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Power pop the focus of three-day music festival Pop Fest

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Last year, local musician James Deem, with some help from fellow musician Ed James, organized a two-day event called Pop Fest. It was held at the Alley Cat with moderate interest and performances by roughly 25 bands — regional and local.

On Sept. 24-26, Pop Fest 2009 will be held and to say things have changed would be an understatement. While local and regional bands will still be a part of the event, a number of bigger national bands have been added into the mix. Instead of two days, it will go on for three. And instead of a small downtown club, it's going to be held at the Dana Auditorium on the campus of Queens University. It's quite a step up in a short amount of time.

Sitting down with Deem for a chat about the festival, he's surprisingly calm and collected. There are no signs of stress or worry. He says ticket sales are steady and if they ended at that time, he'd probably break even. Of course, with a charity on the line, he's hoping that interest only grows at this point.

"I chose the Richard Dawkins Foundation," he says. "He's probably the world's most famous evolutionary biologist. This year, 2009, is the year of science and it's the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and 150th anniversary of his book, so I wanted to do something science-related. He's also coming to speak at Queens a couple weeks after the Fest."

The first big name that Deem was able to book for the event was The Posies. "I didn't want to do the same thing as last year ... I wanted to take it to the next level," he says. "I reached out to Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies first to see if they were interested, and they were. They were the first big one I booked."

Deem had a song on a Posies tribute album, and thinks the band was familiar with him because of that. The two had also "friend requested" him on Facebook, so he sent an e-mail to gauge interest. Once they were on board, Deem used it as a stepping stone to try and recruit other bands that he is a fan of -- The Smithereens and Jill Sobule among them.

While the event was originally slated to be held at the Epicentre this year, it was moved to Dana Auditorium after the potential for weather concerns were raised. "It was my understanding they'd have cover if there was inclement weather -- it said it on their Web site," Deem says. "They said they'd have cover if it was a smaller event, but when I am bringing in acts from California, I can't afford to not have an alternative if bad weather happens. Having it on a college campus is nice -- you get a bit of a built-in audience."

The event will start at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and at 8 p.m. on Saturday. The entertainment during the day on Saturday will be held for free at Festival at the Park before moving to Dana Auditorium in the evening.

While most bands will play for roughly 45 minutes, some acts will play for longer. The Posies will play for an hour-and-a-half to two hours on Thursday, The Spongetones will headline Friday, The Smithereens will headline for roughly two hours on Saturday. Monetarily, Deem says a lot of the bands gave him good rates because of the charity involved.

"I got a lot of national names, but also a lot of indie acts that I'm happy are coming to Charlotte because they're really good," Deem says. "I had about 25 bands last year, but this year I'm going to have around 35. I wanted to have quality and quantity. Last year, I had an acoustic performer between acts, but this year it's going to be a lot more free with the timing."

Some of the other local bands performing include The Stellas, Crisis, gogoPilot, Transmission Fields, Chris Church, Chris English and, of course, Deem and James. Other groups such as The Vinyl Strangers and Chris McKay from Athens played last year and will play again this year.

For promotion, Deem has done regular podcasts featuring some of the acts that are performing and has also put together a compilation CD that is given with every advance ticket purchase. "The CD is just a nice way to give somebody exposure and there are some exclusive tracks on there," Deem says. "One of the exclusive tracks is from The Smithereens, so that's cool."

Deem, a resident of Charlotte for around 15 years, says organizing the event for both years, which he has mostly done on his own, has gone relatively smoothly. He started to work on this year's in the late spring. There were a few bumps this year with the change of venue and when one of the original headliners The Knack had to drop out for health reasons.

"This has gone beyond what I ever thought it would be," Deem says. "I don't think this could get any better for me, personally. This is like taking my personal playlist and putting it in concert form. I didn't book an act if I didn't like their music. The only way I could see it getting better is if someone like Cheap Trick would get involved.

"I want to raise awareness for the music and artists and also raise money for the charity and awareness for science. If it wasn't for those two things ... maybe next year it will be different. The day after I might say I'll never do it again, but right now, I have bigger things to worry about."

Charlotte Pop Fest will take place on Sept. 24-26 at Dana Auditorium at Queens University. Tickets are $25-100 and benefit the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. For more information, go to www.CharlottePopFest.com.

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