Walk the roads my forefathers walked
Climb the trees my forefathers hung from
Ask those trees for all their wisdom
They tell me my ears are so young
~ Speech Thomas,”Tennessee”
Singer-songwriter Todd “Speech” Thomas wrote the lyrics to “Tennessee” more than 20 years ago as a member of the alternative hip-hop group Arrested Development. The song, from the album titled 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of . . . , was inspired by the passing of Thomas’ grandmother and brother in the course of one week. The song went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 1993.
Given that bittersweet backstory, there is a poignant symmetry to the fact that fans will get to hear Arrested Development sing “Tennessee” at Oakland Cemetery this weekend when they headline the sixth annual Tunes From the Tombs.
For a band that has toured worldwide for some 25 years and recently released their seventh and eighth albums (Changing the Narrative and This Was Never Home), firsts are few and far between these days. But the chance to perform live in a cemetery? Well, that was an unprecedented opportunity. The band’s reaction to the invitation, says Thomas in a phone interview from Vagabond Records, could be summed up in four words: Yo . . . I’m totally down!
“We’re expecting Tunes From the Tombs to be off the hinges and fun because from what I’ve heard, music lovers come to have a great time. We love that type of crowd because we give a high-energy show and we love real music. We will do our hits, classics, entire catalog and new releases [including the single I Don’t See You at the Club, the video of which was filmed in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood]. This will probably be our most fun Atlanta show in years.”
The event will benefit Historic Oakland Cemetery’s mission to preserve, restore, enhance and share the 48-acre property with a wider demographic. A minimum of 3,500 visitors are expected attend this year’s festival — which will include food trucks, a beer garden, an artist market at Lion Square featuring the works of local creatives, and 30-minute mini-tours tours of Atlanta’s oldest landmark in continuous use.
Apart from its unorthodox venue, Tunes From the Tombs is also unlike most other outdoor concerts in that visitors never trash the grounds, no matter how raucous the party.
“There is a feeling of reverence that comes across people when they walk through our gates,” says Mary Woodlan, director of Volunteers and Special Events at Historic Oakland Foundation. “Our visitors have a good time, enjoy the music, have a glass of wine or a beer. But when they leave it’s amazing — there’s hardly any trash.”
Woodlan credits Pete Knapp, a music promoter, with the successful launch and popularity of the event. As a Cabbagetown neighbor, Knapp frequented the park before offering to help produce a music event seven years ago. If he had any reservations about how Oakland’s permanent residents might respond, his fears were allayed when word got back to him that Valerie Jackson, the widow of Mayor Maynard Jackson, who is buried at Oakland, was asked what she thought of Tunes From the Tombs and responded, “Well . . . Maynard always did love a party!”
No doubt, Mayor Jackson would have loved this year’s all-local lineup with over a dozen bands.
“Traditionally,” says Pam Henman, Oakland’s marketing and public relations manager, “the headliners have been rock musicians, but I thought it would be cool to shine a light on other aspects of Atlanta’s robust music scene.” Old-school hip-hop acts like Arrested Development fit into the pattern of highlighting bands that are nostalgic and relevant, while new-schoolers like HeaveN Beatbox were added to attract fans in search of the next big thing. HeaveN’s mash-up of freestyle and rehearsed beats is one hundred percent vocal and will be tailor-made for Oakland. “A lot of my work is in the moment,” he says, “which a lot of people don’t realize. I’ll improv my show in that moment to relate to the crowd that’s in front of me.”
Two main stages, emceed by 97.1 The River’s Steve Craig and English Nick and Universal Entertainment’s Rob Crowe, will feature singer-guitarist Rod Hamdallah, while cover bands The Return (The Beatles); The Dirty Doors (The Doors) and The B-53’s (The B-52’s) will rock the house with classic party hits from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
After raising the roof with her drum solos at last year’s Tunes From the Tombs, Sarah Wilson, who claims the “electric” vibe at Oakland enhances her performance, may just raise the dead when she returns for a command performance this year. As recognizable for her ripped arms as she is for shredding on her drum kit, Wilson is a former gymnast who experienced an epiphany the first time she heard Nirvana as a 12-year-old. “I just connected with ’90s rock and roll almost overnight. I loved what Dave Grohl was doing on [the single] In Bloom, and was like ‘That’s exactly what I want to do… I want to play like that!’”
Playing with abandon, whether onstage or off, is the whole point of Tunes From the Tombs, says Knapp. “I think events like these . . . that are not solemn, but open and celebrate life make people feel more comfortable about being in a cemetery. Oakland is so beautiful. It’s a respite and oasis from the rest of the world. It doesn’t feel like a place of death to me. It feels more like a celebration of life.”
Tunes From the Tombs will take place this Saturday, June 18, from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Advance ticketing is strongly recommended. View the full band performance schedule here.