Mark Kano will begin saying goodbye to Athenaeum on Saturday night.
He'll climb onstage at Amos' Southend in Charlotte, sing "What I Didn't Know" one more time and then do it all over again later this month at Ziggy's with two of his best friends and former bandmates, Nic Brown and Alex McKinney, beside him.Then that's it. Sure, in the style of Bus Stop and Dillon Fence, we'll all see an Athenaeum reunion show here and there. But don't expect one of North Carolina's most successful bands of the past decade to continue plugging away. Kano is done, ready to move on to another chapter in his life: solo artist, record producer, small-business owner and father.
"I was holding onto Athenaeum for a number of reasons,' says Kano, who will turn 31 on Jan. 2. "I'm a Capricorn, I'm extremely stubborn, and I wasn't willing to let go because I thought music was what I was meant to do. Then I got married and found something that was more important.'
Hang with Kano inside his four-bedroom house in Greensboro's Kirkwood neighborhood, and it's easy to see what he's talking about. Emery, his 1-year-old son, toddles across the floor, and Noah, who's 4, plops on the couch after preschool and asks, "Daddy, can I have an ice cream sandwich?'
Yet, as Noah throws out his sing-song request, I can't help but remember Kano's old life in the limelight.
In the post-Hootie era when Southern power pop grabbed the nation's ear, Athenaeum became the first local artist Atlantic Records had signed since High Point's own John Coltrane. The band's major-label debut, "Radiance," a recording that Billboard called one of the best releases of 1998, sold 100,000 copies nationwide, and its song "What I Didn't Know" reached No. 9 on modern-rock radio.
I had a front-row seat for that major-label madness. During the summer of 1998, I spent a week on the road with the band, traveling 1,500 miles through three states in the band's 15-passenger van. I watched it pack clubs, visit radio stations, sign autographs and function on fast food and a few hours' sleep.
And then there were the groupies, and no band member caused more of an uproar than Kano, a Smith High graduate who reminded fans of actor Lou Diamond Phillips. In my mind's eye, I still can see female fans clustering beneath Kano's microphone, looking up wide-eyed and hanging onto his every word.
But what sticks with me is Kano's rich, whispery baritone and his pop-smart sensibility. When Athenaeum was blowing up big, fans, radio-program directors and Atlantic's own talent scouts told me Kano had this God-given knack of capturing in a few words emotions that cut deep.
Athenaeum's successful rise, though, was short-lived. After the release of the band's excellent sophomore effort, "Athenaeum," Atlantic cut Athenaeum from its roster. It was only a few months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Atlantic did the same thing to Tori Amos, Rod Stewart and a host of other artists. But for me, Athenaeum became the real symbol of what's wrong with the major-label record industry. No support. No long-term commitment. Just throw it out there and see what happens.
Depressing? Not to Kano.
"I don't regret it, and I'd do it all over again," Kano says. "We were able to pursue our dreams despite the pitfalls of the music industry.'
After the Atlantic years, Kano always said no when bands approached him about producing them. He said his head wasn't in the right place. Then came Lookingback, a band in which his brother-in-law plays guitar. This time, Kano said yes.
Earlier this year, Lookingback took first place in a Battle of the Bands competition in Raleigh, a prize that earned the band a trip to New York City to play for representatives from various major labels. When Lookingback goes, it will bring along a four-song EP Kano produced at Athenaeum's old musical playground, Overdub Lane Recording in Durham.
Listen to it and you notice Kano's musical touch right away. But hear that Kano worked with Lookingback for months in a basement two blocks from Athenaeum's old rehearsal spot - Brown's attic in Greensboro's Irving Park neighborhood - and it's a little spooky.
"It felt a little strange at first,' Kano says, laughing. "But it really was a good experience because it helped me remember the freshness of being in a band. It helped me remember how I felt.'
Now, Kano runs his own landscaping business, called Grass Roots, and plays weekends with MG4, a band fronted by his good friend Mike Garrigan. But I don't expect him to remain a sideman forever. You see, inside his bedroom, beside his mixer and three guitars is a stack of four notebooks filled with song titles and lyrics.
So, it seems Kano's musical career is far from over. Or maybe it has just begun.