Top-10 lists of all sorts attest: Downtown Asheville is a popular destination for live music and nightlife. That wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s, many storefronts were boarded up, and, according to locals, it was a bit of a ghost town. Rick Ramsey, one of the founders of the Asheville Downtown Association, says this is where the idea for Downtown After 5 — a monthly street festival held during the summer season — originated in 1988.
“It was about bringing people downtown and showing how vibrant the city could be,” he says. “To get people’s interest in it. To have stores and hopefully have people live here.”
He adds, “Restaurants! It’s hard to believe now, but there were very few back then.”
That initiative (along with other efforts to revitalize downtown) clearly paid off. And, on Friday, May 18, the 30th annual Downtown After 5 concert series launches with an especially localcentric show: Asheville All-Stars, a supergroup composed of a rotating cast of Asheville’s favorite singers and musicians.
Dancing in the streets
Guitarist, vocalist and All-Stars organizer Josh Blake hints that the concert may pay tribute to the music of 1988. “It’s possible that we will be touching on some throwback jams this year to make note of [the 30th anniversary], no pun intended,” he says.
Blake explains that, even if audiences have heard the Asheville All-Stars before, this show will be an entirely new experience.
Fresh incarnations of the band have played Downtown After 5 every year since 2013. “There are so many people in town making music and creating a scene here, how can we pick a few people and call them ‘the all-stars?’” Blake muses. “It felt kind of inappropriate to the collaborative nature of our community, so we decided to rotate the band every year.”
There have been 100 different musicians who have played Downtown After Five as the Asheville All-Stars, according to Blake. This year, the lineup includes bassists Jake Wolf and Rob Geisler; drummers Claude Coleman Jr. and Eliza Hill; Kyle Travers on guitar, keyboards and vocals; pianist Andrew Fletcher; Alex Taub on keyboards; Elenore Underhill on vocals, banjo and guitar; vocalists Pam Jones and Ryan “RnB” Barber; Brie Capone, Dennis Berndt and Ram Mandlekorn on guitar and vocals; saxophonist Jonathan Cole; and Tom Smith on trombone.
The concert series takes place on Lexington Avenue, near the Interstate 240 overpass, the third Friday of each month through September, at 5 p.m.
Ramsey says that Downtown After 5 didn’t always draw big crowds. “We had some lean years, we had a lot of rain. If we ordered two Port-a-John, and it rained, that could break us,” he remembers. “But we always felt that the festival could be so much more. Leslie Anderson was the downtown development director, and she trusted us.”
The festival’s prospects for the future began to stabilize when Ted Warner, the owner of a popular local nightclub known as Gatsby’s (located in the Walnut Street space now occupied by Mountain Madre Mexican Kitchen) began lending a hand.
“Ted Warner gave us the parking lot on Lexington Avenue,” says Ramsey. “[Warner] would do most of the booking for the bands, and then he would have them there at Gatsby’s that night, so it would be a sort of double-pay deal for the bands. That helped us stay afloat for those years, and we started really growing then.”
Downtown After 5 moved to Pack Square in 1998. “It brought us into the center of downtown,” Ramsey says. “All the city workers, all the attorneys and banks were all around there. You could feel it just blowing up.” These days, the series attracts an average of 5,000 visitors per event.
Spreading the love
When Pack Square underwent reconstruction in 2006, the concert series found a temporary home on Battery Park Avenue, outside the Grove Arcade. It moved again in 2008, to its current home on Lexington Avenue.
That site works well, says Meghan Rogers, Asheville Downtown Association executive director. “We have brought on professionals to book the musical acts for us, and I think that it shows in our lineup. We’ve also hired more staff, and that’s been a big, positive change. We’ve been able to increase the number of volunteers that we have, which makes the event run more smoothly, as well as having great sponsors who support the event.”
Rogers says Downtown After 5 has donated more than $150,000 to local charities over the past three decades. “We partner with five nonprofits each year — a different nonprofit at each event,” she explains, “They sell the wristbands [for beer sales] for us, and we donate $2,000 to each nonprofit.” This year’s nonprofit partners are Asheville Youth Villages, Girls on the Run, Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC, Guardian Ad Litem of Buncombe County and Asheville Museum of Science.
Each concert depends on more than 125 volunteers who help pour beer and direct crowds. Rosie Palmisano from Asheville has volunteered every year. “I have met some wonderful and caring people, and developed some wonderful friendships,” she says.
One of Palmisano’s favorite memories of Downtown After 5 involves rain: “We had just finished setting up, and it poured,” she says. “We all got soaking wet. But within 15 minutes, the sun came out, and people were lined up for a beer.”