In a quandary that ranks up with the chicken and egg debate, it’s difficult to determine which came first for Pisgah Brewing Co. — its founders’ love of making beer or their fondness for hosting live music.
Both aspects have made the Black Mountain brewery and concert venue reliable sources for each, and the two will be celebrated at Pisgah’s 11th Anniversary Party on Sunday, April 17. Funk stalwart Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, which in August 2010 was the first touring act to perform on the property’s then much smaller outdoor stage, returns to headline the event. New York instrumental rock-fusion group TAUK and Greenville, S.C.-based psychedelic Southern rock act The Marcus King Band open.
Back in 2005, Pisgah’s first live music was played by owners David Quinn and Jason Caughman and their groups of friends. “[Dave] is a music major himself and a guitar player, and back when Pisgah didn’t even have a taproom, they would set up in the corner of the brewery while folks came in for growler fills and pints,” says Benton Wharton, the brewery’s events and PR director. “So it’s been ingrained in our being since the beginning, really.”
Once the taproom opened in 2008, offering entertainment was a priority for the owners. Wharton began helping book and manage the music with his Mountain Roots Management company. Offerings included free shows by solid local talent and a few touring acts doing ticketed events. As far as Wharton knows, Pisgah was the first Asheville-area brewery to focus on the latter type of shows.
“That was a time when there were fewer venues being active in the market, and since my company managed and booked talent for our local events — Asheville Music Jamboree, Asheville Earth Day and more — we were already having conversations about the market and were able to be active with solid namesake artists,” Wharton says. Taproom shows by The New Mastersounds, Pimps of Joytime and Jeff Coffin’s M’utet in 2009 helped Pisgah establish itself as a music hub.
To attract a larger crowd, plans were drawn up for an outdoor stage. Venues like Horning’s Hideout in Portland, Ore., inspired the hand-milled, all-local wood structure that was erected in 2010. Looking back at the first event on Pisgah’s then 20-by-20-foot outdoor stage, Denson remembers its pristine condition and down-home aesthetic. “It felt like being in someone’s backyard,” says the saxophonist, who’s fresh off playing Havana, Cuba, with The Rolling Stones. “It had a very cool vibe.”
Audiences and subsequent acts agreed, and after one season, Pisgah organizers realized they needed a larger stage to accommodate the artists who would play the 2,250-capacity space (a self-mandated number based on the property’s parking availability). So 10 feet of wood was added in each direction in winter 2011, and in 2016 the stage grew by another 12 feet in both directions in the form of working wings.
The now 64-by-20-foot surface has a roof that extends 5 feet out on all sides. The stage will host its most prestigious lineup to date this summer (see sidebar). These acts join an already storied history — Wharton names shows by Del McCoury (2010), Grace Potter (2011), Steele Pulse (2011), Umphrey’s McGee (2012) and Yonder Mountain String Band with Devil Makes Three (2013) among the venue’s greatest hits. Sold-out performances by Trampled By Turtles (2014-16), Old Crow Medicine Show (2014-15) and Jason Isbell (2015) also make his list.
“What’s most special is developing a working relationship with the artists who love to return to Pisgah as a definite stop on their annual routes. [It’s] a home away from home, if you will,” Wharton says. “[Grateful Dead cover band] Dark Star Orchestra really embodies that feel for me, having played at Pisgah every year in early August since 2011, and now making it an annual two-night stop on the week between Jerry Garcia’s birth (Aug. 1) and death (Aug. 9), which we refer to as ‘The Days Between.’ It’s become an annual destination for their crowd base, and that’s something we take to heart at Pisgah.”
Wharton adds that the high frequency of funk, jam and bluegrass groups over the years is largely reflective of the Pisgah staff’s musical tastes, but that they’re “always looking for bands that are both in high rotation on our personal playlists as well as those that embody the spirit of Pisgah — high improvisation, bending the rules of genre and mind-blowing talent.” He sees the outdoor stage as a premier venue of the Southeast now more than ever and credits the property’s natural beauty and the consistently helpful, hardworking crew with establishing that reputation.
WHAT: Pisgah’s 11th Anniversary Party with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, TAUK and The Marcus King Band
WHERE: Pisgah Brewing Co., pisgahbrewing.com
WHEN: Sunday, April 17, 5 p.m. $11