Browsing old Xpress coverage of the inaugural LAAFF turned up this walk down memory lane: "More than 25 local acts [are] scheduled to appear on two stages. Highlights include Devilish Mary (all-girl string band with Cary Fridley, performing at noon); The Oxymorons Comedy Troupe; rising rock stars Drug Money; West African drum-and-dance group Ballet Warraba; and celebrated burlesque troupe The Rebelles."
Yes, it was just as eclectic seven years ago as it will be this year, only this year there are almost twice as many acts and six stages. And, there's another notable difference: This year's LAAFF takes on an indie-rock flavor that it's never had before.
"We try not to have repeats from year to year," explains festival organizer Erin Scholze. "We sift through the genres. It seems like this year there are just a lot more successful indie bands."
Here's what that evolution looks like: Toubab Krewe headlined in 2005 (along with Strut, stephaniesid, the Great Slide, Cabo Verde, Fifth House, Mad Tea Party, the Buckerettes, Aaron Price and Christina Aurea).
In 2006, Jeremy Long (then-percussionist with Avec La Force Percussion and Dance Initiative) told Xpress, "The planning committee decided LAAFF needed to be more diverse this year." Enter Flamenco Saltado, Soora Gameela, Baraka Mundi, Banana da Terra, the Shining Rock Reggae Band and Nbale (Newborn Ancient Love Ensemble) with Biko Casini of Strut on West African balaphone — a group formed just for LAAFF.
LAAFF circa 2007 hinted at indie rock — the Sophisticated Chimps fit that bill, along with Speedsquare and Nevada. But the balance was jam, experimental and world music.
“Do everything faster”
This year's lineup mirrors, to some extent, the indie-heavy All Go West Fest of earlier this year: Kovacs and the Polar Bear, The Archrivals, Uncle Mountain and The If You Wannas appear on both bills.
Chris Lee, bassist for Kovacs, says that it does seem like there are more indie bands playing Asheville now than five years ago. Kovacs, which tempers its dynamic electro/acoustic rock with hints of folk, has only been a band for three and half years (since it was formed by guitarist/vocalist Nick Kovacs and drummer Andrew Woodard). Lee joined a year later and guitarist Joe Chang has been with the group for less than a year. All Go West was the quartet's first festival and then they were invited to play LAAFF.
"We've learned that we have to do everything faster for a festival," says Lee. "We have to get everything ready for stage faster." But the outdoors, high-energy, ready-to-party crowd experience isn't totally out of sync with a Kovacs show.
"We don't do set lists," says Lee. "We really like just to see how things are going. When we play festivals, we lean toward the louder, more rockin' stuff." Expect Kovacs and the Polar Bear to debut a never-before-heard song as well as new material — the band is currently at work on an album; Brian Landrum is recording it.
Landrum — former co-owner of The Grey Eagle, the venue Kovacs calls "basically our home" — is a good connection for the indie-rock band, but as much as LAAFF's lineup pairs bands with common themes, it also makes some surprising matches.
Just for LAAFF
Take Nbale. That band formed for LAAFF four years ago after Scholze noticed a number of players (Nbale included Casini, Ryan Reardon, Simon Tisman & Sage Sansome) from various bands waiting out a rainstorm together in a College St. storefront and suggested they try playing together. Another mashup was Sons of a Keeled Over Snake with members of Sons of Ralph, Larry Keel & Natural Bridge and Snake Oil Medicine Show.
"We've always called it a showcase event," Scholze says of LAAFF. "You walk up the street and you are going to hear something you never would have heard. It's a way for the musicians to intermingle with each other as well."
Asheville Horns was also born of an opportune moment: A group of local brass players were tapped to record with Laura Reed and Deep Pocket. "Someone said ‘You should become a horn-rental section,’" recalls trombonist Derrick Johnson, whose main gig is with Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band. They did, and putting a bunch of horn players together "gave us a chance to play different types of funk," says Johnson. Soon, Asheville Horns wasn't just a brass section for hire, but a band with its own shows.
Johnson, a fan of collaborations, co-created the local Funk Jam (held every Tuesday at the Emerald Lounge) when friends from a Long Beach, Ca.-based funk band were visiting Asheville and looking for a place to jam. Musician/soundman/promoter Frank Bloom offered up Emerald Lounge, and what was meant to be a one-off evolved, over the last two years, into a full-on scene. That scene attracts not just local performers, but touring musicians from bands like Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Galactic and Phish. For new-to-town musicians, "It gave people a chance to get established in the scene," says Johnson. "People started getting different phone calls for different gigs. It was a card-swapping music exchange." … Networking for funk players.
A festival that helped build the musical landscape
Those kinds of opportunities to meet and mix have changed the sonic topography of Asheville in recent years. When LAAFF started, "People didn't know each other," Scholze says. "As the years have gone on, they started doing the funk jam and that brought in people like Vertigo Jazz Band and Matt Williams. That [created] the soul-jazz thing and now they're cultivating that." Scenes have formed around common interests, and each scene (jazz, jam, funk, etc.) has its own following. "But I think the next step is for the [various] scenes to start connecting and opening up, maybe connecting the soul-jazz people to the orchestra-jazz people; maybe connecting some of the singer/songwriters to the funk jam," says Scholze.
So, will next year bring a more decisive move toward indie-rock? Or perhaps an indie/world fusion? Will The Archrivals battle Nataraj? Will Woody Pines bring a DJ on stage? Will Sky Lake add a balaphone to its lineup? Whatever the next LAAFF brings — or this one, for that matter — it’s sure to be a surprise.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Lexington Avenue Arts & Fun Fest
where: On Lexington Ave. between College St. and the 1-240 overpass
where: Sunday, Sept. 5 (11 a.m.-9 p.m. Free. LexFestAsheville.com)