By Amanda Main and Stacey Eidson
Coming off an extended stay in Augusta for its 10-year anniversary last year, the Westobou Festival is back to its regular, five-day format this year — but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s less to see and do.
One thing that’s new to the festival this year is the all-access pass. The new $75, five-day general admission pass will get you into all sorts of events. Having a pass this year just made sense to festival organizers.
“Really the primary reason is to encourage people to go to more than just one event,” said Westobou Executive Director Kristi Jilson. “We heard a lot of feedback like, ‘I could afford to go to two things,’ or sometimes one and a half things, so we thought why not put this ticket together and then they can go to as many events as possible without feeling the hurdle of having to pay for individual tickets to everything.”
People should know, though, that even if they don’t get the pass, several of the events are free for anyone, like the conversation series, galleries, the festival’s downtown playground dubbed Westobou Central (complete with live music, movie screenings, a Ferris wheel, beer garden and more, all encased in the Augusta Common). For a full schedule, visit westoboufestival.com.
Jilson said anyone who’s interested in attending the Meal Series will need to buy tickets separately, because it includes a limited-seating meal, pairing chefs and artists. Three of those events are happening this year — for example, one is going on Oct. 5 at SRP Park.
“So (chef) Libbie Summers and (artist) Leonard Zimmerman, they decided they wanted to go with the ballpark and then theme their dinner around the SRP ballpark,” Jilson said. “So, they’re creating twists on traditional ball park foods, so popcorn, peanuts, hot dogs… but I don’t think you’re gonna find a single hot dog at that dinner. We do know that the first course will be peanut soup; Libbie has a really well-known recipe for peanut soup, so I know she’ll be serving that.”
Many of the choices for artists and performers for this year’s Westobou Festival are influenced by Michi Meko’s exhibit “Like a Weird Sweet Spot,” which will be on display at the Westobou Gallery through Oct. 27.
“He inspired much of what we went after for this year’s festival. So it started with (dancer) T. Lang, because he recommended her. He’s worked on projects with T. Lang in the past and just thought that her work was relevant and was of the caliber that we featured at Westobou Festival,” Jilson said. “Michi’s work is deeply rooted in Southern culture and Southern experience, but it does deal particularly with social and political issues, around race, race relations and the experience of African-Americans, black and brown people in the South. But he also is heavily inspired by gospel music, by Southern food, by Southern music — the Allman Brothers, jazz music — he listens to music while he’s creating, like many artists. So then of course, we have Paul Thorn and the Blind Boys of Alabama, and they have this really cool show right now that they’re touring called the Mission Temple Fireworks Revival. Paul Thorn describes it as taking your beer to church, so it’s gospel-rooted music.
“Ranky Tanky is Gullah jazz, Gullah culture, Southern culture, deeply Southern, coastal Southern. And a lot of Michi’s work deals with navigating public spaces by also referencing navigating waters. So you see a lot of fishing lures and fishing poles and buoys and navigational flags in his work. It felt extremely relevant for the festival to continue to build on it. And so we went on with Southern films at the Miller. And it even gets right down to the Marvel cinematic universe, showing Marvel flicks. We can talk about ethical dilemmas in Marvel films as they relate to dilemmas in real life. So it’s just all tied together, as much as we could.”
Jilson said people who attend the festival’s events should be prepared to be entertained, but also to be confronted with some very real-world issues.
“Like any Westobou Festival, there are events that will challenge you, and there are events that you will laugh and have fun,” she said. “There are events where you will meet new people and make new friends, which is what it was built for. To expand your cultural horizons, but also to build a community socially, and we have the events all over downtown so that people can explore the venues that they haven’t been to, or see downtown in a way that they haven’t seen it.”
Michi Meko: “Like a Weird Sweet Spot,” curated by Shannon Morris
Art critics throughout the country have described popular Atlanta-based artist Michi Meko’s work as bordering between “graffiti and contemporary art.”
“His fascination with the relationship between physical and psychological is palpable in his work that blends clear, straightforward images with amorphous scribbling and other shapes,” Atlanta Creative Loafing writer Becca Grimm recently wrote. “In a way, it kinda makes perfect sense Meko funded his Atlanta move with winnings from a gambling match with a flagrant Alabaman gangster. It’s his mysterious familiarity that draws you in.”
Another critic described Meko as “all South, and his works breathe it.”
As one of Georgia’s foremost emerging artists, Meko, an Alabama native, has captured the attention of curators and collectors throughout the South. In fact, he was the recipient of the 2017/2018 Working Artist Project Award presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Atlanta.
“Meko’s multidisciplinary work mobilizes historic, contemporary, and speculative narratives that are personal and cultural, physical and psychological,” according to information regarding his show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Drawing influence from rural Southern culture and contemporary urban subcultures, Meko reveals and builds upon the layered symbolism of ordinary and rejected objects, imbuing them with spiritual powers.”
Meko’s work is also deeply personal and reflects his life experiences.
“In the summer of 2015, I almost drowned,” Meko states on his website. “Inviting this life-changing event’s influence into my studio practice, my recent paintings and sculptures focus on the African-American experience of navigating public spaces while remaining buoyant within them. This work contributes to an important conversation, as African-Americans in public space are consistently threatened, now more visibly and openly with the evidence and sharing offered by social media.
“This barrage of images simulates an experience of drowning under the heavy weight of ten thousand pounds of pressure while being held to the ocean’s floor.”
Meko’s show is a must-see in the month of October.
Michi Meko: Like a Weird Sweet Spot curated by Shannon Morris
Paul Thorn and the Blind Boys of Alabama
As the son of a preacher, Mississippi-raised singer and songwriter Paul Thorn decided to take audiences inside a true tent revival during his latest tour to promote his newest album, “Don’t Let the Devil Ride.”
“My latest record is a collection of old-school, gospel songs,” Thorn said while on the road in Texas. “The reason I did this gospel record is because I grew up singing in church and that’s where I learned how to do everything I do. And I thought it was time to share the kind of music that I grew up singing with my fans.”
During this year’s Westobou Festival, Paul Thorn will bring his Mission Temple Fireworks Revival featuring the five-time Grammy Award winning Blind Boys of Alabama and Nashville’s legendary McCrary Sisters to the historic Miller Theater on Oct. 3.
“If you have never seen the Blind Boys of Alabama, I encourage people to just come out for that reason alone. They are incredible,” Thorn said, describing the Blind Boys as “gospel titans.” “You have to see it to believe it. They have been singing together since 1940, and they still have got it.”
In his latest album, Thorn said he wanted to bring together these critically acclaimed artists raised in the church to create a special blend of rock, gospel, blues and country.
“Along with The Blind Boys of Alabama and the McCrary Sisters, I also got Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans to play on the record,” Thorn said. “I got the best of the best, in my opinion, to be a part of this true gospel album because it meant that much to me.”
And the Mission Temple Fireworks Revival tour truly showcases how much he deeply loves these traditional gospel songs, Thorn said.
“It’s really special because we sing together,” Thorn said. “Part of the show the Blind Boys come out and sing a few songs themselves, but then I come out and we do the second half of the show pretty much all of us singing together, and it takes you back to a time that doesn’t really exist anymore.”
These traditional gospel songs will lift the entire audience’s spirit, Thorn said.
“These days, there’s a different kind of gospel music now. It’s called contemporary. And I don’t have anything against it. It’s just not what speaks to me,” Thorn said. “I grew up singing old-school gospel, and that’s what this show is. I encourage everybody to come out because I think, not only will you enjoy it, it will make you feel better when you see this show.”
Each and every song chosen for this gospel collection has a deep meaning, Thorn said.
“There is a long list of gospel songs that are just great, and we just sifted through them and we picked out the chestnuts that we thought really hit hard and we did them,” Thorn said. “Like the song, ‘Soon I Will Be Done.’ My wife’s grandmother is in the hospital right now and she’s in that phase that they call hospice where they come and make you comfortable until you pass on.”
Obviously, it’s a difficult time for the entire family, but Thorn found comfort in something his wife’s grandmother kept repeating.
“She mentioned more than once that she would like to go on so she could go see her husband who has already went on,” he said. “So, in a song like, ‘Soon I Will Be Done,’ it kind of reflects her situation. She’s on the way out, but she’s also on the way up. When her life is over, she believes she is going to see her husband again and that’s a good way to go out.”
Such songs have the ability to change the world if just given a chance, Thorn said.
“One song we cover is by The O’Jays called ‘Love Train,’ which originally was a disco song. But we slowed it down and listened to the words,” Thorn said. “And ‘Love Train’ is actually a very timeless song because if everybody could live by the words of this song, it would fix every problem in the world.”
In fact, the world desperately needs a good revival, Thorn said.
“If everybody quit hating each other and just try to harmonize a little bit better, there would be a better vibe all over the whole planet,” he said. “That’s the absolute truth.”
Mission Temple Fireworks Revival featuring Paul Thorn & Band, The Blind Boys of Alabama and The McCrary Sisters
7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3
The Miller Theater
Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m.
millertheateraugusta.com; pass required, or buy tickets through the Miller Theater
T. Lang Dance: “A Graveyard Duet of the Past Now”
T. Lang is a dancer who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but as she got older she took her talents to New York City, and then as of 10 years ago, she and her dance company settled in Atlanta.
Lang, 40, is grateful for her upbringing, and also for her recent experience of living in the South.
“Aside from the weather,” she said with a laugh, “the pace was so welcoming after being in this intense race up in the East Coast. There was this sensibility of slowing down so you can really visit and get to know each other, and honor people’s time, and who they are. I really love the fact that — I had to get used to this, but I can sit and ‘visit’ with people before I can get anything done. But that allowed me to get to know who they are, their spouse, their children, their desires, their concerns. And seeing the similarity in us. So there is that humanity, that connectivity that’s really reached. To become really personable, I felt really invited with the pace being slow. You take your time to care.”
Lang earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in performance and choreography, and she’s now an associate professor and founding department chair of Spelman Dance at Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta. Her website says that in 2016, she earned an award from Atlanta Creative Loafing for Best Choreographer, and in 2017 she “delved into her first commission as a multimedia digital artist for Zuckerman Museum’s Medium Exhibition.”
Lang says her style of dance and her work as a choreographer aren’t just all about the lines, shapes and patterns — quite often, there’s a bigger message in her work, sometimes highlighting how harsh the world is and how people should be responding to it. One example is her solo piece titled “A Graveyard Duet of the Past Now,” which she plans to perform at the Sacred Heart Cultural Center for Westobou. You can also see a video of her performing it in an actual graveyard, at vimeo.com/tlangdance.
Underneath the video online are several political quotes from people including President Donald Trump. While at first glance, you might expect the dance to be grim (especially because it takes place in a graveyard), but you’ll soon notice that Lang has a wide grin on her face throughout the performance. That smile, she said, came naturally as a response to the atmosphere.
“I guess I was smiling, but I just felt so supported and loved and welcomed in that space,” she said. “I felt I really did have permission; I had true permission, not only from the executive director of the graveyard, but I had permission and a welcoming energy from the ancestors that were in the graves. And that, literally, I could have twisted my ankle, but I felt supported and a thickness in the air where I felt held together. And as crazy as that might sound, it is very real. It’s just so confirming that the energy of the dearly departed is still with us. And I was smiling because I could feel their presence, and I literally felt loved and supported and had permission to be an artist in their space.”
That dance, she said, is a response to what she says is the negativity in the world today.
“It’s irony, right? In this overt hostility, how do we care? How do we continue caring? How do we allow ourselves to care? How do we allow ourselves to be in the secure, the protected place, without savagery being the vehicle?” Lang said. “So with this chaos, we have to also remember that there was balance and order before, and that there was love and an optimism, and the pendulum always swings. So you can allow yourself to (wallow in it) when the shit hits the fan, which we’re in, or you can continue to find the healing, the love inside of it, to reconcile. So you can continue to be resilient, right? So that is our hope, that we’re speaking on with this work.”
7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4
Sacred Heart Cultural Center
westoboufestival.com; pass required
Traveling Puppet Show: Lupita’s Revenge
“Lupita’s Revenge” is a traveling, 50-minute show made entirely of shadow puppets, brought into creation by a team of musicians and visual artists in Athens. The show first premiered in July last year, with about eight or nine shows now under the belt. Plans are for it to travel soon all the way to places like New Jersey, New York and Asheville.
As writer and director (and also accordion player), Abel Klainbaum is the brain at the top of the show’s team. He’s an artist and filmmaker who moved to Athens about 12 years ago, after growing up in Bogota, Colombia, and then moving with his family to to Miami when he was 10.
He was inspired to move to Athens after some times of visiting friends who lived there, and he thought it was the perfect place to make creative projects.
“A friend was doing a little, very basic shadow puppetry show, at a school in town and invited me, and I just fell in love with the shadows and the silhouette work,” Klainbaum said. “And then I kind of slowly became obsessed, and then before I knew it, two years later, we had a team of eight of my favorite artists kind of all chipping in and making it grow. So we started with like a simple story and some accordion music, and then four of my favorite musicians joined in, and then a couple guys who actually are expert visual illustrators, and they kind of took over that, I had made a little screen. And then like a local builder in town saw it and saw the progress, and then he took over and made a screen for us, which is kind of a work of art in itself. So it kind of just snowballed and got out of my hands quickly — it was great.”
The show itself has a ton of parts, and it’s not easy to transport them. There’s the screen, which by itself is hundreds of pounds of wood, paper and aluminum. Then there’s about 100 feet of paper that scrolls through the screen to create the story, on what’s called a “crankie.” There are at least 80 other moving parts. Other materials used in the show include cardboard and vinyl.
Klainbaum laughs when he’s asked about the setting of the story: Valdosta, Ga.
“Yeah, I’m not entirely sure (why),” he said. “Our bass player’s from Valdosta, and I don’t know why I wrote that in, as maybe to give Valdosta a little bit of attention in the arts, I’m not sure.”
According to the show’s description, the story “is based around Lupita’s quest to avenge her fauther, Mexico City’s most beloved luchador, “El Guapo” Jimenez, who met his end during the last fight of his career. Lupita’s quest for revenge takes her on a journey to Valdosta, Ga., to confront her father’s assailant.” He describes the show as “adult-themed but kid friendly — it’s a vengeance play set in Georgia: lots of Mexican wrestlers, underwater fight scenes, breathtaking visuals… all supported with a soundtrack of Latin American classics.”
He thinks of this show as live filmmaking — everything is live, including the music. When watching the show, it’s a little mysterious how all the parts move — but attendees are treated to a behind-the-scenes experience afterward.
“That is top-secret information,” Klainbaum said with a laugh. “No, we’re actually very sharing, so we like to play a big game about keeping it a mystery, but then after the show, we love to invite people to the back and see what we do and we show them and give away our little secrets, because it’s kind of fun.”
One thing to keep in mind if you attend this show is, you’ll be asked to keep your phone put away for an hour. You’ll enjoy it more if you do (and, let’s be honest — all live shows are more enjoyable if you’re not staring down at your little pocket screen).
“The beauty of what we’re doing, it’s almost like a time machine going back in time, and we’re doing live music, we’re doing live images, and we’re kind of asking the audience to spend one hour with us,” Klainbaum said. “Not on their phones, not recording it, not sharing it. Every show’s a little bit different — we mess up little things here and there. It’s basically like a little community thing where, we’re almost daring people to take one hour off and just unplug and just enjoy the images and music and have a drink and have fun. And also not to disrupt other people, because we have one light source, and it’s a pretty bright source, lighting the screen from behind, and it’s like all of a sudden with people lighting their faces with a phone, it kind of takes away a little bit of the charm.”
6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6
Le Chat Noir
westoboufestival.com; pass required
Born on the isolated sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia, the Gullah culture grew from descendants of West Africans who spoke different languages and had very distinct customs, but were forcibly enslaved together.
Over time, their descendants developed the Gullah language as a means of communicating with each other, and they were also able to preserve many African practices in their arts, crafts, cuisine and music.
In fact, historians have found that many Gullah songs have been passed down for several generations in churches throughout the Lowcountry.
But, these days, the soulful songs of the Gullah culture have reached a much broader audience thanks to the efforts of the Charleston, S.C.-based group Ranky Tanky.
This quintet has hit the road, performing these cherished Gullah songs that include everything from heartbreaking spirituals to ecstatic shouts and delicate lullabies.
Ranky Tanky will join the Westobou Festival on Sunday, Oct. 7, at Enterprise Mill for a show that locals will not soon forget, said the band’s guitarist Clay Ross.
“Specifically in the Southeast, people are more aware of the Gullah culture. But it’s surprising, as we go throughout the country, we’ll have people of Gullah descent and Gullah heritage come to the concerts quite often,” Ross said. “But I would say there should be more awareness about the Gullah culture because it’s one of the most important American cultures, and I think it is still a bit underground.”
Ranky Tanky is made up of four musicians who started playing together nearly 20 years ago, but reunited a few years ago and added lead singer Quiana Parler.
By October 2017, Ranky Tanky released its debut album and less than two months later was profiled on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross.
After that tremendous national exposure on NPR, Ross said their album soared to the No. 1 position on the Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon jazz charts.
“We feel really lucky that we’ve had this opportunity to really break out this way,” Ross said. “We had this one huge media hit when we were featured on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She has about 3 million listeners, and that really was a pivotal moment for the group and we have definitely been riding a wave of awareness since then.”
Ross, who actually started Ranky Tanky, explained the band’s name comes from a Gullah phrase that translates loosely as “Work It” or “Get Funky.”
“This all kind of started about 20 years ago,” Ross said, laughing. “These old friends of mine, we all kind of came together around our college years in Charleston, but we went on to pursue several different career paths. For example, I had been involved in the world music scene with other bands.”
However, when Ross was living in other areas across the country such as New York City, he found people weren’t familiar with the Gullah culture.
“I just saw an opportunity to form this band because I didn’t see a contemporary expression of the Gullah culture that I grew up around in South Carolina,” he said. “In our band, three of our members identify themselves as descendants of Gullah culture and probably even our singer, Quiana, has some Gullah lineage in her bloodline.”
While Ross is not a descendent of the Gullah community, he has a deep appreciation for the culture.
“I’m the only white member of the group,” Ross said, chuckling. “I am more of a disciple of the music, but I definitely feel lucky to have been around this music for my childhood and my young life. Then, to have met these musicians in my late teens, who have been so influential on me as a professional musician, has been incredible. So it’s definitely a part of who I am, too.”
Ross said Ranky Tanky looks forward to the show in Augusta, as well as continuing the band’s extensive tour throughout the country over the next several months.
“I think a big part of our mission is to spread awareness about the Gullah culture and to give people a bit of a starting point to explore it on their own,” he said. “Because there is a lot to uncover and the Gullah culture tells a lot about the story of America and who all of us are as Americans.”
6-11 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7
westoboufestival.com; pass required
When you hear about musical families, you might have a picture in your mind of children growing up playing music alongside their parents or other older relatives.
Although musician AJ Ghent is a third-generation singer-songwriter, he wasn’t really around his musical relatives (who include his father Aubrey Ghent, his grandfather Henry Nelson and his great uncle Willie Eason) when he was young. His parents divorced when he was around age 4 or 5, but the musical talents were still strongly in his blood. Ghent, who grew up near the beach in Fort Pierce, Fla., and now lives in Atlanta, treasures the relationship he now has with his father.
“My great-uncle, of course, inspired my grandfather who inspired my dad, who inspired me. But when it comes down to the actual growing up, no one was around each other,” AJ Ghent said. “My father and grandfather didn’t have that much of a relationship until he was way older, after he started playing. And the same thing with me. I grew up in the church, to a degree. I probably 12 or 13 when I can actually remember hearing my father play. Later on, I was an adult actually here in Atlanta when we actually played together. So it was pretty unique from that perspective, just kind of inheriting something that no one sat down and showed me. That kind of gives me chills sometimes, to hear some of my music and the way I play, and then go back and listen to their music. It’s like wow, we sound so much alike. So that’s the crazy part.”
His grandfather is credited with founding the “Sacred Steel” rhythmic style played by many steel guitarists today, including Robert Randolph, the Lee Boys and the Campbell Brothers. AJ Ghent’s first studio album earlier this year, “The Neo Blues Project,” debuted at No. 7 on the Blues Billboard charts and reached the No. 11 spot on the Top 50 Blues Rock Roots Music Report in February.
He describes his sound as “neo blues” — which is basically a combination of genres from his upbringing.
“Neo blues is a mixture of the sound I heard growing up. So by me having a church influence, having a hip-hop influence, R&B influence as well as a blues influence, there’s no way in the world I could have (had one) genre, with one sound or being kind of like one dimensional,” he said. “And when I was in high school, if you were to hop in the car with me… at that time, of course, CDs were very popular. Not like now. I used to have this big book of CDs, and you would think I was crazy because one minute, you would hear me listening to a gospel song, the next minute, you’d hear me listening to Outkast, and then the next minute I’m listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. So neo blues is just kind of like a big, huge pot of soup with everything you could possibly think of. But yeah, because I’m playing guitar, I’m a slide player, you’re gonna hear a very bluesy experience with it.”
His wife, MarLa, usually plays synth with his band, but she’s due with their first baby any day now (in fact, their son might have been born by the time this article comes out). AJ Ghent’s act for the Westobou appearance will be a stripped-down version, with just him and his guitar, a bass player and a drummer.
At age 32, Ghent falls into the millennial generation, and he shares in the sarcasm of other millennials who often seem to be blamed for all that is wrong in the world. However, he’s just trying to make the world a better place with his music.
“I think there’s a void within music and sound. For me, I’ve always witnessed healing with sound, or some type of blessing within a song. And I think we’ve gotten away from that,” he said. “It’s something, when you kind of find yourself going back to older songs, to get that fix that you need for the day. Or to find yourself saying, ‘I feel better now that I heard such-and-such song from back in the day.’ At least, that’s what I run into a lot. And so, my goal, and hopefully I’m doing it now, is to make the world better from a musical aspect. And be honest with my music, being as raw as possible.
“’The Neo Blues Project,’ I did that with as much honesty as I possibly could. A lot of stuff is one-take vocal, one-take guitar stuff — I didn’t want to fancy it up with everything that may be popular today. I wanted people to be able to feel whatever, the raw and realness that came from it, so that it does something for you that’s positive, amongst all the negativity that’s going on today. You would think it couldn’t get worse. But that’s really one of my biggest dreams and goals, instead of being some rock star or just some guy that everybody’s talking about, I would love to be the person who plays part into a greater Earth. That’s my goal.”
8-9:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct 4