From the moment AVLFest was announced in early February, comparisons were drawn between it and Bele Chere, the city’s former downtown outdoor street festival that ceased operations in 2013 after a 35-year run. Like Bele Chere, AVLFest is a multiday event featuring performing artists. But that’s about where the similarities end.
“It’s not (Bele Chere) at all,” says AVLFest co-founder Jeff Whitworth, owner of independent talent buying organization Worthwhile Sounds. The new music festival, he emphasizes, is “the antithesis of that.”
Whitworth, who previously owned The Grey Eagle from 2004-15, says he witnessed “the heyday of Bele Chere.” Though he acknowledges the beneficial influx of tourism and attention that the festival brought to Asheville, he mostly remembers the disruptions that the event caused, particularly for drivers and local businesses. Each year, like many other Asheville shops, he closed his River Arts District venue during the festival’s four-day run rather than compete with the street vendors and multiple music stages a few blocks away.
Following Bele Chere’s demise, Asheville’s music scene has continued to grow. Yet large-scale events, including Moogfest and All Go West, have come and gone, leaving the city without a signature showcase of a similar magnitude. So when the opportunity to launch a new festival arose, Whitworth tapped into his range of experiences.
His top priority was to raise greater awareness about Asheville’s music scene. “Based on the per capita numbers, I feel like we have the best collection and assortment of venues in the country,” he says.
That variety will be on display Thursday, Aug. 3-Sunday, Aug. 6 as over 200 bands — the large majority of them from the Asheville area — perform on 20-plus stages across the city. Despite a few minor hiccups, Whitworth says ticket sales and the overall reception have been so overwhelmingly positive that a second year is already in the works.
The roots of AVLFest go back to the early 2000s when Whitworth had a vision to establish South By Southeast in Asheville — a would-be sister festival of the popular South By Southwest music, film and media festival in Austin, Texas.
“It was little more than a pipe dream,” Whitworth says. “We put together a proposal and went after it pretty aggressively. But that ended up not happening, obviously, so I just let it die down.”
Nearly two decades later, in December 2022, he was approached by Bryan Matheny, a transplant from Colorado with a similar vision. Not long after their introduction, the pair met with Wicked Weed Brewing’s sales and marketing team, ultimately forming a partnership. Whitworth knew the brewery’s long history of booking local musical acts at all three of its Asheville taprooms. He also remembered the company’s 2017 Festival of Artistry, which brought Georgia-based indie rockers of Montreal and local acts such as DJ Marley Carroll to the South Slope for a day of free outdoor shows.
“(The Festival of Artistry) was great, but we didn’t have the capability of scaling that just by ourselves,” says Cory Cunningham, Wicked Weed’s senior director of sales and a longtime local with extensive knowledge of and history with the area music scene. “We know our lanes and know what we’re good at and things that we’re not good at. So it’s really a perfect marriage with Jeff and Bryan to have this concept and something that Wicked Weed’s been passionate about since the very beginning.”
From there, Whitworth tapped into his extensive network of area artists, many of whom, he notes, “confirmed on blind faith, not knowing exactly when or where they were playing — which was a huge ask.”
Confident that AVLFest’s success depended on the Asheville community’s support, Whitworth took an unconventional approach to ticket sales by offering discounted, $50 early-bird passes exclusively to area residents within a 75-mile radius of Asheville. At the time, no artists were announced. Instead, buyers were simply promised “a multiday music and arts festival taking place throughout the greater Asheville area” that would “fill area concert halls, clubs and outdoor venues alike with an exceptional lineup of local, regional and national talent.” The pass also granted exclusive access to reduced-price tickets for AVLFest’s standalone headliner shows.
As Cunningham notes, area music fans had to trust Whitworth’s 20-year track record of booking quality acts. Early sales were stronger than anticipated. And the numbers continued to climb once tickets were available to the broader public in late February. The trend remained steady once the first wave of artists — a who’s who of 60-plus Asheville-area acts, including Tyler Ramsey, Lyric and Toubab Krewe — were announced March 1.
Then in mid-April, Americana duo Watchhouse was named AVLfest’s first headliner, playing The Outpost at 8:15 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 3. The $20 ticket irked some potential attendees who had yet to purchase festival passes. On the festival’s Instagram page, one commenter voiced frustration at having to “buy a ticket that allows us to buy another ticket.”
As was always the plan, individual tickets for Watchhouse and fellow headliner
s Kurt Vile & The Violators (who play Friday, Aug. 4, at 7:15 p.m. at Highland Brewing Co.’s Meadow Stage), were later made available to the general public for $40 each. But those who snagged passes were treated to two more waves of artist announcements, featuring additional local talent, as well as revered acts from across North Carolina, including rockers Sarah Shook & The Disarmers and folk duo Chatham Rabbits.
“You could buy a weekend pass, a ticket for Kurt Vile and a ticket to Watchhouse and still pay less than 100 bucks, which is still cheaper than any other four-day festival that you’re going to find with a lineup as substantial as AVLFest’s,” Whitworth says. “Keeping the buyer in mind was always front and center. We always wanted to make sure that we didn’t price anybody out.”
The variety of shows will bring attendees from large outdoor spaces to intimate indoor ones, including Fleetwood’s and Sovereign Kava. Participating venues will operate on a first-come, first-served basis, adhering to legal capacities. Concertgoers arriving after capacities are reached can wait in line outside and enter the venue as space becomes available. These approaches overlap with those of Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival, but an important detail separates the two events.
“One of the things that I was dead set on from the beginning was no street closures. We all agreed that we wanted to Asheville to be able to operate normal operating procedures,” Whitworth says. “The whole idea is raising awareness about what we do on a regular basis here. We don’t want to disrupt business for anybody. We want to promote and encourage business for all the local businesses here.”
To that end, AVLFest is partnering with over 100 Asheville restaurants and retailers — ranging from massage therapists to Tops for Shoes — that are offering a 10-20% discount to anyone with a festival wristband. Organizers also partnered with Young Transportation & Tours to have four buses running a festival shuttle route throughout the festivities.
(Arctic) blast from the past
While AVLFest features plenty of exciting performers on the lineup, it also includes the reunion of former Asheville-based indie rockers Kovacs & The Polar Bear. The group’s Aug. 4 show at 11:30 p.m. at The Orange Peel marks the first time that multi-instrumentalists/vocalists Nick Kovacs, Andrew Woodward, Chris Lee and Joe Chang have played together in 10 years.
Over that time, all but Chang moved out West for extended stretches. Kovacs currently lives in Fort Collins, Colo., and Lee is based in Portland, Ore. But the four pals have remained in constant contact over the past decade while pursuing their own musical projects. Early this year, a friend sent them a screenshot of a Reddit thread where, according to Lee, “someone said something flattering” about their band. Aware that AVLFest was taking shape, they started mulling the prospect of getting back together for a show.
“The first wave of the lineup had bands we love and know, like River Whyless and Floating Action. At some point in the group text, we were like, ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’” Lee says. “We contacted Jeff and he was superstoked to have us on board. I think our biggest concern was if people would even care that we were getting back together to do a show, but the positive response we’ve seen so far has been really encouraging.”
In preparation for the reunion — which will also include nonfestival shows at Static Age Records, Aug. 5-6 — Kovacs & The Polar Bear agreed to individually practice the songs from their lone album, 2011’s Second Sister. Once they’re all together in Asheville, they plan to play every day until AVLFest begins. But much progress has already been made: Lee and Kovacs rehearsed briefly during Lee’s recent visit to Colorado, and Chang says the songs are “coming back like riding a bike,” though they acknowledge that the true test will be playing them together live.
Whatever happens, the mere chance to perform three shows in the town where their bonds were forged has each artist excited about the festival weekend. The band will release a new EP ahead of AVLFest, and all four members are open to ongoing collaborations.
“I reckon we’ll see how that weekend goes and then maybe talk about what any future things look like,” Chang says. “It’s felt like with us living in three different time zones the last 10 years that it’s been impossible to actually be a functioning band, but who knows? Maybe something will come of this. You can’t start a fire without a spark.”
Reunions weren’t foremost on Whitworth’s mind when he envisioned AVLFest, but bringing groups like Kovacs & The Polar Bear back into the local fold only adds to the already potent mix of established and up-and-coming Asheville-area artists. And while he can’t stop people from making comparisons between his event and a certain former downtown staple, he hopes that AVLFest will likewise become synonymous with the city’s musical history.
“We’re not necessarily trying to fill the Bele Chere void, but we are trying to fill the community engagement void from a musical standpoint, because that has been something severely missing,” Whitworth says. “The landscape is perfect right now, post-COVID, because there’s an insatiable appetite for live music and an insatiable appetite for Asheville. So what better way to fill those?”
For more information, visit avl.mx/cer.