When I was a kid I had a book called Adventures by Leaflight that wasn’t terribly memorable beyond its title. But that title could easily be recast as a long weekend at the LEAF festival, set around Lake Eden at Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain. From the rush to get out of work, pack a car and beat the traffic out to the Owen School parking lot, to the cramped but cheerful shuttle ride (by trolly or school bus depending on your luck of the draw), to the first moment stepping off the shuttle into LEAF’s colorful, otherworldly environs, it’s all an adventure.
But it’s at the shufftle drop-off on Camp Rockmont property where the magic really starts, when the daily business and routine fall away and you’re surrounded by fall colors, mountain vistas and thousands of people in costumes and various stages of parading or stiltwalking or slack-line yoga-ing. It’s pretty much like wandering into a participatory carnival.
This season’s theme was Spirit of NOLA, which meant lots of New Orleans-based or inspired artists, as well as Mardi Gras Indians, second line bands and of flags and beads in purple, gold and green. But there were also plenty of surprises, such as the ways that artists incorporated and digested New Orleans influence.
LEAF board president James Fisher predicted the California Honeydrops would be a sleeper hit — one of the first mainstage acts of the weekend and at the time when LEAF attendees were just arriving and setting up camp. But the Honeydrops had a plan. Having spent most of the week working with LEAF Schools & Streets students at Irwin High School, they’d invited those kids — who helped wrap the set with a second line performance — effectively filling out the crowd and adding a lot of energy.
It was clear that the Honeydrops and the LSS students had a great rapport, which was exciting to watch, but the band was also a revelation in and of itself. With equal parts swagger and sweetness, they exuded friendly cool. By the second song — a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” — the crowd was singing along. For both covers and originals, the band tapped a seamless mix of ’50s-era rock and soul with plenty of New Orleans r&b-style funk and brass.
While the weekend showcased many fantastic collaborations from the LEAF Schools & Streets program, a few highlights included the Swannanoa Valley Montessori students performing “Iko Iko” and original song “Thank You New Orleans” onstage with Sol Driven Train. That energetic Charleston-based band also played their song, “Longjohns,” with lyrics written by students from another local school. A group of student percussionists, led by local drummer Adama Dembele (Zansa) and Imhotep (Rising Appalachia) performed in Eden Hall and, during a late afternoon mainstage set on Saturday, New Orleans rockers The Revivalists invited local 14 year-old guitar virtuoso Jaden Carlson onstage. Carlson’s fiery playing is absolutely deserving of the spotlight.