Last year, a wave of post-flannel nostalgia gripped Asheville. The Smashing Pumpkins staged a nine-show residency at the Orange Peel that brought the attention of the rock world to Asheville, if only for a few days. While many locals (including this writer) drank Billy Corgan’s musical Kool-Aid and believed for a moment that the only band that kind of mattered after Kurt Cobain’s suicide maybe sort of mattered again, James Carson of AgroLola was hard at work.
“The rock ‘n’ roll in this town is fantastic,” Carson exclaims. “People needed to recognize what we’ve got here. They need to step up.”
What Carson and a few others created during the Pumpkins’ residency wasn’t so much a protest as it was a rallying cry. Centered around the New French Bar, the newly dubbed Musique Automatique was an attempt to showcase the local acts that were hungry for—and deserving of—a taste of the same attention the headlining act down the street was getting just for showing up.
The surprising thing is that it worked. The hastily planned showcase began to draw big numbers, both from the anti-Pumpkin crowd and from the post-Pumpkin-show set. The local bands were getting a little praise, and the Asheville rock scene actually seemed to be sticking up for itself.
So when the idea came up to hold a non-Pumpkin-snubbing sequel to the event, many in the local rock scene were excited. With other venue-based music festivals such as POPAsheville doing well, it would be hard not to be. Everyone seemed into the idea.
Well, maybe not everyone.
“I got a call asking if I wanted to do it, but I really don’t know anything about it,” recalls a sleepy Blake Burris—better known as Shake It Like a Caveman—who will be playing at this year’s Musique Automatique. “That’s not that interesting of an answer; I’m sorry.”
Burris’ nonchalant bewilderment aside, there is reason for excitement. Some 33 bands will be performing over the course of four days at five local venues—a big deal for local music. And this year, the organizers have had time to plan it, a luxury they lacked last time around. In addition, the showcase benefits from the work of the dedicated crew at VELLORE Productions, an Asheville-based event-planning group.
“We didn’t have much time to put [the first Musique Automatique] together,” Carson says. “But the turnout was awesome, and all of the local bands were into it. This year it’s been exactly the same thing.”
But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been challenges. Organizing any successful large-scale event takes planning, effort and money, but Carson puts all of these matters behind a more pressing concern: “Selecting the bands for the slots that we had was really hard.”
Yet those same bands may be the very thing that differentiates Musique Automatique from the increasingly dense schedule of local and regional music festivals.
“The thing that sets this apart from the other festivals is the bands,” offers Chad Pry, guitarist and vocalist for On The Take, who will be performing on the event’s opening night at the New French Bar. “These are really some of the best bands in Asheville. These bands may not have huge draws, and they may not be consumed by networking in a cesspool of backscratchers, but they have integrity and good music.”
And if that doesn’t convince you, there’s always the perspective provided by Ryan Cox of the If You Wannas (performing on Saturday at New French Bar), who says: “This festival rocks harder than any other festival in Asheville because it’s got a ‘Frenchier’ name!”
While gathering the city’s rock community together is a worthy cause, Carson says that awareness is an equally important goal. “If [the audience] sees one band and thinks, ‘Man that was awesome,’ then this festival is a good thing. We want to expand the audiences for all of these bands.”
In keeping with that sense of community spirit, Musique Automatique will also showcase the works of local clothing designers—a group long affiliated with the local-music scene—and host a Wednesday night fashion show at The Orange Peel featuring threads from Custom, Honeypot, Hunk, Minx and more, beginning at 7:30 p.m. The Blue Ridge Rollergirls, Unifire Theatre and various graffiti artists will also make appearances at various shows throughout the weekend. LaZoom Tours has chipped in to bus the crowds from one venue to another. And even The Orange Peel—the former hosts of the Smashing Pumpkins—have joined in.
“There’s so much local art and rock ‘n’ roll,” Carson says of the variety. “It kind of goes hand in hand.”
The organizers have also been keeping an eye on the future, with performances being recorded by Hill Creek Studios for a future compilation CD—something Carson sees as “a documentation of what we are doing.”
With all of the planning and promotion, along with organizing various sponsors, acts, contributors and volunteers—it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Musique Automatique has its roots as spur-of-the-moment idea from a little more than a year ago. Which may mean that Carson and his team are onto something.
“We’ve been planning this for three-and-a-half months now, nonstop,” says a seemingly exhausted Carson. “Thank God it’s [this] week.”
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Musique Automatique
what: Thirty-three local bands playing at five local venues over the course of four days
where: New French Bar, The Orange Peel, Stella Blue, The Grey Eagle and Westville Pub
when: Wednesday, July 9, through Saturday, July 12 ($15 per venue per night, or $40 for an all-access pass. Visit www.myspace.com/musiqueautomatiquefest for a complete list of events and times.)