The idea for RADfest, says co-organizer Emma Hutchens, “came from wanting to throw a party that our friends and neighbors would want to come to.” But this is also a party with a purpose: produced on a shoestring, with about 95% of the budget going to pay the bands, RADfest seeks to showcase a lineup of musicians from a wide range of backgrounds, identities and sounds. The two-day event — at The Grey Eagle on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 14 and 15 — includes supporting specials from local businesses (look for those to be announced) and fosters a safe space for showgoers.
The festival’s harassment policy states, “Absolutely no sexism, no racism, no homophobia, no transphobia, no fatphobia, no ageism, no ableism, no fascism.”
“We make the effort to have strategies in place that hopefully help people feel safer and more welcome,” says Hutchens. Co-organizer Andrew Vasco made a point, since last year’s festival, to do a lot of research on what it means to create safe spaces and collected best practices information that will be incorporated into RADfest. The festival’s work with Our VOICE includes infographics on social media and sexual violence training for RADfest volunteers.
“Why wouldn’t we want that?” Ellen Kempner says of safe spaces. The openly gay leader of Palehound, Sunday’s headlining act, Kempner says she’s excited to return to Asheville for RADfest “to see what it’s like when a bunch of queers or whoever have a whole day just to roam free and listen to music.”
Too often, she adds, festivals are “the worst environment … just a bunch of drunk bros.”
Palehound has played Asheville a handful of times, including a show at The Grey Eagle with Waxahatchee that Kempner describes as really cool. (She’s also quick to name Biscuithead “one of my top 15 tour meals ever.”)
The lineup also includes local hip-hop artist Musashi Xero, who will release his new EP, Self Hate as a Viable Currency, during his RADfest performance. The collection “dives into the darker side of my most transparent thoughts and feelings analyzing my anxiety, depression and heartbreak” following a personal tragedy, he says. “It’s raw, honest and direct.”
Xero’s set also helps warm up the stage for Saturday headliner Ivy Sole, a queer hip-hop artist originally from Charlotte who is now based in Philadelphia. She’s “very dear to my heart,” says Hutchens. “I’ve loved her music for a long time. … She’s someone I look up to. The fact that he’s coming to the festival, for us, is a really big deal.”
The bulk of the booking was done by Vasco, who Hutchens describes as “a tastemaker who keeps up with bands that are emerging.” And many of RADfest’s artists are, indeed, up-and-coming: “We get both the same criticism and compliment, and that is that people look at the lineup and see bands they’ve never heard of before,” Hutchens says. “That’s on purpose. … We make a point to mix in lesser-known bands that are newer or not local or [from] fringe scenes.”
Avant-garde electronic music artist Abdu Ali, from Baltimore, on the other hand, has already garnered national attention. And local act Manas (Tashi Djori and Thom Nguyn) recently toured with God Speed You Black Emperor: “They’re two musicians who have been in the Asheville scene for a long time and they’ve been doing exciting experimental work,” says Hutchens. “It’s great to welcome them home.”
Palehound’s return to Asheville is part of the band’s tour in support of Black Friday. A vulnerable and lyrics-forward release, Kempner says she initially worried that listeners wouldn’t connect. “It was cool to release it and let go of those anxieties,” she says. Initially, bringing such personal songs to her band can be difficult, Kempner says, “but we always find a way.”
She continues, “We’re always adjusting and figuring out how to re-create songs live.” This tour includes a newly added keyboardist, and the front woman shreds less on guitar to give her lyrics more space. But that’s not a permanent change: “I’ll get back to that. … I love playing guitar and I love riffing,” she says. “But for this album … I wanted to showcase a different side of my songwriting.”
RADfest’s organizers seek to encourage all such forms of creative expression — both within its lineup and for its attendees. “We’re working with Priya Ray of DIYabled as a consultant on making the event more accessible,” Huchens says, speaking to a practical consideration. She also encourages those showgoers who can do so to bike to The Grey Eagle, lessening the carbon footprint and traffic flow in the congested River Arts District. Hutchens considers that a step toward being good neighbors.
“Before the area around Depot Street and Clingman Avenue was the River Arts District, it was a black commercial district and a center for industry in the city,” she says. “We have to acknowledge and understand that we’re contributing to change in the area. We just hope to be contributing to positive, inclusive change that centers marginalized people and artists.”
Hutchens adds, “We hope to be able to be part of that community and contributing to [it] alongside our neighbors for years to come.”
WHAT: RADfest, radfestavl.com
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave.
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 14, 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 15, 3:30 p.m. $20 advance per day/$25 at the door per day/$30 weekend pass