The organizers of LEAF Community Arts launched their signature event — the now-biannual LEAF Festival at Lake Eden in Black Mountain — in 1995. “When you hit a landmark like 20 years,” says LEAF Executive Director Jennifer Pickering, “it’s time to ask yourself: ‘How are we meeting our mission? How are we serving our community? What are the new opportunities, the new ways of doing things?’” A conversation that began in 2014 yielded some answers, and an outgrowth of those conclusions is the upcoming LEAF Downtown AVL, a free event taking place Saturday and Sunday, Aug 1-2, in Pack Square Park.
Beginning in 2011, LEAF sponsored Benefit of Culture, a fundraiser celebrating cultural diversity while supporting youth arts education in the Asheville area. The success of that event led LEAF organizers to explore the viability of a city-centric festival. “A downtown event starts a new conversation,” says Pickering. “It allows us to serve the communities that we work with in a new way, to partner with them in a more engaging way.” It’s also an opportunity to showcase some of the features that have made LEAF in Black Mountain so successful.
LEAF Downtown AVL features some high-profile performers. “After Bootsy Collins headlined our fall festival out at Lake Eden, he approached us about creating a Bootsy Funk Dynasty Day,” says Pickering. “For just $100, you can spend an entire day with the masters of funk.” The July 31 event includes workshops, skills sessions and a lecture by the legendary funk bassist. As plans unfolded for that event, LEAF Downtown AVL organizers realized that Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band would be the perfect fit to act as headliner for the festival in Pack Square Park, too.
At first, to some observers, LEAF Downtown AVL might look like a replacement for Bele Chere, an annual street festival that ended its 35-year run in 2013. Not so, insists Pickering. “We’re not following in Bele Chere’s footprints. No one needs to worry about that,” she says. “Bele Chere served a need that Asheville had during those years, and that’s not where Asheville is now.” Pickering says that LEAF Downtown AVL focuses on “the current challenges to and opportunities for Asheville.”
Other acts on LEAF Downtown AVL’s diverse bill include eclectic party band Red Baraat, roots-rockers Dangermuffin and rock ‘n’ roll band The London Souls. But the downtown festival’s emphasis is decidedly local overall. “We’re focusing more on local community,” Pickering says. “It’s great to engage a lot more local bands, including ones that don’t necessarily fit into the LEAF festival’s cultural connection model.” LEAF Downtown AVL will feature a wide variety of local artists, including funk-fusion collective Empire Strikes Brass and singer-songwriter Jeff Thompson.
LEAF’s ongoing cultural focus will be showcased through the Old Landmarks Spiritual Revival, headed by Lyric and Randy Weston. That performance brings together gospel singers and “voices from several of our local powerhouse choirs,” Pickering says. And the LEAF Love Band — representing a “collaboration of some of Asheville’s raw, powerful and deep talent” — will make its debut at LEAF Downtown. “That will be one of the event’s big surprises,” Pickering promises.
The local theme continues well beyond the music. All food and arts vendors are from the area. “Ever since I started LEAF 20 years ago,” says Pickering, “our mission has been to bring together a lot of different cultures. And now, LEAF Downtown really gives us an opportunity to dive in and support the beauty of our local communities.”
Pickering hopes that the festival will help give voice to such groups: “For the Voices of Asheville tent, we’re partnering with the Housing Residents Council and the Center for Diversity Education, to create an experience that allows people to step into the history of Asheville, so they can recognize and start to think about the seen and unseen diverse communities” in and around the city. “Some of those [communities] may not be a part of your daily life,” Pickering says, “but bringing them to your attention and creating opportunities for conversation will help us all to create a thriving, diverse community where everyone and anyone feels welcome.”
Pickering sums up LEAF Downtown AVL in this way: “We’re creating a gathering where the community can have a conversation in a really fun, fabulous and celebratory way.” The festival is designed to facilitate that, but she also hopes that festivalgoers will “explore what’s going on in our city and come away with a little bit more knowledge and intention to create that welcoming community in the decades to come.”
WHAT: LEAF Downtown AVL
WHERE: Pack Square Park
WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 1, noon-10 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 2, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free