Asheville is the country’s reigning champ of hippie culture. Flooded with farmers’ markets, art and crafts, and live music, this southern gem has a long history of street performance and outdoor festivals. It also led the charge in farm-to-table local food production and microbreweries. In fact, there are more breweries per capita than any other city in the nation.
WHAT: LAAFF, facebook.com/lexfest
WHERE: Lexington Avenue between College Street and the I-240 overpass
WHEN: Sunday, Sept. 6, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fre
Pop quiz: There’s no such thing as a free ______.
C) downtown street festival.
Organizers of the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival would be quick to answer “C,” a notion that’s been clear from the festival’s inception but became all too real in the wake of the 2012 celebration.
In order to showcase the distinctive qualities of Asheville through interactive events, quality food, family activities, local hand-crafted art, performance and music year after year, LAAFF relies almost wholly on revenue from sponsorship, vendor fees and sales from beer. The beer is purchased from local breweries and sold on-site to raise funds for LAAFF and Arts 2 People, the nonprofit organization that puts on the annual festival, which returns for its 13th edition Sunday, Sept. 6.
“Sponsorship is the only realm where revenue can be expected to significantly increase,” says Aaron Johnstone, president and treasurer of Arts 2 People. The nonprofit also sponsors Aurora Studio and Gallery, which provides art classes for people who have struggled with addiction or mental illness, and awards mini-grants to local artists and organizations seeking creative ways to strengthen the community. “We are very grateful to all our sponsors, big and small, who help support our mission of promoting our local creative culture,” says Johnstone. “However, it is a challenge — both in the amount of time required and the potential burden on our local small-business owners — to generate that sponsorship revenue.”
LAAFF music lineup
• Sankofa Electrofolk (world-folk), noon-12:45 p.m.
• Raising Caine (Americanan/country), 1:05-1:50 p.m.
• Satta Roots (reggae), 2:10-2:55 p.m.
• The If You Wannas (minimalist pop), 3:15-4 p.m.
• Doc Aquatic (indie-rock), 4:20-5:05 p.m.
• East Coast Dirt (rock), 6-6:45 p.m.
• The Hermit Kings (indie-rock), 7:05-7:50 p.m.
• Sirius.B (absurdist folk-rock), 8:15-9 p.m.
• The Moon and You (folk), 12:30-1:15 p.m.
• Plankeye Peggy (pirate-rock), 1:35-2:20 p.m.
• Camp David (indie-folk), 2:40-3:25 p.m.
• Kill the Clique (melodic rock), 3:45-4:30 p.m.
• Alpha Lee (hip-hop), 4:50-5:35 p.m.
• The Red Coats Are Coming (rock), 5:55-6:40 p.m.
• Debrissa and the Bear King (trip-hop), 7-7:45 p.m.
• Nest Egg (psych-rock), 8:15-8:45 p.m.
South Lexington Stage
• Hot Point Trio (Gypsy-jazz), 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
• The Roaring Lions (nontraditional jazz), 1-2:30 p.m.
• Lenny Pettinelli and Michael John Marx (swing jazz), 3-4:30 p.m.
• Ray Biscoglia Trio (1930s-’50s jazz), 5-6:30 p.m.
• Mick Glasgow and the House Hoppers (New Orleans jazz), 7-8:30 p.m.
The only year that LAAFF was unable to raise enough money to cover costs was 2012. That year, the city of Asheville required the festival to expand its footprint due to concerns about overcrowding Lexington Avenue. The added expense was somewhat offset by additional vendors’ fees, but Johnstone says many vendors were disappointed in the lack of crowds on the added area of Rankin Avenue.
That same year also was the first in which participating bands were paid, a decision that fulfilled a longtime goal for the organizers. A ticketed, pre-event pub crawl — intended to generate the revenue to cover the 60-plus groups that played over the weekend — failed to raise even a quarter of the total amount needed. Additionally, beer sales did not meet previous years’ levels and, due to unforeseen circumstances, several thousand dollars were spent on power generators.
Happily, the narrative takes an upbeat turn for this year’s event. This year’s LAAFF “will find itself pollinating the urban landscape of Lexington Avenue … with new partnerships and a vision toward a more community-minded festival,” reports a press release. A partnership with French Broad Food Co-op gives LAAFF food vendors the option of purchasing products at wholesale prices. The co-op is also is co-producing a weeklong series of workshops leading up to the festival. Among the topics to be discussed are sustainability, creativity and education about insects (e.g., composting and bee care) to fit this year’s Urban Pollination theme.
Also new in 2015 is a medieval castle that will host a foam swordplay competition, an interactive instrument station and giveaways from first-time sponsor Moog Music and a food lounge, sponsored by Valet Gourmet, where patrons may sit and enjoy a snack or meal.
Lows and highs
There was a time when the festival’s future looked grim. Due to loss of several key members of the LAAFF team and the budget deficit, the efforts to produce LAAFF in 2013 were deemed too risky. The time off, however, proved beneficial as it allowed organizers a chance to regroup and develop the LAAFF Manifesto, which, in the words of LAAFF communications director Johanna Hagarty, “guides the event toward being a participatory, innovative, art-focused street festival that strengthens our local community.” The hiatus also brought forth a great show of encouragement from Lexington Avenue merchants who missed the festival and were instrumental in its return.
“Due to that tremendous support and an influx of new energy and team members, including very successful management of the beer sales and fantastic sponsorship coordination, 2014 was a great success, which allowed us to pay off remaining debt,” Johnstone says. He notes the exception of past pay owed to “some very important staff,” which he hopes LAAFF can one day honor.
But while there is a lot of volunteer effort and many services are donated, a number of costs remain to successfully bring the festival back for 2015. Permits, barricades and road closure signage must be acquired, as well as electrical equipment, tents, tables, chairs, stages, sound systems, Porta-Johns, trash/recycling/compost cleanup and disposal, insurance, advertising, banners and posters. On top of that, the city requires the hiring of medical personnel and police, joining the workforce of subcontractors who handle electrical installation, setup, barricade security, music production and booking, volunteer coordination, artist hospitality and the aforementioned compensation of bands, performers and interactive artists.
“Many festivals and events deal with these same elements,” Johnstone says. “But the size and scale of LAAFF, while being free and open to the public and located on city streets, presents unique challenges.”
Among these specialized hurdles is the coordination of over 60 art vendors, 15-20 food vendors and more than 30 performing acts, plus setting up all the interactive and kids events in city streets and parking lots with limited access by vehicle. To ensure that the festival will be welcomed back the following year, all of that must be done while respecting the needs of brick-and-mortar merchants on the street and meeting city safety requirements (e.g., fire lanes, electrical cord protection, tent layout and tie-down specs). Furthermore, there’s the five-hour setup and equally long breakdown of the mandatory road closure signs and barricades, which makes for 20-plus-hour days for many of LAAFF’s core staff.
Such a commitment is worthwhile for people like Hagarty, who has worked with LAAFF in small capacities since she moved to Asheville in 2008 and has consistently found what she calls “the creative uniqueness” of the event to be one of the most special things about the city. “I even remember calling my mom after helping with the first one,” she says.”[I felt] so invigorated that I was a part of this town that supports education and sustainability in such a fun way.”
Posted on September 1, 2015
Montford Park Players and their outdoor summer of Shakespeare are always a delight, especially on a cool summer night. And the perfect theatrical confection for such a night is the group’s latest production of Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, one of Shakespeare’s most enduring comedies. It involves shipwrecks, lost twins, pirates, puffed-up aristocracy and some sly cross-dressing.
For his strong vision for this production, director Adam Arthur has assembled a finely tuned ensemble of actors who not only understand the text well, but know how to play it up for all the laughs that are to be had. Arthur uses every inch of the stage (which is a lot of real estate to cover for a considerable small team of actors), as well as taking the action out into the audience, for elevated comedic impact.
The show opens with a ship at sea, caught in a massive storm. This setting is not something that can be accurately depicted in the Montford Park setting — especially since it’s still daylight when the show begins, and the audience can see absolutely everything, eliminating any point in stagecraft trickery. However, the choreographed opening sequence by Krist DeVille is inventive and mesmerizing. It conveys everything the audience needs to know to establish the tale.
Samantha Stewart stars as Viola, who washes ashore after a catastrophe at sea. She assumes the identity of her brother, Sebastian, who she believes has perished. Sebastian lives, though, and is on his own trek to find Viola with the help of the crafty pirate, Antonio. Adrian Suskauer andJenni Robinson are great, respectively, in the roles of Sebastian and Antonio.
Myriad activity keeps the plot moving forward, as Viola finds herself in a bit of a romantic triangle when she falls for Duke Orsino. Meanwhile, Countess Olivia falls in love with Viola, thinking she is a man. Karl Knierim is wonderfully goofy as Orsino, and Ashleigh Millett is unflinchingly committed to the role of Olivia. They are surrounded by strong performances fromDavid Mycoff, Francis Davis and Ryan Madden. Jason Williams and Skyler Goff, in particular, stand out, showing a strong command of the material and milking every ounce of comedy from it.
Before the show, Artistic Director Scott Keel greeted the audience with the news that John Robinson, one of the founders of Montford Park Players, recently passed away. More than 40 years ago, Robinson and his wife Hazel (for whom the amphitheater is named) saw a production of Twelfth Night while vacationing and were inspired to create a Shakespearean park in Asheville.
Twelfth Night, Or What You Will continues at Montford Park though Saturday, Aug. 1, with shows Thursday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free, donations are accepted.
JJ Grey seems like a guy who knows how to have a good time. He also seems like he genuinely wants everyone around him to have a good time. And, if parties have a way of evolving from the mellow pleasantries of early evening to dancing on the tables in the pre-dawn hours, Grey seems like the guy who starts with a keg stand or the suggestion that everyone goes skinny dipping — and lets things escalate from there. With his six-piece band Mofro, Grey took the outdoor stage at Pisgah Brewing Co. on Friday night, playing a tambourine with a drumstick, dancing throughout “Orange Blossoms.” (That song, by the way, says “We swam in the lake, we watched fire flies by night” — Grey changes “swam” to “skinny dipped” to cheers from the audience.)
The set moved through crowd pleasers like “Country Ghetto” to “Every Minute” from the new album Ol’ Glory. That song has a nice dynamic build, which is kind of surprising since Grey is such a powerhouse vocalist. His vocal style — part Bob Seger, part Aretha Franklin — leaves little room for subtlety. But instead of bringing down the intensity, Grey’s band includes two horn players (Dennis Marion and Marcus Parsley), both geniuses, both able to lift each song to new levels.
In fact, it was Marion’s solo that transformed a late-set rendition of “Slow, Hot & Sweaty” from a funky jam into a gorgeously rendered urban nocturne. That song (among others) was enhanced by the soulful background vocals of Anthony Ferrell, who is also a fantastic organ and keyboard player.
There’s really not a weak link in the band, from the provocative guitar textures of Andrew Trube to the tight rhythm section of drummer Terence Higgins and bassist Todd Smallie. If noodly solos can get a bit old onstage, Grey’s band knows how to maximize each moment in the spotlight while still adding to the song.
Some of the show’s highlights included “Hold On Tight” (including pole-dancing-on-trees from a few especially invested fans) and the title track from Ol’ Glory, a gospel-infused song in which Grey’s raspy vocal floated gracefully over the silky melody. Trube’s slide guitar lead-in to “Lochloosa” set up that song perfectly, too, and Grey added a twist, subbing the regional locale for “Appalachia,” to much approval.
The set ended with an ode to Southern cooking followed by a high energy encore. Sultry, folksy, funky and rooted from start to finish, JJ Grey provided the perfect sound track to a summer night.
“Sonny Smith’s endlessly prolific San Francisco psych-pop band Sonny and The Sunsets crank out loopy, fun, lo-fi tunes at scary rates,” says Stereogum. The band, currently on tour in support of latest album, Talent Night At The Ashram, plays The Mothlight on Saturday, July 18. Sarah Bethe Nelson opens. 9:30 p.m., $10 advance/$12 day of show.
Few people spend more time on Western North Carolina’s rivers than Chris Gragtmans. Our waterways, he says, have become increasingly popular with outdoor enthusiasts in the past few years — a sentiment echoed by a number of local leaders in the paddle-sports industry. What’s more, the trend is national. And while local excursion providers, rental shops and retailers adjust to meet growing demand, increased development along the Asheville section of the French Broad River suggests recreational use of the river will stay strong for years to come.
The 27-year-old Gragtmans, based in Asheville, is busy. Besides competing in pro-kayak events from China to Canada, he also manages the Dagger brand’s Pro Competition Team, writes about paddling for multiple publications and also recently began competing in one of the sports newest additions, stand-up paddle boarding.
“There’s been a decent increase [in kayaking] over the last five years,” Gragtmans explained via Facebook Messenger while on an excursion in the Idaho backwoods. “The glory days of kayaking were pre-2008. [National] sales overall dropped by about 50 percent during the recession, partly because it’s such a disposable-income endeavor. The sport has bounced back since then, but not close to its previous glory. Sales are quite strong now, and traffic is up,” he said. And local rafting and tubing businesses have been experiencing basically the same trend, he added — describing a recession-driven crash followed by gradual recovery.
Gragtmans’ claim is supported by Gavin Young, senior marketing manager at local outdoor excursion giant Nantahala Outdoor Center, which has retail outlets in Bryson City, Asheville and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. “Over the past seven seasons, we’ve seen an increase in participation on our whitewater activities. In fact, this year, we’re already at a 10 percent increase for guided rafting reservations and have high expectations that the number will continue to increase as we enter the summer season.”
Asheville Adventure Rentals, which sells and rents equipment from its facility on the banks of the French Broad River, is experiencing similar growth. “We have definitely sold more boats this year than at this time last year,” said co-owner Derek Turno. “We’ve sold more instruction sessions, and accessory sales are up,” he added, estimating a 30 percent increase in revenue this spring compared to last spring.
Everybody’s doing it, sitting or standing
The picture is similar at the national level. The Outdoor Foundation’s 2014 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report shows significant increases in most outdoor paddle sports, including whitewater kayaking (2.1 million participants, up 14 percent over the prior year) and recreational kayaking (8.7 million, up 7 percent). The only sectors showing decreases were rafting (3.8 million, down 4.6 percent) and canoeing (10.2 million, down 1.2 percent).
The study reported dramatic jumps in two paddle-sports newcomers: kayak fishing (1.8 million, up 28 percent) and stand-up paddle boarding (2 million participants, up 29 percent).
Gragtmans concurs. “I have seen massive increases in stand-up paddle boarding; that industry is roaring,” he said.
Interestingly, the nation’s economic downturn may have been the catalyst that fueled the other biggest growth area, kayak fishing, Gragtmans said. While anglers who want to get out on rivers or lakes may need upwards of $40,000 to purchase a traditional fishing boat, a high-end kayak fishing setup runs closer to $3,000. “In this case, the disposable income theory actually works for sales,” Gragtmans said, arguing that post-recession consumers have less to spend overall.
In answer to why more outdoor enthusiasts are finding more ways to spend time on local rivers, both Gragtmans and Young cite the general upturn in the economy, and Turno says people are making deeper connections with our rivers.
“It’s kind of a lifestyle change,” Turno said. “There is something about the river that is totally relaxing. It takes you away from everything and forces you to pay attention to the task at hand. The people you encounter are awesome. It’s a natural fit for the Asheville lifestyle.”
There is no question that many in Asheville have embraced the half-day French Broad float as a popular weekend group outing. Clusters of multi-colored floats, lazily drifting along the river, are now a common sight on warm-weather weekends, while refurbished school buses pull trailers full of tubes, rafts and boats up and down Asheville’s Riverside Drive and Amboy Road.
NOC, which offers excursions on eight Southeastern rivers in four states, is the region’s paddle-sports and outdoor-excursion juggernaut. Young says NOC has responded to increased demand by increasing staffing. NOC currently employs more than 1,000 people. Before the recession hit, NOC’s staff numbered about 800 employees, Young explained. While customer numbers now are comparable to pre-recession levels, NOC’s business model has changed drastically since then, he said, noting that they now package excursions with lodging, dining and retail opportunities as well as other activities such as instruction, zip lining and lake tours. This approach has been key to NOC’s increased revenue, he explained. “We took the recession as an opportunity to build a new, more competitive set of offerings for our guests,” he said.
The business of connecting people with nature
While business must attend to the bottom line, keeping a connection to deeper purposes and the environment seems to resonate with the local industry. Young said, “We always need to be thinking about how to further our mission of introducing the public to the physical, emotional and social benefits of human-powered outdoor recreation, and that [delivering] a superior guest experience is top of mind in every decision. Basically… there’s not time to sit back and enjoy the increase.”
In terms of environmental impact, Turno isn’t worried. “The river can handle it,” Turno said confidently. “It’s a low-impact environmental sport. We don’t litter. If anything, we clean up. Everybody looks out for each other.”
At NOC, Young claims the best part of the job comes with exposing future generations to rivers and the outdoors. “It’s exciting that we are contributing to a healthy world, giving guides and athletes a place to work where they can also play or train, and helping people get out of their comfort zones or conquer fears and try something new,” Young said. “Most exciting is to share the wonder of nature with kids, the next generation who will protect our rivers and natural places and who will be stewards of our environment.”
Expect more people on the Asheville sections of the French Broad. While no one knows how many people will visit New Belgium Brewing’s Asheville brewery, the company’s Colorado headquarters draws 150,000 annually. City of Asheville plans call for investing millions of dollars in the River Arts District for greenways, transportation-corridor and other enhancements. Earlier this year, a feasibility study by Colorado-based S230 Design and Engineering, conducted for a consortium of river enthusiasts, concluded that a whitewater park could be built between the Bowen and Craven Street bridges, adjacent to New Belgium, for less than $2 million. Vice-mayor Marc Hunt, who was involved in initial discussions with the consortium, said “I think this project does have great potential, and I am glad interest for it is stirring.”
“Asheville is an unusual place because we place such priority in fringe and outdoor sports. It’s fun to live in a place like that and be a very active part of the community and the growth. The French Broad is an amazing resource,” Gragtmans said.