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An Outsider Looks in on a Landmark

By Ryan Lutz | Photos By Andrew Tucker Davis and Photo Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library / University of Georgia Libraries.

What more can be said about the 40 Watt Club than has already been said? When your print media coverage ranges from USA Today to Travel + Leisure to Rolling Stone and is consistently complimentary — with words including “innovative,” “cool,” “iconic,” “famous,” “legendary” — when numerous online lists and reviews of the “top small music venues” regularly include you; and when your cozy 18-by-22-foot stage attracts some of the biggest musical acts from nearly every genre, it is safe to say that your name has a home in the cultural consciousness, or, in modern parlance, that you “have arrived.” What more, indeed, can be said about the 40 Watt Club?

Let me take a step back and explain, or disclaim, before I go any further. I am not from Athens, I have not been to the city very often, and I am not in any meaningful way a Bulldog fan. I offer this admission not to offend, but only to show that no regional bias is at work here. I have no dog in the fight. No one can say that I am “a kinsman to Athens” and that, therefore, “affection makes [me] false.” Don’t misread that: I love this college town, its curious blend of svelte sophistication and alt-hipness with the staid grandeur of columned homes and university façades. But my affection for the town is balanced by the objectivity that comes of my being a stranger to it.

And so, if anything more can be said of the 40 Watt (devotees abbreviate its name), maybe the newbie can say it, because he sees for the first time. That may be what readers who have never visited the club want: the wonder of a first encounter. For readers who are familiar with 40 Watt, however, I am pleased to also offer the insight of close friends whose experience with it goes far beyond mine and reflects both the patron’s and the performer’s point of view. Because of that fact, they’ll have the last word, at least in this story. But first, my impression.

Did You Hear About This One?

When I accepted this assignment, I had never heard of the 40 Watt. Now that I’ve researched the place, that fact amazes me probably more than it does you. It didn’t seem possible that as a music-drugged high schooler in the mid-’80s, the decade that brought all kinds of music not just to our ears but, thanks to MTV, to our eyes, I had not heard of the place responsible for introducing bands such as The B-52s and R.E.M., and for putting the latter on a trajectory to intergalactic fame, perhaps even relevance. Really, I ought to have heard of the 40 Watt, but I simply wasn’t listening. Whatever the reason, aesthetic narrow-mindedness or cultural ignorance, I considered Athens and its bands and clubs a glowing party light, not a lighthouse.

I was forced to hear in 1987, when Rolling Stone hailed R.E.M. on its December cover as “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band.” And now, over 30 years later, with a chance to write about this historic club, and after a three-week immersion into music I once snubbed, I’ve had something akin to a burning bush moment. I guess you could say I’ve been drawn across three decades to a (40 Watt?) light. All right, then. I’ll go check it out.

'Moses Went Walking'

Since I thought my son Jonathan, a college freshman, would enjoy a visit to Athens, I collected him from Milledgeville one Saturday and headed north on 441. An hour-and-a-half later, I saw his eyes twinkle a bit as we passed all the shiny, happy Greek houses on Milledge Avenue — a promised land of one sort, I suppose.

As we walked down Pulaski Street toward its intersection with Washington Street, where the 40 Watt is nestled, I noticed that the club does not have an imposing exterior. Its marquee doesn’t brag; it advertises what acts are soon to perform and when. I expected it to be more flamboyant, forgetting that understatement is the mien of the underground. We got our hands stamped and then entered the historic space.

Unable to suppress the knowledge of its legacy, I didn’t know what to expect, but what first struck me was the openness, the lighting and the bar. An eclectic assortment of seating and a few pub tables dot the periphery; bead chains and glittered star cutouts dangle overhead; and a host of dimly lit string lights festoon the space in drooping lines that link to a disco ball hanging in the center. Nearly all these lights are exposed candescent bulbs with no shades. I grinned. “Of course,” I thought. I should’ve expected at least that; even the club’s logo includes an image of a bulb. The long bar stands to the right, unhampered by barstools, and is supplied with a full and diverse arsenal of liquid courage. Above the backsplash on three ledges spanning the length of the bar rest no fewer than 50 framed autographed prints of various artists who have graced the venue. It is not a comprehensive gallery, but it certainly testifies to the wide variety of musical genres the club makes available: Beneath Yo La Tengo’s image lay one of Quiet Riot. Jonathan and I had arrived several minutes before the show, so we drifted to the stage-end of the bar and propped ourselves there, facing the interior, and gazed about. The message these details gave me was this: “We value big crowds, so you’ll likely have to stand, but if you get thirsty, we’re happy to help you out with that.”

We had come on a simple mission — to see the 40 Watt in action. That night, the action was the third annual Athens-area high school Battle of the Bands: Six would be competing for the audience’s votes. All that need be said here about this event — not typical 40 Watt fare — is that the club clearly doesn’t stand on the dignity of its reputation, denying young bands a chance to do what they enjoy and perhaps “get noticed” by some important wig. Rather than thumbing its nose at neophyte rockers, the club invites them in. That registers with me. It suggests that the management’s vision of the club goes beyond providing entertainment to promoting — really, nurturing — future entertainers, maybe the next Vic Chesnutt or Widespread Panic. Another R.E.M. — who can say? But I don’t deny the possibility, and, what’s more, neither does the 40 Watt, one reason why you may one day see Cheese Dream, Fishbug or A.D. Blanco (the winner that night) on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Hey Baby, Are You Having Fun?

My impression must end there. I now turn to my close friends to build on it to provide a better grasp of the aura and significance of this Athens landmark.

Before John W. Phelan began working as a financial adviser in the early 1990s, he played the drums in a band from Augusta called The Wombats, which brought him to Athens frequently.

“Although The Wombats played in Athens regularly from around 1988 to 1990 — at the Georgia Theatre, Rockfish Palace and Club Fred — we never got around to playing at the 40 Watt, which is disappointing. In my mind, see, the 40 Watt is still the cornerstone of the Athens music scene because of its legacy as the stage for bands that [would] permanently [leave] their mark on music history.”

If history teaches us anything, however, surely it is that it pivots like a door, closing on some while opening for others. The beauty of John’s closed door is that, 31 years later, it swung open for his son, Jack.

“It was especially exciting to go see Jack’s band, Live Oak, headline there in 2019,” he said. But rather than go on sentimentally about that cherished moment, John lauded the merits of the 40 Watt: “The sound system, the lighting and the atmosphere were perfect. The mood is still electric, rough around the edges, and legendary. The 40 Watt is still going strong 35-plus years later for the next generation.”

My conversation with Jack, a junior finance major at UGA, reflected the same high regard for the club.

“Before I even visited UGA, my dad would say that you were the ‘real deal’ if you played somewhere like the 40 Watt,” he said. His band, Live Oak, has had that opportunity twice, playing with bands such as Family Recipe, Honeymoon Handshake, Divine Mind and NSA. Jack recalled the second gig with special admiration.

“What really made the experience so enjoyable is knowing how good we sounded with the help of the 40 Watt’s sound techs. They were very easygoing and knew what they were doing. I mentioned to one of them that my dad had come to Athens to play several gigs, one with The Producers at the Georgia Theatre. You could tell he appreciated [the fact]. So, it was a big deal to us that we landed a gig there. They love to empower the local music scene, which makes Athens so special for young bands.”

Here's A Little Ghost

The last word goes to a good friend who is in his third year at Terry College of Business. He wanted to remain unnamed, so for ease of reference, and because he plays guitar, I’ll dub him “Marty,” after the character in Back to the Future.

Marty expanded on Jack’s idea of empowering the local music scene by explaining an important piece in that endeavor — UGA’s Music Business program. In short, it is designed to prepare its students to work in various sectors of the music industry. The program is linked to the 40 Watt in a couple ways: one, it requires students to participate in internships, which many students find in Athens, thanks in part to clubs like the 40 Watt; and two, lecturer David Lowery, founding member of both Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, married Velena Vego, longtime booking agent for the 40 Watt and manager of Lowery’s two bands.

All this is publicly available information, but I credit Marty for mentioning this behind-the-music-scene involvement of this department of Terry College, and for opining about its significance: “All the big bands from Athens succeeded because a tight network of local musicians helped them get to where they are. It is my impression that as the university grows, so does the music scene.” Then, almost conspiratorially, Marty went on to say, “The real connection between the 40 Watt and Terry revolves around the Music Business department head, David Barbe.”

It was clear that Marty spoke from a place of genuine pride, involved as he is in both Terry College and the music scene. It so happens that Barbe was one of the three judges at Battle of the Bands; I found his constructive feedback to the young musicians articulate and sincere. If you doubt the scope of Barbe’s influence, simply type ‘David Barbe Terry College’ in your search bar and you’ll doubt no more.

Let's Play...Let's Play

As proud as he is to be associated with those who labor off-stage on behalf of “Athens music,” Marty’s greatest joy became evident when talking about playing on stage, particularly at the 40 Watt.

“I have played nearly every venue in the immediate downtown area, and the 40 Watt is by far my favorite. I have played on stage [there] eight different times — four with my main band and four with various side projects. The staff there are always welcoming, and their sound guys are top-notch. Its intimate setting allows the performer to look out in the audience and see who is paying attention, which can encourage crowd-to-band banter.”

But can’t you get this sort of thing at other venues, too? Or is the 40 Watt distinct in this regard?

“Yes, you can get the same ambience at a number of different places in town,” he said. “What makes the 40 Watt superior, in my opinion, is that once you walk through the front door, you are there. Meaning, the 40 Watt is only one room, which gives you zero spots to escape the music. You don’t even have to leave the music to get a drink! Besides, the Watt has the best green room in town.”

In other words, if the 40 Watt Club doesn’t sound rock ’n’ roll legit, “then nothing is cool.”