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A-Town Get Down soldiers on through unimaginable tragedy

The popular local festival continues in a smaller capacity after organizer’s near-fatal shooting

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It’s easy to forget that the A-Town Get Down Festival is organized by a man who doesn’t even live in Savannah.

The popular event, which brings the community together to support the arts in the name of Alex Townsend—a Savannah transplant who lost his life in 2010 in a car accident—was postponed this year after Townsend’s father and the festival’s leader, Tom Townsend, was the victim of a near-fatal shooting.

Not content to simply cancel the festival, and realizing the important work that A-Town and the Alex Townsend Memorial Foundation does, Townsend and his partners—which include W Projects’ Erin Wessling and Loop It Up Savannah’s Molly Lieberman—decided to forge ahead with a smaller event June 29 at the American Legion Ballroom on Bull Street.

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The mini festival will feature the favorites of A-Town’s prior, including Walter Parks, Missionary Blues, Tom Townsend himself, and an all-star jam session. There will be, of course, live art as well, in addition to a silent auction.

We spoke to Townsend, Wessling, and Lieberman ahead of the Mini A-Town Get Down festival.

For those unaware, explain the origins of the A-Town Get Down Festival.

Townsend: The A-Town Get Down was something we started the year that followed the death of my son, Alex Townsend, whose nickname was A-Town. He was a SCAD student who passed away on Valentine’s Day 2010 in an auto accident on Abercorn. He was a big fan of live music and visual arts. He grew up in St. Louis, where I live, but had really come to love and adopt Savannah.

When we lost him, we wanted to do something in his honor in Savannah that would benefit other people like him. People who needed the arts or looked to the arts for comfort or inspiration.

So we created the A-Town Get Down Art & Music Festival to encourage as many people as possible, especially those who don’t have resources of their own, to get involved in art and music.

Erin, when did you get involved in this?

Wessling: I think it was five years ago; we got involved in the last year of the Charles Morris Center [hosting the event]. Tom and the foundation were looking for more boots on the ground, as far as somebody here that understood and knew the town and could create an annual presence. And who could push the festival itself as far as being more of an entity. There was a phenomenal amount of growth that was taking place as well, so I think it was a really nice, serendipitous time where there was growth and a need for somebody to be here who was aware of the Savannah community.

We were able to come in on it, and it’s been going ever since.

Walter Parks at last year’s edition of A-Town Get Down.
  • Walter Parks at last year’s edition of A-Town Get Down.

Townsend: It’s really hard to produce a festival in a city you don’t live in, and we’re committed to doing this in Savannah even though we don’t live there. So Erin has been our Savannah-based partner and has enabled us to do much more with the A-Town brand.

Let’s talk about this year; for people who don’t know, what was the reason for a smaller-scale event?

Wessling: After Tom’s [shooting], things were kind of left at more of a halt. We did kind of want to rework and rebrand A-Town a little bit. We wanted to restructure in general, but then Tom was involved in that incident. So there was kind of this pause moment, where we didn’t know how to move forward—very unaware about how the healing process was going to go, or really what the future held in general. We wanted to do something, but didn’t know what to do or how to do it.

I think with more clarity in Tom’s recovery and the timeline, and his obvious uncanny, superhuman energy that he has, there was a small group of sponsors and supporters that wanted to put something on. We’re working on nine years of producing the event for the community, and it has become such a community investment. We partner with Loop It Up, and some of their programs are funded through A-Town Foundation in order to produce things for the festival, but that’s a six to nine-month program, so we didn’t want to just leave that as a gap year that they weren’t going to get any funding for something that it was incredibly important.

So quite quickly, we were able to make the decision that it was going to happen. We reached out to a couple different venues, and understood that it was going to be a lot smaller, just because of not only the timeline but the resources and all of that. So we really kind of came together as a community and made quick decisions on what A-Town means to the city.

This event is the all-stars, if you will, of A-Town coming back to do live installations, live music; that sort of immersive experience that A-Town is well known for. And in that sense, it also is the fundraiser because all of the art will be auctioned off. So really, it’s the essence of A-Town being represented.

Tom, how are you doing since the shooting and where are you at in the recovery process?

Townsend: I am probably in the middle, right now, of a series of surgeries that are all about rebuilding my jaw. The bullet went into my chin and went out of my neck, so it kind of took out my jaw. What they’ve been doing is, they took bones from my leg and put that into my jaw to create a new jawbone. Now they’re waiting on that to heal before they can continue shaping that. After that, they’ll put in the implant. I’m otherwise doing really fine. My spirits are really, really good.

Having gone through what you did, at what point did you decide that it was important to continue with the work you’ve done through A-Town? It’s amazing that you’d even feel compelled to keep going after something like that.

Townsend: That’s a really good question; I’m probably still trying to understand that myself a little bit. But what I do know is that when I came out of 12 days of a drug-induced coma, one of my main senses of urgency was to make sure that whatever I had missed was compensated for by getting back in touch as soon as possible. I wanted to get in touch with people and assure them that they could count on me.

When I called Erin to talk about, she had mentioned that Savannahians were still interested in A-Town and that there’d been some donations made as a result of the shooting to A-Town. So I wanted, first and foremost to respond and say, “Whatever we can do, let’s do to thank those people and show them that if they’re willing to continue it this year, I’m willing to do what I can as well.”

Built into that as well was the knowledge that I could only do so much in preparation, but I’m there totally in any way I need to be.

A shot from last year’s A-Town Get Down.
  • A shot from last year’s A-Town Get Down.

Hi, Molly! Tell me about Loop It Up’s role in A-Town.

Lieberman: We’re a youth arts nonprofit, and we work with about 5,000 kids every year throughout the city in different partnerships with schools and community centers. I think we initially got involved with A-Town in the year that Loop It Up got incorporated. Through a series of conversations, we all got to know each other and it seemed like this would be a great partnership in terms of really advancing and making some moves, and making sure that art was really accessible to everybody in Savannah.

In 2016, that was the year that Robert Randolph was headlining the festival. We came up with this project that we would have a second grade class at Brock Elementary in West Savannah create these three six by nine-foot murals that were titled “Why I Love Where I Live.” We used that mural as a backdrop for the performance that year, and it just created this incredible visual cultural experience and tied it all together. For us, that just kind of sealed the deal. What a great way to make sure that as much as possible is being poured into young people and giving them opportunities to be creative in Savannah.

The festival is such an amazing place to showcase the work that they do, but also to bring the kids and families to the festival—they get that exposure to all of the amazing music and art and activities going on. It’s a chance to give kids in Savannah an opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves, their school, and their immediate community. I think that’s kind of the power that art gives all of us; to realize how what we have fits into a bigger picture.

Wessling: I also think it’s great because as far as youth is concerned, it gives them the understanding of a creative economy—that it’s something that can actually be visualized, studied, and turned into a legitimate future. Whereas I think that art and music is, as you grow up and go through elementary school, it’s the side part of what you’re doing. It’s the fun part, but it doesn’t necessarily produce a professional future. I think A-Town, and Loop It Up Savannah, presents a clear understanding that it does turn into something a lot greater.

Lieberman: Absolutely. I think it’s about having young people see that what they do really matters. So whether or not they end up growing up to become artists, they’re able to have these experiences at a young age through the arts. But also they learn that these are real people, and what they do with their life is involved in art or music.

Tom, is there a moment from a past A-Town Get Down that stands out to you in terms of why you do this?

Townsend: I was talking to a kid who was probably in sixth or seventh grade, and he was saying that he came with a friend of his. The friend brought him, and that he was going to be playing music at the festival. For the purpose of the story, let’s call him Charlie. I forget the context—it could have been Savannah Children’s Choir. I’m not sure which it was. But the kid said, “I didn’t know Charlie did anything!” In other words, he was saying, “Charlie’s cool! I didn’t know Charlie was cool until I saw him here.”

To me, what that kind of captures is this notion that whatever your identity is in school tends to be the identity that sticks. And often, we have skills and talents that aren’t obvious to that day-to-day group, and if they were, social confidence would be greater. It took a non-creative person, let’s say, to see that his friend was highly creative and give him credit and say, “Wow, maybe you don’t play sports. Maybe you’re not one of the ‘cool kids.’ But look what you can do! I had no idea.”

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