From the standpoint of live music, this year has been another remarkable one for Western North Carolina. In addition to some superb homegrown/local talent, Asheville remains a popular destination for some of the very best touring musical acts. I lost count of how many shows I attended this year, but I had no problem choosing the five best performances.
Brevard Music Center
Saturday, July 2
By Asheville entertainment standards, it’s a bit of a trek to the Brevard Music Center, but the music on offer each season more than justifies the drive time. This year saw the celebration of the BMC’s 80th season, and as such, the music schedule was especially impressive. A highlight was the resident orchestra’s evening of music by Mozart and Wagner.
The former’s Overture to The Impressario and Sinfonia Concertante opened the program, and then after a short break, the large classical ensemble returned for three Wagner pieces: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, and the thrilling Prelude to Die Meistersinger. The hybrid concert space — essentially an open-air venue with a roof — has been upgraded along with the sound system, making the BMC a must-go stop on anyone’s summer concert calendar. Read my story on Brevard Music Center’s 80th Anniversary season in Xpress.
Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
Thursday, Aug. 18
First — for those who don’t already know — the bad news. Brian Wilson, composer and former leader of the Beach Boys, is a stiff and seemingly unwilling performer as one can possibly imagine. Onstage at the Thomas Wolfe auditorium, he was seated at a grand piano that seemed suspiciously like a prop (“Look: his hands are on his lap!”). Often during concerts, when he reaches the end of his vocal part, he’s up off the piano stool, headed offstage without a word as the band finishes the song without him.
But there’s no denying the melodic mastery — and complete control of the recording studio-as-instrument — of Brian Wilson. His 1966 Pet Sounds is effectively a solo album with vocals by the Beach Boys; on that record Wilson deftly led a musical collective later known as “the Wrecking Crew,” and Pet Sounds was belatedly recognized as one of the greatest works in popular music. This tour presented that work in its entirety plus a selection of more pop-leaning Beach Boys hits, all performed by one of the best bands in the business. In the end, the Pet Sounds Live tour was more of a tribute to Wilson than a concert by him, but the man has earned the right to rest on his laurels. Read my Brian Wilson interview/feature in Xpress.
The Orange Peel
Thursday, Oct. 20
As the youngest musician ever to secure a faculty position at the esteemed Berklee College of Music, Esperanza Spalding was clearly destined for great things. Her early albums showcased her complete mastery of upright bass, and she worked well within the idioms of jazz and classical. But even on those records, there are hints of an artist bristling to push boundaries. Her 2016 album, Emily’s D+Evolution, is in many ways the culmination of those ambitions; it’s nearly impossible to describe the music without using at least several genre labels. Its appeal is staggeringly wide.
But if Emily’s D+Evolution-the-album is ambitious, it pales in comparison to Spalding’s live presentation at The Orange Peel. Accompanied by an ace guitarist and drummer — both of whom were situated as far stage left as possible — Spalding presented the album in its entirety with the help of three superb vocalists. Those four presented the music via what Spalding describes as “dramaturgy,” and the result was as visually arresting as it was musically stunning. An a cappella solo encore — during which Spalding thanked everyone for coming, all without missing a beat — was the perfect finish to a concert night like no other. Read my Esperanza Spalding interview/feature in Xpress.
Asheville Music Hall
Sunday, Oct. 16
The man’s story is so fascinating, so compelling and inspiring, that had it not actually happened, someone would have needed to invent it. After a good yet commercially ignored album, an artist who went simply by his first name (Xavier) was involved in a serious auto accident that left him in a coma for weeks. When he finally woke, his body was so badly damaged that he was told he’d never make music again. Undaunted, he persisted.
Fast-forward to more than a few years later. He hasn’t quite made it yet, but the musician — now calling himself Fantastic Negrito — submits a homemade music video to Bob Boilen’s “Tiny Desk Concerts” show on NPR. He wins a spot on the show, and his talent is recognized. As showcased on his full length debut, The Last Days of Oakland, Fantastic Negrito’s music is much deeper and weightier than Xavier’s Prince-lite funk, and live onstage at Asheville Music Hall he was even more intense and inspiring. He told his story during the show, but it was mostly about music and message. Few performers are more passionate and heartfelt, and fewer still make great music on a par with that of Fantastic Negrito. He’s one to watch. Read my Fantastic Negrito interview/feature in Xpress.
Friday, Nov. 4
Little about the Asheville quartet’s 2013 debut EP prepares the listener for the great leap forward — both in songwriting and arrangement — displayed on 2016’s Whiskey Drunk on Puppy Love. A winning amalgam of alt-country and Motown/Stax influences is brought to bear on solid, supremely catchy tunes. All four women write and sing, and though their vocal harmonies are carefully worked out, they’re delivered with a sense of abandon and delight that makes the whole endeavor seem effortless.
Onstage at The Mothlight, backed by a superb group dubbed “The Claudes,” the women — Dulci Ellenberger, Melissa Hyman, Amanda Platt and Amber Sankaran — wowed the audience with both flawless harmonies and remarkable instrumental prowess (Platt on banjo and guitar, Ellenberger on guitar, and Hyman on cello while singing lead!). The group ran through the entire Whiskey Drunk on Puppy Love album, following it up with a clutch of covers that provided clues — as if any were needed — to their good taste and musical chops. Read my Sweet Claudette interview/feature in Xpress.
For advice on future shows in and around Asheville, check out my twice-monthly “30 Days Out” column here on Mountain Xpress.