Stratocats

CONYERS — The Conyers-based Stratocats are a musical fixture at the annual Lemon Bee Festival in Olde Town, as founding member Brent Burch estimates the band has played at least “four or five” of the gatherings.

And the fact that the group was established years before many Lemon Bee patrons were even born doesn’t provide a moment’s anxiety for the seasoned Stratocats, who open this year’s festival at 1 p.m. with an 80-minute set of their rock and blues covers.

“We really enjoy it,” Burch said earlier this week. “It’s kind of like a combination picnic and festival — there’s a little bit of everything there.”

The 10th annual Lemon Bee Festival is set for 1 to 11 p.m. on Saturday, June 4 at the Olde Town Pavilion. As has been the case in the past, a portion of the proceeds from the $10 admission is directed to the Kimberley Chance Atkins Foundation, which raises awareness about education and early detection of breast cancer.

Burch — who plays lead guitar and sings — joined with drummer Keith Kiser in 1987 in nearby Lithonia to form the Stratocats (so called because of their use of the venerable Fender Stratocaster guitar as their instrument of choice) and they’ve been going at it ever since, although there have been other personnel changes through the years.

Burch and Kiser are abetted by bassist Vernon Gibson, who’s been on board since 1989, and the “newcomer” of the group, Sam Deal, who joined up in 2009.

The group has played throughout the Southeast in nearly every imaginable venue (including weddings, reunions and birthday parties, as well as clubs, coffee shops and colleges) and can often be found in Olde Town at the Celtic Tavern, either as a quartet or as an acoustic duo featuring Burch and Deal.

Perhaps the most interesting locale in Stratocat lore concerns a house and barn located on White Road, where an early incarnation of the band rehearsed and recorded its first demo. After the Stratocats cleared out of the house (which was rented by the parents of the band’s manager at the time), Nancy Fowler moved in and was well known throughout the world for the many “visions” of the Virgin Mary she had in the 1980s and 1990s, drawing thousands of “pilgrims” to Rockdale County each month.

“She saw the visions in the living room where we recorded our demo,” Burch said. “We used to joke that the Virgin Mary would come back and say, ‘Where are the Stratocats?’”

Burch said when the group began, the focus was on Led Zeppelin and other artists of their ilk, but the band’s sound has evolved through the years to include rock, blues and even some country, as he mentioned the Stratocats also have Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard tunes in their repertoire.

A guitarist for more than four decades, Burch said he had a revelation while in high school when he saw blues-and-boogie legend John Lee Hooker perform in an Atlanta nightclub.

“That was when I really got into the blues — B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King and Muddy Waters. I love Muddy Waters,” he said. “And I remember in the early 80s going to see the Gregg Allman Band and we made fun of the opening act because we thought the name of his band was silly. The guy was Stevie Ray Vaughan and the band was Double Trouble. And let me tell you, Stevie Ray took my head off! I never made fun of them again.”

The Stratocats have about 100 songs they can pull from (including a handful of original tunes), so band members can easily customize their set for the occasion. Burch said they’ll play mostly up-tempo tunes at Lemon Bee, since they’re on early in the day.

“We haven’t really worked up a setlist yet,” Burch joked. “We’ll definitely try to keep it upbeat with some fast, rocking songs. I guess we’ll play about 15 songs, so we plan to keep it lively.”

Burch added he’s happy to play earlier in the day at the 10-hour festival, and there have been times the Stratocats have packed up their gear and headed to another engagement on the same day, but this year Burch said he wants to spend more time in the Pavilion after their set is completed.

“I want to hang out and watch some of the other bands,” he said.

Besides the Stratocats, other musical acts on the bill include Paul Grier (2:20-2:35 p.m.), Vinyl Refuge (2:35-3:45 p.m.), Zach Best (3:45-4 p.m.), Kyle Browning (4-4:15 p.m.), Funky Bluester (4:20-5:40 p.m.), Jesse Charette (5:45-6 p.m.), Complete Unknown (6-7 p.m.), Jerod Gay (7-7:15 p.m.), The Almost Brothers (7:30-8:45 p.m.), Jeff Taylor (8:45-9 p.m.) and Brother Hawk (9-close).

There will also be a host of vendors onsite at the festival.

For more information, find the Lemon Bee on Facebook.

Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens. To contact him, email cstarrs90@charter.net.

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