Russ Wilson’s Famous Orchestra helps Isis Music Hall celebrate its fifth anniversary

ALL ABOUT THE DANCING: Local bandleader Russ Wilson fronts a number of musical ensembles, but midcentury big band music is nearest and dearest to his heart. As part of Isis Music Hall's celebration of five years in business, Wilson's Famous Orchestra performs Oct. 8.
ALL ABOUT THE DANCING: Local bandleader Russ Wilson fronts a number of musical ensembles, but midcentury big band music is nearest and dearest to his heart. As part of Isis Music Hall's celebration of five years in business, Wilson's Famous Orchestra performs Oct. 8. Photo by Frank Zipperer

Asheville is populated with scores of hardworking, ever-busy creative people who endeavor to bring their chosen art to the public. But among those, perhaps the busiest of all is Russ Wilson. It’s difficult to keep a tally on just how many musical projects he’s juggling at any given moment, but, of late, the highest-profile among these is Russ Wilson’s Famous Orchestra. As part of a series of concerts celebrating the five-year anniversary of Isis Music Hall in West Asheville, Wilson’s big band performs Sunday, Oct. 8.

Throughout 2016, Wilson staged an ambitious “History of Jazz” concert series that explored the many substyles of the American musical form, drawing strictly from the local pool of talent. While admitting that it involved a great deal of work, Wilson is proud of the project. “We achieved what we set out to do,” he says. The series covered ragtime, prewar hot jazz, big band and swing, hard bop, fusion and more. “There is an audience for every style,” Wilson says.

But his first love is the sound of the big band, a style that enjoyed its heyday between the mid-1930s and the end of World War II. Wilson takes some issue with that perhaps too-neat description. “Big bands never left,” he says. For a time, the classification changed into a style less focused on dancing, more on listening. “But it’s going back to dancers now,” he says.

As evidence, Wilson points to Lindy Focus, an annual event hosted at the local Crowne Plaza Resort each December. Now in its 16th year, Lindy Focus brings together huge crowds who convene to practice their moves to a lineup of big bands. “They come for the lessons, they come for the camaraderie, they come to dance,” Wilson says, “but they’ve also come to listen. They cheer on the soloists. They know the tunes, and they know the band leaders that played them.”

Not surprisingly, Wilson has his own opinion as to why big band jazz has endured. “For lack of a better term, it appeals to the masses,” he says. “Besides the true musical value — which has to be there — there’s entertainment value to it.”

Wilson has enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Isis Music Hall. The “History of Jazz” concert series was hosted there, and Wilson’s annual holiday extravaganza, “Have Yourself a Swingin’ Little Christmas” takes place at Isis in December.

Isis opened in 2012. The Woody family purchased the former movie theater more than a decade earlier and engaged in major renovations before launching as a listening room and restaurant. Even though West Asheville’s renaissance as a vibrant community hub was already well underway by that time, Isis quickly became a centerpiece of the neighborhood, hosting a steady and wide variety of musical acts on its main stage (with room for an audience of 450), its intimate upstairs lounge and on its outdoor patio during warmer months.

“We see ourselves as part of Asheville,” owner Scott Woody says, “and, more specifically, West Asheville. We hope that our presence will be an integral component to the positive growth of Asheville as a community and as a destination for visitors.” He points out that his entire family is involved in making Isis a success.

The venue’s five-year anniversary will be celebrated throughout October. Its typically packed schedule includes shows this month by Vance Gilbert (Wednesday, Oct. 4), Joe Crookston (Thursday, Oct. 12), Holly Bowling (Friday and Saturday, Oct. 13 and 14), the Claire Lynch Band on Wednesday, Oct. 18 (Lynch was one of the first acts to play Isis), and a Friday, Oct. 27, show by Grammy-winning bluegrass star Sam Bush.

For a city of its size, Asheville enjoys an unusually rich assortment of entertainment options. Part of that is thanks to the city’s status as a popular destination: Touring artists simply want to play here. If there’s a downside to that fact, Woody thinks it’s the threat of too much of a good thing. “One of the biggest challenges that we have, and really every music venue in this town has, is the saturation of music performances and ‘other things to do’ in Asheville,” he says.

Woody goes to great pains to de-emphasize the issue but concedes that the unfortunate branding of the Islamic State radical religious fundamentalist group as ISIS has brought the decidedly unradical Isis Music Hall some undeserved condemnation, and even harassment.

But he remains upbeat, noting that Isis fills a unique niche. “It’s one of the few venues in town [where] you could enjoy a seated dinner and concert featuring classical music or a jazz trio, and then, later the same evening, enjoy a standing show party,” he says. And, though it’s billed as a seated event, a dancing show party is quite possibly what attendees will get from Russ Wilson and his Famous Orchestra.

WHO: Russ Wilson and his Famous Orchestra
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Sunday, Oct. 8, at 7:30 p.m. $15

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About Bill Kopp
Music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. In that order? Perhaps. My book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," will be published in 2018 by Rowman & Littlefield. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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