ATHENS — Nearly five years after a devastating fire, The Union Bar & Grill has re-established itself as one of Athens’ premier music venues.
Kaylen Spears, who’s known as Marcellus Doe, is an Athens DJ who performs frequently at The Union during its series of monthly events. He attributes the bar’s high status within the local music scene to its layout and renowned sound system.
“It’s the best venue in town,” said Spears. “There’s pool, a patio and two floors. But the most important thing is the PA system and lights, which makes it more like a club …”
Brandon Thompson, also known as DJ B-Funk, is considered an Athens legend. His peers recognize his contributions since first adopting his moniker and performing in 1997 after graduating from Ohio University. Thompson’s legacy originated from his start at venues like The Union, where he developed some of the scene’s most popular events.
Between performing roughly eight times a semester, Thompson now works to help up-and-coming DJs in Athens. He also spearheads many of The Union’s events — the most notable ones being his DJ showcases. Through Thompson’s 20-years of experience, he says he’s witnessed the growth of the music scene and the city’s newly established events.
“With the DJs, we’ve always been able to do that because we’re interested in that,” said Thompson. “There’s always an audience for music, it’s just about finding those people and getting them connected. That’s what’s allowed many of the venues to transform. There’s a lot of shows happening and I think a lot of that is just the audience of Athens changing over the years.”
Thompson attributes The Union’s success to its grasp on rock ‘n’ roll, considering Athens is heavily influenced by the genre. Though DJs make up some of the venue’s popularity, he feels it’s mainly carried by locals’ admiration for punk and rock music.
Still, The Union’s efforts to consider diverse sources of entertainment from local musicians and on-campus student organizations has also resulted in its place in the Athens music scene.
“The Union’s really open to whatever you want to do,” said Thompson. “That’s kind of been the place because there’s a second bar downstairs, whereas (at) a lot of venues, it’s blended together. The Union can have different identities on the same night. I think that’s kind of been the success and why so many different groups want to use that space.
“These venues have their goals, which is to keep the doors open,” Thompson added. “They want people spending money, so by them being open to different groups and trying new things, it allows their venue to be vibrant.”
Spears thinks venues like The Union should place local DJs at the center of their events.
“Host more events. Not just bands, but let some DJs come in regularly for a club night of some sort,” said Spears. “Not only that, but then we can promote other cultural events like Latin night.”
Spears and Thompson both acknowledge The Union’s efforts to provide varying sources of entertainment. The bar’s series of events caters to supporters of EDM, rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop and punk genres, which has helped build its large following.
The Union’s popularity is beneficial for aspiring acts and, as long as the place serves as an open forum for performers’ creativity, Thompson says, it will continue to flourish and remain the heart of Athens music.
“As long as the venues are open to trying new things and also, primarily students, realize they can do these parties they just need to organize and do them,” he said. “I was 27-28 when I first started doing shows myself. I want to connect and help people with that. People have ideas and think it’s beyond them and it’s not.”