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From Boston to Dylan: 10 nights, 500 top songs

Over 10 nights in Atlanta this week, 500 bands and solo artists — representing genres from rock to rap to bluegrass — will perform, in order, each of the 500 greatest songs of all time, as ranked by Rolling Stone magazine three years ago.
/ Source: The Associated Press

You could call it the world’s biggest open mic night.

Except the one going on in Atlanta this week will last a total of 10 nights. When it’s all over, 500 bands and solo artists — representing genres from rock to rap to bluegrass — will have performed, in order, each of the 500 greatest songs of all time, as ranked by Rolling Stone magazine three years ago.

It’s a songfest aimed at raising money for camps serving children with special needs.

More than 1,500 performers are expected to file on and off of the single stage at Smith’s Olde Bar by the time they’ve worked their way from No. 500, “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, to No. 1, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

The massive undertaking is the brainchild of Josh Rifkind, a music promoter and manager whose nonprofit group, Songs for Kids, hooks up children’s camps with artists and musicians willing to come perform at those camps. Rifkind said he’d like to raise at least $20,000 for the charities after paying off a few thousand dollars in expenses. After four nights, the shows had brought in about $8,000, he said.

Organizing that many performers, that many songs, over that many nights at the small Atlanta venue has been “a logistical monster,” according to Rifkind. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love doing huge projects that bring people together — love it,” said Rifkind, 34, who organizes an annual open-mic competition in which more than 400 acts compete. “The difficulty is incredibly exciting to me. If it’s not a challenge, it just doesn’t feel very interesting.”

Odd musical pairingsThe random nature of the format’s transitions make for some odd musical pairings. Tuesday night’s lineup dictates that the low growl of the Muddy Waters blues classic “Mannish Boy” — No. 229 on the Rolling Stone list — will be followed by a take on the frenetic punk rock of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”

Next? The ultra-mellow, introspective “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor.

Rifkind, who manages a handful of rock acts, said he came up with the idea for the event about a year-and-a-half ago and has been working almost nonstop to organize it for the past five months.

He is drawing heavily on contacts in the local music scenes of Atlanta and nearby Athens to fill out the event’s extensive roster. Scheduled performers include Grammy-winning jazz guitarist Earl Klugh, singer Dionne Farris of “I Know” fame, and members of the rock group Collective Soul.

“It’s just going to be the most eclectic, wacky group of people ever,” Rifkind said.

He’s intentionally keeping the lineup for each night a secret, hoping fans will show up on multiple nights.

Thrilled to perform
Friday evening, Slick and Rose, an Atlanta female hip-hop/soul duo, fired up a crowd of about 200 people with their funky take on Salt-N-Pepa’s ’80s hit “Push It” — No. 440 on the list. The pair said they were thrilled when Rifkind, whom they had never met, e-mailed them and asked if they’d perform the song.

Rose said that knowing the show was benefiting children made the group’s hectic rush on and off stage worthwhile.

“We’ve met all these amazing musicians and amazing people today,” she said. “It shows musicians really have a heart.”

In all, 13 camps and a children’s hospital will receive proceeds from the fundraiser. They range from Camp High Five, for children with HIV, to Kate’s Club, a retreat for children with a parent or sibling who has died.

Cheryl Belair, director of Georgia’s Camp Braveheart, an annual, weeklong camp that last year hosted 130 children with heart transplants or heart defects, said the event will help raise awareness and money for the camp, which is free.

“I hope it’s just the beginning and each year it can grow bigger and bigger,” she said.

She also said she looks forward to hosting musicians through Songs for Kids at the camp. She said that for children whose activities may be limited by their health, exposure to new creative outlets is important.

“A lot of our campers haven’t had interactions with musicians or musical instruments,” Belair said. “It’s our hope these campers can possibly find a new hobby or something they’re interested in by being exposed to these musicians at camp.”

Rifkind said those children are the reason he worked 18-hour days and commonly skipped meals in the frantic days leading up to the event.

A huge undertakingSo far, Rifkind said the event had gone as smoothly as could be expected.

“There were a million fires to put out, but you just go with it,” said Rifkind, who at one point was onstage Friday night wolfing down a salad from a Styrofoam box while introducing a band.

Each night has been a sellout, with the club’s modest-sized music room packed to its 400-person capacity. Each person plays a $7 cover with the bulk of the proceeds going to the camps. A booth also is set up where donations can be made.

If the fundraiser is a success, he says he’d like to repeat it in other cities across the country — logistical monster or not.

“If you come to this thing with a little love in your heart and some music to play, it’s all going to be good,” he said.