After 33 years, iconic Athens act Pylon releases farewell concert, “Pylon Live”

”The energy is still there,” says Vanessa Briscoe Hay of the recently rediscovered 1983 recording
The album's cover is an unreleased shot of the band from the late 1970s.
Pylon’s new album is a recently rediscovered live recording from 1983.

While the Athens music scene is now considered hallowed ground for indie rock fans across the globe, in the beginning it was the B-52’s, R.E.M., and Pylon, which R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry famously called “the best rock ’n roll band in America.” Yet while the first two acts would go on to score lucrative record deals and tour the world, Pylon released just two albums on the Atlanta indie label DB Recs before disbanding in 1983. (The band later briefly reunited in 1989.)

There was just one souvenir left behind from Pylon’s original era: a live recording of their farewell concert on December 1, 1983, at The Mad Hatter, a now-defunct Athens club. Lost for decades, the recording was recently rediscovered by Pylon fan and record producer Henry Owings, who, with the band’s blessing, worked to transfer the masters to vinyl.

“We came out of the box almost from the start that night,” says Pylon vocalist Vanessa Briscoe Hay of the recording. “By the third song (“No Clocks” from the band’s second album Chomp) we had really hit our stride. We were playing fast but we kept the groove.” Hay pauses for a moment and then, smiling, adds: “And Randy’s guitar sounds absolutely awesome. He was definitely the star of the show.”

The July 25 release of Pylon Live (as a double LP on vinyl and digital download) and the accompanying mini resurgence of the Athens act is a way for Hay, bassist Michael Lachowski, and drummer Curtis Crowe to honor their friend and late Pylon guitarist Randy Bewley. In 2009, Bewley suffered a heart attack behind the wheel of a car and later died at Athens Regional Medical Center, the same hospital where Hay worked for 21 years as a nurse. Bewley would have turned 61 on July 25.

The members of Pylon
The members of Pylon

Photo by Curtis Knapp

To celebrate the release of Pylon Live, Hay will perform some of her band’s most beloved tracks as the lead vocalist in The Pylon Re-enactment Society, a tribute act featuring a generation of Athens musicians influenced by the band, including Casper and the Cookies members Jason NeSmith and Kay Stanton, the Glands drummer Joe Rowe, and pianist Damon Denton.

Already a well-established guitarist and recording artist in Athens, NeSmith meticulously learned Bewley’s groundbreaking guitar parts. He says it was a way of honoring the band he was first exposed to as a teenager living overseas. “I thought [the Pylon cassette] was a nice memento from home,” he says. “It didn’t hit me right away. But pretty soon I was enchanted. Getting to know the members of Pylon left me with a similar impression. They are all sincere and relatively well-adjusted people, which does not help to explain how they somehow created magic by democracy.”

Pylon Re-enactment Society, the Swimming Pool Q’s and members of the Athens rock act Love Tractor will play on a triple bill July 29 at The Earl in Atlanta and July 30 at The 40 Watt in Athens. Hay says Lachowski and Crowe have standing invitations to play as part of PRS during the shows.

“We have a lot of fun in Pylon Reenactment Society,” says Hay. “I may be the only singer from an original band who also sings in the tribute band version! The musicians in PRS take the music seriously and have retained the spirit of Pylon but they make it their own. It’s not precious.”

Old friend Michael Stipe of R.E.M. has already sent along a rave review of the Pylon Live album, writing “Pylon stands as shockingly modern and unparalleled these many years later.” The band’s 1979 single “Cool” can also currently be heard in the TV commercial for the 2016 Lexus RX luxury automobile.

Vanessa Briscoe Hay is happy to add Pylon Live to the band’s discography. “This is an opportunity to show people who never got a chance to see us live what the experience was like,” says Hay. Listening to pressing of Pylon Live for the first time in 33 years has even prompted some ruefulness, if just for a moment. “It still sounds original. The energy is still there,” she says. “Michael put it best when he said, ‘Why did we break up?’”

Pylon Reenactment Society will play with The Swimming Pool Q’s and We Love Tractor on July 29 at The Earl in East Atlanta and July 30 at The 40 Watt in Athens. The evenings will kick off with video footage from Pylon’s 1983 farewell show at The Mad Hatter. For more info, visit the PRS Facebook page.