The junk journal

2004 in review

And just like that, tumultuous 2004 has about run its reckless little course. And my, oh my, how much things can and will change in a few short months on the Asheville music landscape.

Take, for instance, the lead sentence to Xpress‘ special section, Sonic Boom, published March 10 (and meant to be an intensive look at our area’s music scene): “Like it or not,” wrote the soon-to-be-gone-himself Frank Rabey, “Vincent’s Ear isn’t closing … Detractors of ‘funky Lexington’ be damned; Vincent’s remains good news for Asheville.”

Well, we can start spreading the news, all right — I’m just not sure how good it is. (Though at press time, even the much-publicized demise of the Lexington hangout was in question again — the Lantzius family has reportedly reopened negotiations with Vincent’s owner Joan Morris.)

And while both Frank and Vincent’s Ear have haunted this particular space more than may suit your (or my) tastes these last few weeks, their departures meet on common, timely ground. As Frank pointed out in March, Vincent’s, at a little more than 10 years established, was the oldest still-thriving downtown club.

Whaddaya mean oldest? That’s not old. Even the now-extinct jammers of Phish (who also “died” this year, as it turns out) made it twice that long themselves — and they’re just a bunch of damned hippies who came crawling out of Asheville-esque Burlington, Vermont.

So what does all this 2004 extinction teach us? Is it that stinky, longwinded hippies, like Phish and their ilk, have more staying power than indie-minded clubs or writers (like Vincent’s and Frank, respectively)? Perhaps. Because, like it or not, the hippies (or, at least, not the indies) seem to be winning the local race in the music department.

But it’s a damned shame to see the diversity inherent in Vincent’s, the Asheville Community Resource Center or even Frank getting thinned out at the same time our local herd continues ballooning in size.

Despite all this death and departure, new-school businesses, artists and fans continue arriving daily, with no apparent end in sight. And all this new life — along with what’s left of our old guard — still offers more than a few glimmers of hope in a year that’s pretty easy to decry right here at the end.

Lest we forget, we still occupy one of the best towns for live music this side of, well, anywhere. Normal people don’t live in cities this size and get spoiled like we do. In fact, most places two, three, even four times bigger than Asheville don’t pull in our level of local and imported talent.

The latter part of that equation marks the double-edged sword that continues carving out huge chunks of the local landscape. We jump for joy at $65 Bob-Dylan-at-The-Peel tix, then have nothing left to spend on up-and-coming locals like SeepeopleS, Marsupial, Zero to 60 (not “Sixty,” as I previously reported), Ruby Slippers, Dragonmoose, Pens and Needles and countless other hometown acts worthy of at least one-tenth that cover.

Nevertheless, this year undoubtedly boasted top-shelf music across the local board — and it’s hard to complain about the very thing that makes your mountain town so cool to begin with.

The Grey Eagle continues thriving on a number of levels. Appearances by Richard Thompson and Leo Kottke topped their 2004 roster, and their upcoming Dec. 31 bash, dubbed Mountain Music Family Circus (see Smart Bets in this week’s issue), should mark one of the finest (certainly rowdiest) New Year’s gigs on tap this year.

Meanwhile, at the Civic Center we saw the red-hot, recently reunited Primus; another smoking Warren Haynes Christmas Jam; and that stupid, useless Vote For Change tour swing through. Next door at Thomas Wolfe, vanguards Willie Nelson and B.B. King played their own fantastic, but way overpriced, shows.

Stella Blue, who at first reeled a little as The Orange Peel stole some of their favorite regulars out from under their noses, eventually rallied to have a surprisingly great year. The club diversified its offerings to please local DJ connoisseurs and the underground but still fire-breathing heavy-metal crowd, as well as all those aforementioned damned hippies. (In fact, Stella made the best local history this year when it hosted the first official Col. Bruce and Aquarium Rescue Unit gig in 10 years.)

There ain’t enough room here to list all the good gigs and better venues that continue scrapping it out in our highly competitive market — stay tuned.

As I sit down to pen this last Junk Journal of 2004, the hope of Asheville indie rock, DrugMoney, just played its “last” Vincent’s Ear show to a packed-out Saturday-night house.

And ironically, in the midst of the supposed official last rites for Vincent’s, front man Fisher Meehan seems to be finally getting the chance he clearly deserves from those record-exec gods on high. Three days after the Vincent’s show, Fisher was slated to open a show at New Orleans’ House of Blues for not-so-bad mainstream rockers Collective Soul; his tour schedule also showed another gig with that band in Oklahoma a few days later.

In doing so, the singer/guitarist may finally get his 15 minutes extended after all. It’s a bit of good news at a time when good news is hard to come by down on Lexington.

Fisher’s latest success should remind us that as easy as it is to get your rocks off on $50-plus shows from B.B. King or Bob Dylan, saving a few bucks to support the local vocals that endow our town with that Freak-in-Asheville spirit isn’t without its own rewards.

Frank Zappa once quipped that “Music is the best.” I tend to agree, and that goes for the domestics, as well as the imports. So let’s make sure in 2005 we don’t get totally overrun by a bunch of high-dollar out-of-towners when our many, varied homegrown nuggets often taste just as fresh.

Views

B.B. King, Thomas Wolfe Auditorium; Sunday, Dec. 12

Some people just inspire greatness. And the interminable B.B. King remains monarch of such muses: After catching the living legend’s recent local performance, I’ve personally decided to quit smoking, write the next Great Gatsby and, of course, learn to play electric blues guitar.

Just seeing the man work his Mississippi-born charisma for the at-times disappointingly tame and mostly upper-crust Thomas Wolfe crowd still made a case for being one of Asheville’s most distinguished musical moments of 2004.

Now 79, B.B. brought his utterly outstanding backing band along for the Asheville ride, and that crew admittedly carries a lot of the weight for the aging legend.

But with his characteristic playfulness and good humor fully intact, King demanded crowd interaction throughout a show that featured a healthy sampling of his unmistakable wailing guitar. Seated throughout the show with his sweet “Lucille,” B.B. constantly gave props to his band mates for their mastery on tunes like U2’s “When Love Comes to Town,” “How Blue Can You Get” and the inevitable — but still, somehow, magnificent — “The Thrill is Gone.”

Admittedly, the ticket price could’ve been a bit less, and B.B. certainly doesn’t have the chops he had even 10 years ago. But it was still a privilege to see the King for what may well be one last time.

Late in the show, on the classic Big Bill Broonzy tune “Key to the Highway,” King crooned an eerily sad but appropriate line: “When I leave this town, I won’t be back no more.” At the end of the song, he added, “I’m gonna do this till I die, folks.”

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