Burn to Shine Atlanta documents 12 bands as they take turns playing an empty, soon-to-be-demolished house. It's a curious setup in so many ways, partly because many of these groups are out of their usual late night urban habitats. Sun spills through the windows as the Black Lips blast through an instrumental breakdown, and their set ends with a closeup shot of the drummer—sweat streaming down his temple, his white T-shirt split down the side—gracefully collapsing against his snare. A small crowd is gathered in what would be the living room if anyone lived in the house, some drinking beers, others holding cameras. After several other bands have played—Delia Gartrell, The Carbonas, The All Night Drug Prowling Wolves—the tattooed members of Mastodon power through some metal dirges to cap off the event. The last five minutes of the film show a Caterpillar crushing the sides of the abandoned house, so filled with electric energy moments before, and bringing it to the ground.
Burn to Shine Atlanta is the sixth in the "Burn to Shine" series by film producers Brendan Canty and Christoph Green. The others have focused on Washington, D.C., Portland, Seattle, Louisville and Chicago, documenting bands from those cities—a mix of big names and no-names—playing shows in doomed houses. All the films capture a particular time in a particular music scene, but Burn to Shine Atlanta is even more of a time capsule than the others: It was filmed in 2007 but only just released last year. It shows bands like Deerhunter and The Coathangers in their infancy, before they became familiar names in the indie rock catalog.
"That was the Coathangers' first show," Canty says. "A lot of these bands, they are in their 30s and 40s and have kids now. Back then there was a community—it was a great time for music in Atlanta. And there's still a music community, but it's different now."
Canty is the former drummer for Fugazi, a post-punk band that never exploded in the mainstream but has always had cachet in the underground music world. They played Missoula in the early 1990s at the Moose Lodge and have continued to be a foundation for veteran and burgeoning music geeks. (Canty has family in Missoula, including author and University of Montana professor Kevin Canty, and he says his sister has a tape of the show somewhere.) The first Burn to Shine, filmed in Canty's D.C. hometown, featured acts like Bob Mould and Weird War. The idea for the series came out of Canty's yearning to reconnect with being part of a music community.
"The primary concept behind the series was to celebrate or bear witness to the temporal nature of groups and gatherings—and our world, basically," he says. "It was at a time when Fugazi had only not been playing for a couple of years and there was a big part of my life that was missing. I started feeling kind of sentimental about gatherings of people and human interactions and bands and how fleeting those things are. Fugazi was the longest band I was in, but I had plenty of others I was passionate about that fell apart within a couple of years. And that's really most bands' stories: They come out with a flaming sword of righteousness and then fall into squabbles."
Each Burn to Shine is filmed in a day, during which the participants and filmmakers share food and drinks as each band plays. The filmmakers set up at dawn and bands play every hour on the hour, often starting around 8:30 a.m. and ending after 8 p.m. "Then we eventually come back and [capture] the destruction and then put it together like a time capsule and send it out into the world," Canty says.
Burn to Shine is about music and time, but it's also about threatened spaces and neighborhoods. The houses being demolished in each city are usually making way for high-end condominiums with retail space at the bottom. The Atlanta film, for instance, came about because Atlanta filmmaker and musician Lee Tesche, a fan of the series, contacted Canty and Green about documenting the changes happening in his community.
"He had a house," Canty says. "And this happened a lot of times where somebody would find a house and know about the series and give us a call. Lee ended up being the guitar player in Algiers and moving to London, but back then he was a filmmaker who was into music and who noticed that the spaces bands were using to practice and play shows in and live in were all threatened by gentrification."
The lag time between filming and finishing the Atlanta doc represents changes in the modern world, too. Previously, the series was being released on Touch and Go Records, usually to be sold at record shops. But the death rattle of the DVD market forced the label to discontinue its distribution, so Burn to Shine Atlanta sat unedited, gathering dust until a few years ago.
"Christoph pulled it off the shelf and started putting it together," Canty says. "And I got a couple of friends to do the music for the ending—the destruction scene. We decided to show it up the East Coast and put it out for charity, so the money goes to homeless youth in Atlanta."
The destruction scene is key to every Burn to Shine movie. It's a final lonely moment—like a bar's last call, but permanent. There's been only one instance when the destruction didn't happen. During the filming of Seattle's Burn to Shine, a guy walking by saw Eddie Vedder performing through the living room window and took an interest in the house. "He ended up buying it and moving it on the back of a truck to another location," Canty says. "So it wasn't quite the big cathartic payoff as the rest of them. As much as I hate that the houses are being demolished there's something intrinsically wonderful about seeing a house get demolished or burned to the ground."
Over the years, Canty and Green's production company, Trixie Film, has made music documentaries for Wilco, Pearl Jam and the Decemberists, and Canty does live music scoring and television work. But Burn to Shine remains close to Canty's heart and there are already plans for more filming of the series in cities across the country—though perhaps none of them will quite have the temporal oddness of Burn to Shine Atlanta.
"I personally like making them and then having them sit on the shelf for 10 years and then bringing them back," says Canty, laughing. "I think that's super weird and I love it—an actual time capsule! But I don't think I can get anybody else to agree to do that."
The Big Sky Film series presents Burn to Shine Atlanta at the Silver Theatre Wed., Nov. 2, at 8 PM. Free.