Dancing in the streets

Five o’ clock world: Sol Driven Train performs at a Downtown After Five event. Photo by Sam Ganly Photography +

If Downtown After 5 (DTA5, the warm-weather street party series held on Lexington Avenue) is about celebrating all that Asheville is, its earliest iteration — Moonlight Over Asheville — was about “showcasing what Asheville could be.”

That’s how Rick Ramsey remembers it. Ramsey is a former Asheville Downtown Association board member and event organizer, and he was there when the festival was just getting started. Back when it changed locations regularly, from parking decks and the Grove Arcade, to Pack Square and its current home near the I-240 overpass. Back when the crowds were smaller and the budget was leaner. (Sponsorships, in the late ‘80s, ran $800-$1,500 for eight events; today the lowest-level sponsorship is $2,500 for five events.)

“Back in the day, we could afford one Port-A-Potty, and it was a big stretch to afford two,” Ramsey laughs. “But if we didn’t make our beer budget at that time, it really killed us, so the next time we had to go back to the one.”

Also, for some reason, it rained a lot during those first years, which meant moving the concerts to a parking deck. Which sounds not at all fun — but the truth is, even those small, early events provided plenty of TGIF-style revelry. The tradition of calling the DTA5 season opener “Moonlight Over Downtown” continued for a number of years, with Cajun and Zydeco music and heaps of Mardi Gras beads.

In fact, Downtown After Five kicks off its 25th anniversary with a concert that recalls the Moonlight days. “Nathan Williams & the Zydeco Cha-Chas were huge,” remembers Ramsey of a past festival.

“About three or four years ago, we had Zydeco, and the people who came out were people who never come out,” says Chris Bubenik, this year’s events committee chair. “They were dancing and having such a fun time.” This week’s May 3 DTA5 features New Orleans funk band Big Sam’s Funky Nation with local opener Empire Strikes Brass.

“It’s going to be very geared toward Moonlight,” says Bubenik. There will be a 2.5-mile bike ride with Asheville on Bikes, a possible 5k race, and festival planners are encouraging everyone to arrive decked out in Mardi Gras beads.

The May DTA5 always features a special lineup. It’s also the best-attended of the five first-Friday shows (remember when local indie-pop band stephanies d played a particularly electrifying show, rain and all, a couple of years ago?). But every month brings a rocking band. Most popular musical acts to have played DTA5, over the years, include Donna the Buffalo, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Southern Culture on the Skids. “Drivin’ N Cryin,’ with the exception of Bela Fleck, was one of our most well-attended,” says Rogers.

“The first one I ever attended was Mandorico, a rap/Mexican/ska band,” says Bubenik. “I thought, ‘I love this town.’”

The thing is, DTA5 loves Asheville right back. Not only has the event been intended, from its inception, to showcase the best of our mountain town (from local bands both as headliners and openers, to local food and beer, to a great opportunity for business owners, workers and residents to get outside and mingle), it’s also done a lot to promote the community and to raise funds.

“We made a lot of money in tips because we had the best volunteers,” says Ramsey of the early incarnations — one of which was in the Historic Lexington Park (now the site of a parking lot, across from Scully’s); another, starting around ’92 (and this is when DTA5 really took off) was at Pack Square Park, with pizza-tossing contests and rafts in the reflecting pool. Tips given to the volunteers working the beer booth would go to an end-of-season party, but also to benefit projects around the city. The Urban Trail received funding from the tips, and the Downtown Association was able to purchase the Shopping Days sculpture installed in front of Malaprop’s.

Bubenik, whose been on the ADA board for four years, says there’s been am allocation of $5,000 or more for projects. For the past couple of years, they’ve pledged funds to a canopy for the Pack Square Park pergola.

“We worked with Hoss Haley, who designed the pergola, so it has the same seamless look, and Peter Belt of Red Sky Shelters,” says Rogers. The ADA raised $50,000 through private donations, and another $50,000 came in the form of a grant from the Buncombe County Tourism Product Development Fund. The canopy will be unveiled this summer, both as part of DTA5 as well as in another event with Shindig on the Green and the Asheville Symphony, among other organizations.

And this is not the only way that DTA5 helps its community. The events committee is thinking about additional ways to green the concerts (recycling, composting and solar power are already in place), along with ways to encourage DTA5 attendees to dine and shop at downtown businesses while they’re in town for the free music. Plus, for more than a decade, the proceeds from wristband sales have benefited local charities. This year, 32 applicants (up from 20 last year) contended for the five spots.

But the best — and easiest — was to help DTA5 carry on its good works is to pitch in with the celebrating. Eat, drink, socialize, listen to good music, volunteer if that’s your thing and cheer the 25th anniversary of this downtown institution.

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

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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