In one of his letters, author John Steinbeck observed, “A funeral isn’t for the dead. You’ll simply be a stage set for a kind of festival.” These words ring true about the sudden death last year of Jeff Knorr. The bearded bulwark of Asheville’s music scene, a keyboardist in bands such as The Secret B-Sides, Chalwa and Nuevo Montuno Salsa Orchestra, brought together players from many groups for his memorial service at Salvage Station in July.
“[Knorr’s passing] made us realize how much we all love each other as a community, as well as how much we need to talk about and nurture that community,” says Secret B-Sides frontman Juan Holladay. In an effort to keep that flame alive, Holladay is dedicating another concert to Knorr’s memory: the third annual Mountain Soul Party, taking place on Friday, Jan. 12, at Isis Music Hall.
On first hearing, the name of the event doesn’t seem to cover the diversity of artists slated to perform. Headliner Ryan “RnB” Barber comes from a rhythm and blues background, while rapper Preach Jacobs from Columbia, S.C., adds hip-hop, and members of Empire Strikes Brass bring the funk. Other artists scheduled to appear during the night include the Secret B-Sides, CaroMia, Jesse Barry, Jordan Okrend, Jeff Thompson and Whitney Moore, with hosting duties handled by Cousin TL of Asheville FM’s “Stank Free Radio.”
Holladay explains that for him, the umbrella of the soul genre is more functional than stylistic. “The term ‘soul music’ used to be synonymous with church music,” he says. “It makes sense for me — when I’m at the Tuesday Night Funk Jam at Asheville Music Hall, the music just completely fills my soul in that moment, and I become one with everyone in the room.”
That unifying spiritual experience informs the Mountain Soul Party’s logo as well as its lineup. Based on an emblem from the U.K.’s Northern soul movement, the design by Asheville graphic artist Kevin Thompson features a monarch butterfly with the words “Mountain Soul” and “Keep the Faith.” The symbol also pays tribute to soul legend and Asheville resident Sidney Barnes, who contributed to the development of Northern soul in the 1960s and will make a special appearance at the concert.
Guest contributions and collaborations have become a hallmark of the event since its beginnings in 2015. Performers mix and match with members of other acts, creating unique combinations specifically for the show. Even Barber’s band draws personnel from Empire Strikes Brass, The Digs, The Business and the Tuesday Night Funk Jam house band.
This spirit of cooperation gives Asheville’s soul scene a strength beyond its numbers. “I think these genres are making more of an impact in Asheville, slowly but surely,” Barber says. “A lot of local acts have been working hard to showcase and bring them to the forefront, and people are definitely starting to pay more attention — it’s a force to be reckoned with.”
New to the Mountain Soul Party this year is an effort to foster members of the soul community in their earliest stages. Before the main show begins at 9 p.m., students from the Asheville Music School (where Holladay works as a teacher) present a seated concert in the Isis lounge starting at 7 p.m. Youth ensembles Vinyl Crossroads and Defective Swing cover classic rock, pop rock and Motown tunes to hone their musical chops.
“The whole point of this event is to build community,” says Holladay. “To really do that, you have to involve young musicians as well, because that’s as local as it gets.” He envisions the annual concert becoming a kind of incubator for new artists, with musicians moving from the youth ensembles to opening slots in the main room to headlining performances over time.
Just as crucial as young performers, Holladay emphasizes, is a sense of responsibility to the scene. Proceeds from tickets for the youth show, which also cover admission to the event’s main stage, benefit the Burton Street ONEmic Studio and LEAF Schools & Streets. “It’s so powerful to have youths playing music that generates funds for other youths to record and play music,” he says.
Holladay hopes the concert initiates a new generation into the faith of soul. It’s a creed of paying it forward, helping people enjoy themselves and playing well with others — lessons worth taking far beyond the stage. “When I teach ensembles, I’m teaching them how to listen, pay attention to their bandmates and work as a team to accomplish a goal,” he says. “I think that’s applicable to lots of other areas of life.”
WHAT: Mountain Soul Party
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Friday, Jan. 12, 7 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show/$5 children younger than 5