When flamenco guitarist Juan Benavides started playing at 5 Walnut in 2009, the space was perfect. “That place is small and has more of an acoustic vibe,” he says. “That’s why I started playing there.” He’s been there ever since, although the musicians who play with him as the Juan Benavides Group have rotated in and out, creating different incarnations of the project, always rooted in the guitarist’s Latin and flamenco roots.
Recently the group has blossomed and taken on a more dynamic sound with the addition of players like Ryan Oslance and Shane Parish of the avant-garde duo Ahleuchatistas. As a result, Benavides’ weekly shows at 5 Walnut are regularly packed.
“It will be over capacity, with people spilling out on the street who can’t get in,” says Oslance. ” Inside, there’s not much room to dance anymore. So we’ve been talking about it for a while now, about how we can expand into something bigger, with a bigger venue and a bigger event.”
This was a particular concern because people were being turned away from 5 Walnut week after week, opening up the possibility that the gig was getting a reputation as something of a hassle for regular patrons. Enter Asheville Brewing Co., which has invited the Juan Benavides Group to move its weekly gig into The Millroom. That South Slope venue triples the capacity of the group’s shows while offering state-of-the-art sound, light and projection systems along with a full bar.
“It’s a good space for us because they don’t have anything going on regularly there, they just do special events,” says Oslance. “So it would be available and a really good spot. I think it’s gonna be the type of thing that could really build into something big.”
The band has already launched its new series, which takes place Wednesdays from 9 to 11 p.m.
The new space fits with the band’s current, more amplified sound that blends a disparate set of world music influences together with modern rock and soul flourishes. “As you play with jazz musicians or people who are more influenced by Western music, I think a kind of bridge is built,” says Benavides, who cites his Colombian heritage and time spent studying flamenco music in Spain as the central drivers of his songwriting.
“I do play some numbers that are flamenco-influenced, very traditional,” he says. “But there’s a style of crossover, when the Cuban Revolution happened, and a lot of refugees went to Spain. This new sort of music emerged from the point of view of the European Gypsies that kind of coalesced with the Cuban. That’s why you have the rumba flamenca, the Gipsy Kings and a bunch of other people who have changed it around a bit.”
He continues, “Flamenco is the style in which the guitar is played, so the other influences are basically Spanish harmony or Middle Eastern, more exotic-sounding because of the Mediterranean influence.”
Benavides’ background is part of what attracted musicians like Oslance to the band. “You don’t often get a chance to play with people who have actually studied the music and lived in thoroughly,” he says. World music is something he’s always been drawn to as a listener and a player. “It’s a great experience for me to learn a style of music that I’m interested in. And it goes into any other style of music you play, whatever you can sponge up.”
Plus, it’s a starkly different atmosphere from a typical Ahleuchatistas show.
“I’m [really] drawn to how fun the environment is,” Oslance says. “Just being in a dance band and connecting with the audience so directly like that is a treat.”
Benavides also makes it clear how appreciative he is to 5 Walnut for hosting him for so long.
“We loved playing at Walnut — great people, incredible venue,” he says. “I think at this point we just wanted to develop the sound in a different way, and with a full sound system. And there’s a lot more space at The Millroom, so people can dance.”
WHO: Juan Benavides Group
WHERE: The Millroom, ashevillemillroom.com
WHEN: Wednesdays at 9 p.m., free