Booking it: Behind the scenes of LEAF’s extensive lineup

This month’s LEAF marks the 37th festival over the course of nearly two decades. Through those years, the biannual Black Mountain-based music and arts weekend, held each May and October, has racked up its fair share of milestones and commendations. This year, named Spring LEAF "Greatest Event of The Day."

There’s more to the fête than great bands. The LEAF, formerly Lake Eden Arts Festival, has a mission of “connecting local and global cultures [and] creating community through music and arts.” These aims are achieved, in part, through educational outreach and empowerment programs such as LEAF in Schools and Streets (Mickey Hart held a kids drumming workshop for LSS in 2012) and LEAF International, which launched International Haiti with Prosjekt Haiti and Boukman Eksperyans in Port-au-Prince this year.

So, the festival has to be the soundtrack to not just a family-friendly gala, but to an important social objective as well. How do you book that kind of lineup?

Billy Jack Sinkovic, the festival’s departing performing arts director, has spent the last several years concocting exactly that kind of alchemy. It is, of course, a group effort that includes a committee as well as LEAF staffers. Executive director and founder Jennifer Pickering “wants the rootsy-roots bands,” says Sinkovic. “I want the ‘who’s doing something new and exciting’ bands. It’s made for a lot of interesting discussions.”

A lot of booking takes place each January at APAP/NYC, a global performing-arts conference. “There are agents and talent buyers from all over the country, and we do meetings every 15 minutes for eight hours a day,” says Sinkovic. Band availability and “fortuitous routing” are key but, more importantly, “agents have to understand that LEAF is not just another festival on the circuit.”

Sinkovic says that while a talent buyer like AC Entertainment is tasked with booking the newest and hottest acts, a LEAF music booker is concerned with selling both tickets and the festival’s overall mission. Happily, “there are people who want to play LEAF just because it’s LEAF,” says Sinkovic. Like DJ and producer King Britt, whose team reached out to the festival and cut an affordable deal for the highly regarded artist to perform. (He’ll even DJ the staff party.) Other artists, like Rising Appalachia and Abigail Washburn, are ardent LEAF supporters and return regularly. Masankho Banda, a drummer, spiritual healer and peace builder from Malawi, does a LEAF residency each fall.

“Being a music booker for a festival is some people’s dream job,” says Sinkovic. “You work your way up to it. And I just landed in it.” He was a volunteer, pouring beer, when it was suggested he try for the performing-arts director position. Sinkovic thinks it was his enthusiasm for craft brew that helped. That, and his passion for live music — a subject he says he spends every waking hour talking about. That music, beer and festivals go together is pretty much the trifecta of awesomeness for Sinkovic. (He’ll leave the position after this festival for new opportunities, but with mixed emotions.)

But even living and breathing music 24/7 doesn’t cover the breadth of LEAF’s potential roster. “My musical taste and understanding and knowledge base has expanded so much,” says Sinkovic.

Years ago, LEAF booked according to a checklist of musical genres, from American folk to various world traditions. “As music and performing arts continue to evolve, and as the world becomes more connected to technology, that’s changed a lot,” says Sinkovic. Today, bands like Delhi to Dublin provide multi- and cross-cultural experiences in a single performance.

And then there’s contra dancing. The popular caller-led dances have been an integral part of LEAF since its early days. And while there are plenty of other contra events around town, LEAF is likely the only example of a contra-dance weekend rolled into a non-dance-specific event. Many dancers, says Sinkovic, buy tickets to LEAF and never leave Brookside (where dances are held). “A few fests back, we introduced the late-night techno contra,” says the performing-arts director. That’s an example of how the dance form has not only survived but evolved and grown to include a younger crowd. And booking an in-demand contra dance band? Plan for two years’ lead time.

So, music, dance and arts (and vendors, food and beer) all play major roles in LEAF, but so does the space itself at Camp Rockmont, around Lake Eden. “There are people who have camped in the exact same spot for years,” says Sinkovic.

Friends meet up there. Families hang out together. Teenagers spend time with their parents. In fact, that’s why there’s a LEAF-plus ticket: It allows Thursday afternoon entry for diehard campers. There’s programming, too, for those early arrivals. “I’ve tried to make Thursday night more of a local thing,” says Sinkovic.

Sure, day passes are available for locals who want to sleep in their own beds. But camping, insists Sinkovic, is about more than just the convenience of being able to run back to your tent for a change of socks or a nap: “It keeps you in the magic of everything that’s going on.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

what: LEAF
where: Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain
when: Thursday, Oct. 17-Sunday, Oct. 20 (tickets sold in advance only. $159 adult/$134 youth weekend pass, $106/$94 community pass, $47/$38 Friday or Sunday only, $57/$50 Saturday. Parking is $5.

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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