Out & About

Robert McDuffie and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills a stunning collaboration

Childhood friends Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie collaborated on “Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra.”
Childhood friends Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie collaborated on “Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra.”

Just over two months ago, on a beautiful Thursday evening, I was sitting in the Aspen Music Festival and School’s Benedict Music Tent, feeling as homesick as a person can while surrounded by all the natural wonder and considerably cooler climes that area of the world has to offer.

It was this time and place that gave me the first opportunity to witness Mike Mills’ “Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra,” written for Robert McDuffie. The performance was a thunderously majestic celebration of Georgia, sweeping up the audience in what can best be described as a righteous good noise.

McDuffie’s violin was as sweet and pure as ever, with a thrilling band of Athens rockers by his side, including musicians from Drive-By Truckers (John Neff), Bloodkin (William Tonks) and Music Hates You (Patrick Ferguson). Seeing these names on the program gave my heart a wee skip, as it was like reading a veritable who’s who of Athens musicians from the last few decades. And now we’ll get to see them on a Macon stage in just a under a week.

Being able to see this show before the southeastern tour was an absolute privilege and a pleasure, as is being part of the organization that is responsible for bringing the production to Macon — Bragg Jam. A concerto of any kind is surely outside of Bragg Jam’s usual range of events. But as we’ve expanded in recent years, with events like Second Sunday, Bragg Jam has become a well-rounded, stable entity that can take on a huge event like this world-famous concerto.

And what better way to begin our foray into the classical-rock crossover world than with two of Macon’s most famous sons. Robert McDuffie and Mike Mills have been friends since they were teenagers, but their paths diverged when Mills left for the University of Georgia and McDuffie was accepted into the Julliard School. As the two music careers flourished, they stayed in touch, finally having their professional paths cross with this piece.

When music fans hear this piece of music, they will be transported to any number of Georgia memories: intense guitars at a hot, sweaty Athens club with a lone 40-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling; the sweet sounds of nature in the expansive, thriving Southern swampland; moss-covered trees lining dusty back roads. As an extra treat, the heart-breakingly beautiful “Nightswimming” is included in the concerto, with Mills’ piano and McDuffie’s violin entwined in a moving duet, while the string orchestra swells from behind.

It’s been a long road that has taken them literally around the world several times, but, as the last piece in this concerto tells us, “You Can Go Home Again.”

Welcome home, gentlemen.

Leila Regan-Porter is the administrative assistant at the Otis Redding Foundation, the marketing co-chair for Bragg Jam and president of the Main Street Macon board. Follow her on Twitter @theleila.com or email her at leila@theleila.com.