LEAF in Black Mountain and Critters Buggin at Stella Blue; Saturday, Oct. 16.
Every town has its little bits of Jekyll and Hyde, the social nuances that can paint a community as well rounded and diverse, but also expose it for being polarized and divided.
Here in the Land of the Sky, we see our fair share of the phenomenon: Patton Avenue cruisers opposite Lexington Avenue vegans; Dr. Carl’s alleged crack rock versus Brownie’s “holistic approach”; or, best of all, the Billy Graham Training Center situated cheek-and-jowl with those nudie-prone Warren Wilson students.
But never has our area’s gentle schizophrenia been more apparent than on a Saturday afternoon spent strolling the grounds of the lovely Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF), followed by an evening of getting freaked out and smacked around by the masterful Critters Buggin in the depths of Stella Blue. And despite fine qualities inherent in both events and their respective audiences, the family-fantastic LEAF set and the cleverly twisted Buggin faithful will not, I’m afraid, be gathering round the same fireside for “Kumbaya” renderings anytime soon.
In the days leading up to LEAF, one colleague suggested I seek out the festival’s “dark underbelly,” if indeed such a thing existed. But parents will be relieved to know I found nothing insidious lurking on the shores of Lake Eden.
In fact, the nastiest thing heard at the October event was a couple of cuss words coming from the poetry tent, where angsty bards slammed out verse in a $1000-prize, all-day competition.
Artistically speaking, LEAF is a triumph — especially for the tykes. Truthfully, there’s nothing bad to say about this heralded biannual festival. For loving couples, youngish parents and the oodles of youngsters covering the grounds, LEAF equals a bit of Mr. Rogers’ heaven on earth. The “won’t you be my neighbor” weekend unfolds to the backdrop of such kid-centric fun as karaoke, face painting, hula-hoop workshops and a super-neat zip line. Adults will find a dance hall brimming with contra fools, a hilltop yoga workshop and, yes, one partridge in a startling organic pear tree.
Musically, Saturday’s LEAF found the disgustingly named Enter the Haggis deliver their finely tuned brand of Celtic rock, while aging guitarist John Dee Holeman dished out simple but masterful electric Piedmont blues highlighted by the original Sonny Boy Williamson version of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” The pedophile-motivated lines (“won’t you tell your daddy, I’m a little schoolboy too”) made a few attentive dads shudder with anxiety about their baby’s coming teen years, but the joke was largely lost on the cheery, smoke-free L.L. Bean crowd.
As LEAF’s chilly lakeside temperatures ballooned with the setting sun, and despite missing an apparently stellar run with Acoustic Syndicate, I made my way back to town for a disturbingly good, avant-garde romp with sax stud Skerik and company in Critters Buggin.
The noticeable increase of both cigarettes and cuss words permeating Stella Blue notwithstanding, I’m betting there wasn’t a soul in the room who hadn’t at some point seen a few episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood — practically a prerequisite for appreciating the frighteningly playful kids-at-heart of Critters Buggin. The slightly less leafy Stella Blue crowd saw one of this year’s best imported shows, in terms of sheer mastery and a nothing-held-back delivery.
Critters’ current tour marks the first major outing from the Seattle-based group in three years, and the Asheville date saw Skerik putting aside his sax a good bit for some noodling on keys. But when this madman works his horn, he can switch on a dime between Coltrane and Motoerhead sensibilities, pushing this flamboyant jazz/rock quartet to jaw-dropping new ground.
Describing their music is a bit like trying to explain a weird dream to a stranger: Words just diminish it. Suffice to say, Critters Buggin won’t be playing the kids’ tent at LEAF anytime soon. Like smoking and cussing, there’ll be plenty of time for that later.
Score: On the 20th-century-painters scale, this fall’s LEAF scores the high-on-life (at least in front of the kids) Bob Ross, complete with “happy little trees,” while Critters Buggin earns a Jackson Pollock (difficult to fathom the scale of the work until you’ve seen it in person).
[Asheville-based music writer Stuart Gaines, a contributing editor at An Honest Tune, can be reached at email@example.com.]