Asheville All Stars play fourth consecutive Downtown After 5

JAM WITH A PLAN: The revolving cast of the Asheville All Stars draws from across the local music scene's many genres and instruments. The annual performance as part of the Downtown After 5 street festival showcases talent and collaboration. Photo by Jim Donohoo

If there’s anyone qualified to select Asheville’s best musicians and harmoniously put them together in a show, it’s Josh Blake.

The guitarist plays in ensembles ranging from the house band for Asheville Music Hall’s Tuesday Night Funk Jam to his eponymous Jukebox group. He’s a producer and engineer at Echo Mountain Recording Studios and one of the founders of the web-based video production and live concert streaming channel Independent Arts and Music of Asheville. Blake has an especially solid connection to much of the local music community.

Former Downtown After 5 booker Frank Bloom thought as much when he approached Blake in 2012 about organizing a local showcase to headline one of the monthly summer concerts. So did Bloom’s successor, Jeff Whitworth, who followed through on the idea. Honored to be entrusted with the assignment, Blake celebrates his fourth consecutive year of curating the Asheville All Stars show on Friday, Aug. 19, when his latest lineup hits the North Lexington Avenue outdoor stage.

After a successful debut in 2013, much of the All Star band wanted to play the following year. Instead, Blake decided to keep the members rotating in order to feature the abundance of talented local musicians. The rich pool provides him with plentiful options, but there’s also the challenge of having to limit the band size for function and efficiency. “This is where some personal pressure exists, because I have many friends and peers who could easily crush this gig, who have not yet had a chance to, and many who have played in the past and could easily do it again,” Blake says.

Though he notes it’s impossible to represent every aspect of the local music scene in one evening, Blake strives for maximum diversity. Past All Star iterations have incorporated funk, pop, rock, hip-hop, ballads, bluegrass, country, reggae and jam-band songs, all in one show. To achieve these varied ends, Blake looks for people who are actively contributing to Asheville’s musical community and have had an impact on keeping it vibrant. Ensemble-wide chemistry also plays a significant factor in his selections. But while Blake intentionally includes pockets of players who’ve previously played together — providing what he calls “an anchor … within the chaos of having 17 folks on stage” — a greater thrill comes from assembling those who’ve yet to collaborate. “This is where some of the greatest magic from this gig happens, where the spirit of music and community shine the brightest,” he says.

Blake always makes sure to include a few veteran players, such as Mike Barnes in 2015 and Jeff Sipe in 2014. Peggy Ratusz, River Guerguerian, Je Weidenhouse and Charles Lichtenberger fill that role for 2016, though the organizer also does his best to make room for up-and-coming musicians. A then 17-year-old Indigo DeSouza played the 2014 gig and this year Andrew Scotchie, whom Blake calls “one of the city’s hardest working young talents,” is on board.

Other than Blake, trombonist Derrick Johnson is the lone returning player for the 2016 show, after which over 75 musicians will have represented the city as an Asheville All Star. As for those who’ve yet to be invited, Blake fields requests each year from players who want to be involved. He usually lets them know they’ll get their chance as long as the Asheville Downtown Association keeps the gig going — and often that person is someone he already has in mind for the next year’s show.

The setlist is usually a blend of originals and unique takes on covers, and when everybody is done picking songs, Blake arranges them in a way he thinks will make the evening flow well. In order for the eight vocalists — among them CaroMia Tiller, Juan Holladay and rapper Mike L!VE — to remain involved throughout the night, each selects two songs to lead and typically refrains from singing on consecutive numbers. Keyboardists and guitarists split up songs as evenly as possible, and a new drummer and bassist step in mid-set. Horns and other melodic contributions, such as Jonathan Scales on steel pans, are used throughout the performance.

Otherwise, the group as a whole approaches each song and sees what works best during three rehearsals. The first focuses on the front half of the show and the second on the latter section. Conflicting schedules mean not everyone makes these two practices, but Blake says the vibe is always great. A strong collaborative effort is fostered there, especially in the full run-through of the set the day of the gig.

Blake views the All Star showcase not only as a job but a statement for Asheville as a home to world-class musical talent. It’s an opportunity for residents to discover that great local music is available in town on any given night, and a chance for performers and audiences alike to experience a sense of encouragement, collaboration and optimism. “This is the fabric from which our collective cloth has been woven,” Blake says. “Asheville is such a special place, and this gig is a perfect reflection of the love we all feel making a life for ourselves here together.”

WHAT: Asheville All Stars with Asheville Music School and LEAF Delta Jazz Band
WHERE: North Lexington Ave., ashevilledowntown.org
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 19, 5 p.m. Free

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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