Last hurrah

Eat, drink and be merry: For this may be the final Bele Chere. The 35-year-old street festival will no longer receive city funding. Photo by Max Cooper
Eat, drink and be merry: For this may be the final Bele Chere. The 35-year-old street festival will no longer receive city funding. Photo by Max Cooper

It’s a strange thing to be ramping up for a festival that’s in the process of winding down. Not that Bele Chere, which began in 1979, won’t be as crowded/colorful/overwhelming/noisy/jubilant/arty/street food-y/dance-y as ever. But there’s a very good chance that 2013 marks not only firsts (will septuagenarian rockabilly songstress Wanda Jackson and Baltimore-based electronic musician/Moogfest alum Dan Deacon jam together?), but lasts. As in the last Bele Chere.

Thirty-five years is “a really, really long run for any event, and for a free festival it’s almost unheard of,” says Sandra Travis, the program supervisor for Asheville Parks and Recreation’s festivals. So when City Council pulled the plug on the festival’s budget in June, perhaps it wasn’t a surprise. And, while there’s a chance that a private festival planner could take over, Travis says it would be a difficult undertaking for another organization.

While there is no special programming planned to commemorate this final festival, Travis does think there might be some after-the-fact commemoration online.

Including this Bele Chere, Travis has worked on 26 iterations of the summer street fête. She served as a volunteer for 18 of those years and joined the city staff in 2005. She says she’ll miss the teamwork and the people she connects with each year, such as certain vendors who’ve worked Bele Chere for three decades.

Some of the entertainment has that sort of history, too: Both old-time band David Holt and the Lightning Bolts and bluegrass outfit Balsam Range appeared at early Bele Chere festivals. It seemed fitting to Travis to include them in what’s likely the final lineup. Plus, “They’re both local Grammy winners,” says Travis.

Another returning favorite is Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, who formed in 2002 and have missed few Bele Cheres since. Travis says that it’s been her intention (with the festival music bookers) to shake up the lineup from year to year. The summer that she didn’t add the Booty Band to the roster, though, “Apparently I was breaking some kind of huge tradition that I was not aware of!” she jokes. “I got more emails over that than I have for any other entertainment-related thing, ever.”

So, favorite bands are returning, but new ones will take the stage, too. This year’s lineup is more than half local, a ratio Travis says the festival has worked to maintain for many years. In fact, the schedule has been reconfigured to allow for more music slots (an increase from 42 last year to 47 this year). There is also a new graphic denoting local organizations, artists, vendors and merchants at Bele Chere. It will appear online and in signage. “I want people to recognize just how many different local individuals and organizations are involved in the festival,” says Travis.

What is the program supervisor most looking forward to this year? She says there’s always a sense of excitement that comes with set up on Thursday night. “It’s like building a city within a city,” she says. And this year, for the first time (since it’s her last chance), Travis wants to “go listen to a band for more than five minutes. And I’m going to shop.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

what: Bele Chere
where: Downtown Asheville
when: Friday-Sunday, July 26-28 (music run 4:30-10 p.m. Friday, noon-10 p.m. Saturday and 1-6 p.m. Sunday. Free. http://belecherefestival.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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