On Thursday, October 23 something special is going to happen down at the Jessye Norman Riverwalk Amphitheater. Starting at 6 p.m., three bluegrass bands are going to perform a concert to benefit Jordan’s House and the Bond Crosby Fund while pumping some much needed life back into one of Augusta’s most recognized, yet overlooked venues.
It’s one of those win-win situations everybody likes to talk about.
The Riverwalk Revival is the major fall concert put on this year by Friends with Benefits, a local organization that has been giving Augusta some of its most talked about concerts for the last couple of years.
Earlier this year, Friends with Benefits introduced Augusta to the Major Rager, a Masters Week concert that brought the Augusta Ronald McDonald House a check for over $9,000.
“They were great,” says Sean Frantom, development director at Augusta’s Ronald McDonald House. “They didn’t ask us to get an act or help with an act — they already had everything lined up when they approached us.”
Not only did they streamline the process for Frantom and his staff, but they did just about everything all the way through the night of the show.
“They got sponsors for the event, so I didn’t have to get any of those,” Frantom says. “They created all the posters and did all the front end work. I just helped them promote through our network with all the stuff they gave us and then I provided volunteers for the event. We worked the front door and the front aspect of the event.”
Even though it rained, the concert was still a success. Planned for the amphitheater, it was moved at the last minute into the neighboring Convention Center.
While the Major Rager concert had a decidedly rock and roll edge to it, thanks to bands Umphrey’s McGee and Moon Taxi, the Riverwalk Revival is hoping to tap into a growing bluegrass audience primed by popular annual events like the Aiken Bluegrass Festival and BanjoBQue.
“I don’t book as much bluegrass as I want, but it’s such a fun genre for all ages,” says George Claussen, founder of Friends with Benefits. “It really applies to everybody, and that’s one of the reasons we wanted to do this. You get into these rock groups like we did for Masters Week, which was great — they’re one of my favorite bands — but you almost limit yourself with the demographic. With bluegrass, it just really opens the door.”
Headlined by Yonder Mountain String Band, one of the most acclaimed bluegrass bands working today, the evening will also include performances by the well known Larry Keel Experience and local favorites, Delta Cane.
Regular tickets are $27.50, but thanks to a partnership with GRU, college students can show their school ID and receive a ticket for $10. And for those who live and work downtown, there’s the new Down Townie ticket for $20.
According to Claussen, the idea behind these concerts is twofold: help local nonprofits while bringing people downtown.
“We do a select number of events throughout the year to help raise money and awareness for nonprofits through music and concerts aimed at a younger demographic,” he says. “It’s basically just to get our generation involved in philanthropy while doing something that’s fun for them.”
The 27-year-old Claussen says that his generation is too caught up in work life and social life to be too concerned about philanthropy, and he hopes this is an effective way to raise awareness and money for these nonprofits.”
As far as choosing which nonprofits get to enjoy the benefits of the events he puts on, Claussen says the process is a little different than most people think.
“We kind of back into it a little bit,” he says. “We usually pick the bands and then we go about choosing a charity. We kind of see where they’re at. In the case of Jordan’s House, I think this is a perfect way to kind of jumpstart their nonprofit and get people noticing what Jordan’s House is. It’s just a really, really cool charity.”
Jordan’s House is a nonprofit formed after the death of Jordan White, the 19-year-old daughter of Metro Spirit owner and publisher Joe White. Jordan was killed by a drunk driver and the charity supports arts education by bringing art teachers to some of the more economically challenged schools in the area.
Supporting an idea like that seems tailor made for Friends with Benefits, which came out of a New Years party one of Claussen’s friends threw in Charleston. They challenged Claussen to throw a Masters Party, and for two years he put on the Birdies and Bogies Benefit.
“Those went so well that we decided we needed to create some sort of company or organization that does this throughout the year,” Claussen says. “We’ve done many different events, but I think we’re really focusing on doing two really big events throughout the year. One in the fall like we’re doing with the Riverwalk Revival and then the other in the spring during the Masters like we did with the Major Rager.”
Not only do these concerts focus on getting younger people thinking about charitable giving, they bring younger people downtown, particularly to the Jessye Norman Amphitheater.
Bethany Davis, one of the singers in Delta Cane, agrees.
“We all grew up in Augusta, so of course we’re thrilled to be a part of the amazing musical opportunities involved in the show, but really Friends with Benefits is doing just a phenomenal job of bringing the newer generation downtown to the Jessye Norman Amphitheater and to the downtown area in general,” Davis says. “They’re promoting a lot of things that I think are going to bring a huge positive change to the social scene downtown.”
Odd as it might sound, Davis remembers her parents taking her down to the amphitheater to watch the last episodes of Seinfeld on a temporary screen.
“This has to be true,” she says of the memory, though its absurdity gives her pause. “I remember it being packed, so it has to be true.”
While she and her band mates might remember the time when the amphitheater was heavily used, she admits that almost a full generation has never experienced the amphitheater as anything much more than an empty spot along the Riverwalk.
“I’ve had so many people come up to me and tell me they didn’t even know it existed,” she says. “That’s kind of the point. If you don’t know it exists, that’s kind of our fault.”
Built as part of the Riverwalk in 1990, the 1,800-seat amphitheater was considered a jewel in a downtown seriously lacking sparkle.
“It was built for a reason,” Davis says. “It was built to entice people to come down and to have the unity party of community happen, and I really think Riverwalk Revival is a huge step toward bringing a ton of attention to that area. Not only the Jessye Norman, but to the Riverwalk in general. Not every town has that.”
Though Davis is obviously engaged with the community and is pleased to be part of the movement to bring people to one of her favorite spots, she can’t hide her excitement at performing with the bands she’ll be sharing the stage with.
“They are pioneers,” she says. “They are huge.”
While Delta Cane has played with Larry Keel at the Aiken Bluegrass Festival before, this will be the first time they’ve shared the stage with Yonder Mountain String Band.
“In hopes of not getting too worked up and excited, we’re just going to pretend we’re not playing with the biggest bluegrass name out there,” she says. “We’re thrilled to do it, and we’re just tickled to death to do it in a venue that means something to us.”
Her band, which formed about a year and a half ago, features a kind of bayou-infused Creole sound that Davis describes as the point where bluegrass meets the bayou.
Singer and guitarist Jerett Acosta comes from Louisiana, but the rest have been playing in Augusta area bands since they were kids. They include Michael Balducci on mandolin, Deveren Roof on bass, Henry Wynn on fiddle, Taylor Swan on banjo and Davis on vocals.
During the year and a half that they’ve been together, they’ve been fortunate enough to share billings with Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers, the Whiskey Gentry, Peter Rowan and the Brothers Comatose.
“The opportunities have been pretty phenomenal,” she says. “Because bluegrass fans are certainly not a dime a dozen here in Augusta, I think a lot of it is regional.”
Even if bluegrass fans aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, Delta Cane has cashed in what interest there is while developing a natural affinity for each other and an easy way of performing. From the very beginning, Davis says it felt natural for them to be playing together.
“I lived in Charleston for eight years and played with tons of different people, but the chemistry with this band was immediate,” she says. “It’s awesome to enjoy what you’re playing and to enjoy the company of the people you’re playing with. That’s not something that I’m used to having.”
They recently completed a summer tour that took them up the coast to Vermont, and though they’ll be recording soon, she says bluegrass is a genre where the music just translates better live. That’s one of the reasons she’s looking forward to playing the Riverwalk Revival.
“This is huge,” she says. “This particular show is pretty ‘next level’ for us. It’s definitely catapulting up.”
Adam Aijala, who plays guitar in Yonder Mountain String Band, might be sitting where Davis and her band mates hope to be, but that doesn’t mean he’s taking it for granted. Not only does he appreciate every opportunity he’s given to perform, he’s happy to be playing outside.
“I love playing outside,” he says. “You can get more acoustic sounding outside because there’s more space for the speakers to breathe and less chance of feedback and whatnot. Plus I like the aesthetics of playing outside.”
Though Aijala (41) might be part of one of the bigger names in bluegrass, he cut his teeth playing in punk bands in the Northeast before making the slow switch to bluegrass.
“I saw a correlation between bluegrass and punk,” he says. “You get the fast, pointed lyrics of a punk tune and the short songs, and a lot of bluegrass songs are the same way. Very direct lyrics, shorter songs, a lot of energy and sometimes very fast.”
When he started hearing people like Doc Watson and Norman Blake, two of bluegrass’ most notable guitarists, he was sold, but he continued listening to the work of guitar players in other genres.
“I like shredder guitar players, but I also like Curt Cobain’s guitar playing,” he says. “Even if you don’t totally dig the music, you can still say that guy is unbelievable.”
So sixteen years ago, the Yonder Mountain String Band formed, and just as with Delta Cane, something clicked.
“It was one of those things where none of us grew up with bluegrass, but we were all really into it at that particular time,” Aijala says. “We were into learning bluegrass, we were all around the same age, we were all single, we all lived in the same area and none of us had career paths that we needed to follow.”
The success was almost immediate.
“I would say that in the first three or four years of the band we had already exceeded my top expectations,” he says. “It was really working on two levels. Musically, it was really working, and also on an economic level. We weren’t raking in the money and we’re still not, but we’re making a living and we’re saving money, even. Playing bluegrass, that’s saying something.”
In the world of musical acts, however, quick success isn’t always conducive to longevity.
“It’s all about continued creativity,” he says. “If you’ve already made it huge you can kind of ride the coattails of your fame, but if you haven’t, you kind of have to stay creative, and if you lose that, you’re going to lose fans. And I think we’ve seen that. We’ve been a little bit lax in the last few years on getting records out, and I think it’s shone in some ways. But I feel like we’re totally rejuvenated right now.”
Part of that rejuvenation comes from recording a new album — he was in the recording studio right before the interview — and part of it comes from the addition of mandolin player Jake Joliff and fiddle player Allie Kral, both of whom will be with them at the Riverwalk Revival.
“They’re both unbelievable musicians and really cool people,” he says. “Jake just turned 26 and Allie is 32, so they both bring that young blood and high energy.”
They join Dave Johnston on banjo and Ben Kaufmann on bass.
Aijala says that while bluegrass is still one of the smaller genres, it’s growing in popularity because of some of the crossover it’s experienced with bands like Mumford & Sons, which features a banjo more acoustic sound.
“That kind of sound is pop now, which is crazy to think about, and I think it helps bands like us,” he says. “In the same way we’re a transition band for people coming from a non-bluegrass background to get into bluegrass, I think that stuff is a transition for people going from pop music to something like we do.”
With that popularity comes more touring, something he admits has lost some of its luster after 16 years.
“It ebbs and flows,” he says. “I’ve never hated it, but there have been times when I’ve been burned out. Right now I’m really enjoying it, though.”
And touring, he says, brings the band closer together.
“I think right now we have really good communication with each other,” he says. “I can look at any of those guys’ faces in the morning, and if they’re not happy, I can tell immediately. Even onstage I can tell if someone is really grovin’. Obviously, you can tell if it’s sonically good, but even if I couldn’t hear it, I could tell by the look on their face that they’re having a good time.”
And while he’s pretty much at the pinnacle of his profession, he’s well aware that playing bluegrass doesn’t bring the kind of notoriety that playing other forms of music can bring. And he’s fine with that, he says, because he got into music for the music, not so people would know who he was.
“After I die and everyone I know dies, if I’m forgotten, I’m totally OK with that,” he says. “I don’t really need to leave a legacy. I’m here to enjoy my life while I live it, and after that, who gives a shit?”
While Claussen doesn’t talk about things like leaving a legacy, it’s obvious he’s intent on leaving Augusta better than he found it, and it’s not going unnoticed.
“It’s unusual for a promoter to care as much about their hometown and wanting to do good like they are,” Davis says. “They are a dream to work with. They’ve been nothing but accommodating, and I think they’re going to make a huge, huge difference in seeing some life breathed into the downtown.”
The Riverwalk Revival
The Jessye Norman Amphitheater
Thursday, Oct. 23, 6 p.m.
$27.50, GRU student $10, Down Townie $20