends With Benefits, visit fwbfund.com.