Building a better block party

Back in the day, a couple traffic barricades, a boom box and a barbeque equaled a fete fit for an entire neighborhood. Asheville’s historic Montford neighborhood—the tree-lined clutch of homes and businesses just north of downtown—has been capitalizing on that very concept for the past five years, turning a meet-your-neighbors gathering into a celebration of the area’s many artistic residents and a fundraiser for improved neighborhood facilities.

Rocking your block off: Performers at the Montford festival are former and current residents, but everyone’s invited to join the fun. Photo courtesy Ben Scales.

Originally, the Montford Arts & Music Festival was “an attempt to revitalize what used to be a vibrant downtown neighborhood,” explains festival music coordinator Ben Scales. Mission accomplished: “Now we have a restaurant that’s doing well [Rasta-pasta eatery Nine Mile and deli Tod’s Tasties & To-Gos both call Montford home] and a mural project in the works [the side of Montford Convenience will be painted to beautify the area and discourage graffiti].”

And, he adds, the festival “just makes us feel good.”

Scales took over the music booking four years ago, enlisting acts like Firecracker Jazz Band and Sugar & Spice, whose members live in Montford. At the suggestion of local musicians Mandy Carter (Every Mother’s Dream) and Ami Worthen (Mad Tea Party), Scales decided to change up this year’s lineup to include a different roster of talent and bring in more diversity. “We’d had a lot of rock and bluegrass but no soul or hip-hop,” he notes.

The 2009 iteration of the festival still won’t include hip-hop, but R&B outfit WestSound is slated, along with Jamaican-themed Pure Fiyah Reggae Band. The lineup also includes Tater Diggers (the eclectic side-project of Snake Oil Medicine Show’s Caroline Pond); ukulele-fueled tropical lounge swing quartet Kon Tiki; Western swing band Vollie McKenzie and the Lead-Foot Vipers; outlaw- country act The Good Old Boyz; bluegrass-reggae fusion collective Snake Oil Medicine Show; and step dancer Ira Bernstein accompanied by multiinstrumentalist John Herrmann.

During the festival’s early years, performers had to reside in the Montford neighborhood to be included. These days, as long as a band has a member who at one time called the area home, that’s good enough. “It’s surprising how many bands have lived in Montford,” Scales says.

Exhibiting artists and craftspeople don’t have to prove residency to book a booth, though Scales notes there will be more booths this years than ever before. Increasing numbers of craft sellers might be a side effect of the economy, though the music coordinator supposes, “the festival has just gotten really popular.”

Money raised at this year’s event will fund a pavilion in Montford Park and a rain catchment system in the community garden on Montford Ave. Both projects should further strengthen the area. Which is probably why Scales says, “I do think this is a block party. The neighborhood supports itself so well.”

who: Montford Music & Arts Festival
what: Community-oriented day-long celebration
where: Asheville’s Montford neighborhood
when: Saturday, May 16 (10 a.m.-7 p.m. Free.

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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