French Broad River Festival marks 17 years of laidback fun
It was 17 years ago when Mark Mickey and Chris Donochod launched the French Broad Downriver Race — a competitive paddle down Section 9 from Barnard to Hot Springs with some laid-back fun at the end. “There were about 100 people, a bunch of rafts, and we raced to Hot Springs Campground where we had a band, bluegrass picking, a keg of beer and a little raffle,” says Justyn Thompson. He helped sponsor the inaugural event through local kayak company Watershed Dry Bags, where he works as its brand manager.
Three years later, he, Sid Border and Matt Kern came on board as co-organizers in what became the annual French Broad River Festival. That fête returns with three days full of family-friendly music, art, camping and outdoor recreation from Friday to Sunday, May 2-4.
Like the festival, the quintet who masterminded it has remained intact. Each went to school in state (Donochod, Border and Kern attended N.C. State University while Thompson and Mickey are Warren Wilson College alums) and bonded through kayaking and rafting. True to those roots, paddling remains a central part of the weekend with a nine-mile race hosted by French Broad Raft Co. on Saturday. Some participants take the paddling seriously, while others goof off and vie for the coveted DFL prize, awarded to the team that finishes Dead Frickin’ Last.
The French Broad River Festival, which now attracts 2,500 to 3,000 people, has since added a river cleanup and mountain bike races for adults and kids. Children younger than 12 get in free: For them, there’s a huge Kids Village with all kinds of crafts, a show and parade with jam band Sol Driven Train, and performances by Paperhand Puppet Intervention and Asheville Aerial Arts.
But, as with many warm-weather festivals, the weekend’s main draw is its plentiful music, spread across the campground’s Main Stage and the upper field’s Flood Stage. “I consider us a steppingstone festival,” Thompson says. “Right before a band gets really big, they play our festival.”
Of the acts on the cusp of potential stardom is Austin, Texas-based T Bird and the Breaks, whose funk grooves and soulful background singers made the group a featured band at this year’s SXSW festival. Also primed for the spotlight is Hot Buttered Rum, bluegrass pickers from San Francisco who’ll be joined by fiddler Allie Krall of Chicago roots band Cornmeal.
Thompson and Donochod handle the festival booking and tend to select what they’re into at the time. It’s an approach that Thompson admits is a little selfish, though one that has proved successful. Last year, the two were listening to a lot of roots rocker Langhorne Slim and were elated to book him, but their eclectic tastes consistently keep the lineup fresh. “I go from honky-tonk love songs to electronic stuff,” Thompson says. “Chris likes everything as well, but more Americana, and he also likes world music.”
Adds Thompson: “We tend to surprise each other, and we complement each other really well with what we pick. We don’t claim to stick to any genre. One year could be heavy bluegrass, one year could be heavy funk.”
He and Donochod also look for bands who are friends with each other, an angle that results in a good deal of spontaneity and artists jumping onstage to play together. This year, that same amiable atmosphere has encouraged a reunion for bluegrass/world music band and longtime friends of the festival, Snake Oil Medicine Show. Singer Caroline Pond is flying in from Hawaii, where she lives these days. Past band members Jay Sanders (Acoustic Syndicate) Jason Krekel (The Krektones) and Aaron Price (Wham Bam Bowie Band) will be there, too.
Here’s what’s new: The ENO Lotus Lounge, a flower-shaped structure with a DJ booth and hammocks hanging from its many petals. Even better: 2014 marks the first year that beer will be sold at the festival. Asheville Brewing, Catawba Brewing and Sierra Nevada will be represented. “We’re starting small and not going too crazy with it,” says Thompson. “We beefed up security, but we have such a mellow crowd.”
Here’s what’s tried-and-true: Entry fees help worthwhile local causes. Since its inception, the festival has donated over $150,000 to charities. This year’s event benefits American Whitewater, Homeward Bound and the Hot Springs Community Learning Center.
French Broad River Festival, frenchbroadriverfestival.com
Hot Springs Campground and Spa, Hot Springs
Friday-Sunday, May 2-4. Tickets range from $30 for rafting only to $130 for an all-inclusive weekend pass.