The stage was dark. The house lights were down. And most everyone in the joint knew what was coming next.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” boomed a sexy growl of a voice, filling the sardine-tight space. “Welcome to the greatest club in Western North Carolina, the Orange Peel, and your own … Bite … !
Bomp-bomp-bomp! — a blast of hot-ass notes from the unseen horn section.
“Chew … !”
Flash pots erupted from the round orange stage in vertical bursts of fake white flame. Strobing red lights pierced the smoky haze. And there they were, 10 strong and sartorially splendid in flowing black-and-white outfits with sleeves that looked like wings (on other nights, they favored Courvoisier-smooth, multicolored silk suits just too damn dapper for words).
Here were the reigning hometown kings, Asheville’s own Bite, Chew & Spit, house band at the region’s top African-American nightspot in the ’70s — the Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave. (at the corner of Hilliard).
With the audience primed and on its feet, the rest of the band would lock instruments with the horns, easing into the Ohio Players’ pliant groove-out “Fire,” or maybe Earth, Wind & Fire’s ever-escalating “Getaway” — that multi-singer, rubber-bassed, fat-horn R&B sound that’s just so mid-’70s.
Flash-forward nearly three decades. Members of the long-defunct Bite, Chew & Spit — or BCS, as they were often known — have gone on to become insurance salesmen, church pastors, college instructors and more. But the long-vacant brick Biltmore Avenue building with the three-tiered orange stage that the band once called home appears to have lost little of its hold on the local imagination.
In recent weeks, though, the past began getting a face-lift. Boards were pried off the windows, and the ledges were gussied up in flaming orange. Even more intriguing was the new hand-painted sign that sprouted up on the south-side outer wall: The Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club.
The expanded name is a tip of the hat both to Asheville’s funky history and to old-style, community-minded New Orleans Mardi Gras krewes — and it hints at what the building’s new owners envision for the venerable club space.
Meet the new Peel: same spot, but with a whole different feel. Laissez les bons temps rouler, homey.
The inside juice
The first time people see the freshly painted Orange Peel logo that stretches over most of the inside north wall, they often figure it’s a holdover from the original club.
New owners Jack and Lesley Groetsch brought in old buddy Dave Kelsey — a veteran movie-set designer (Disney’s The Rookie, Oliver Stone’s JFK) — to give the revamped club a dated feel. That brand-new logo is actually peeling.
The Groetsches are hardly newcomers to this game. They ran the popular Howlin’ Wolf nightclub in New Orleans for more than a decade before selling it two years ago. Rolling Stone once dubbed the club the best place to hear live music in the Crescent City.
The couple moved to Asheville with their young kids last year after persistent prodding by local artist Susie Millions (another old pal). And it was Millions who later hooked the Groetsches up with Public Interest Projects Inc., a downtown-development group that wanted the withered Peel to once again become a music venue.
When the couple first toured the building, poking their heads through the low false ceiling and eyeing the huge wooden trusses high above, they quickly reconsidered their retirement plans, says Lesley Groetsch, 33.
“We found out when we got out of the business that we couldn’t do anything else,” quips Jack Groetsch, 46, in the thick New Orleans accent that sounds more north Jersey than Old South.
The Orange Peel’s former crowd wouldn’t know the place now. The circular bar that once claimed the center of the room has given way to a 46-foot, stainless-steel drinker’s dream (just about one tap per foot of bar) that doesn’t block sightlines to the stage.
“We’ll entertain every possible local brew, unless people just spit them out,” Jack Groetsch promises.
One end of the bar will be a hot-food station serving Cajun/creole fare — jambalaya, etouffee, two styles of gumbo (one vegan) and more — from the Thibodaux Jones Creole Kitchen, which operates out of the Grey Eagle Tavern & Music Hall.
The Peel’s massive orange dance floor — capacity: 1,000 — is now polished hardwood. The stage — 36 feet wide and 3 feet tall — is a monolith; the high orange walls behind it are swirled with white. The sound system and electronics array are a mix-master’s dream.
The musician-friendly club has two separate dressing areas with showers and private access to the stage. An elevator behind the stage goes to street level, for band load-ins.
Way back when, musicians had to come through the crowd to reach the stage, recalls Jerome C. Martin, 49, an original member of Bite, Chew & Spit who’s now an insurance agent with Monumental Life.
Audience members “would be pulling on you sometimes,” Martin adds with a laugh.
Huge box fans will draw in outside air; only the equipment areas and dressing rooms will be air-conditioned. But that’s OK — the venue will be nonsmoking, which has struck a chord with many potential customers.