The scoop on the return of AVLFest and Transfigurations IV in August

SALUTE: Willi Carlisle thanks the Sunday afternoon crowd at Forestry Camp during the inaugural AVLFest in 2023. Photo by Fiasco Media

Nearly a year removed from the inaugural AVLFest, what are co-founder Jeff Whitworth’s main takeaways from the four-day music event?

“I thought it went great. It was very well received and embraced by the community,” he says. “The main reason it was so successful is because of the strength of our venue collective that we have here. That was the deciding factor on how smooth everything would go as far as keeping things on schedule and all that. And then they stepped up to the plate and crushed it.”

Whitworth also credits the numerous unsung “production teams and the people behind the scenes ” for preventing significant delays in 2023.

August will mark the return of two of Asheville’s most beloved music festivals — AVLFest and Transfigurations. First on tap is AVLFest, happening Thursday, Aug. 1-Sunday, Aug. 4, at over 20 local venues with a lineup featuring chillwave icon Washed Out, indie rock stalwarts The New Pornographers as well as Terminator X, the DJ from hip-hop legends Public Enemy. Also on the bill are local acts that have achieved national prominence, including Papadosio and Town Mountain, plus a wide variety of additional local and touring artists.

Whitworth is elated with the uptick in big-name performers for 2024, but it’s the way many were added that he finds most satisfying. Even with Whitworth’s 20-plus years of booking experience at The Grey Eagle (which he previously owned and whose calendar he continues to program), Knoxville’s Bijou Theatre, the Peace Center in Greenville, S.C., and other regional venues, he says folks were hesitant to sign on for a first-time event.

“Last year when I would pitch, there were a lot of agents and acts that were curious. And they’re like, ‘Sounds cool, but we can’t commit this year. We’ve got something else going on,’ or whatever,” he says. “There was a little trepidation which, rightfully so. I get it.”

But once they saw how well received AVLFest was and how smoothly it ran, agents that Whitworth reached out to last year got in touch with him and committed their acts to the 2024 edition.

To preserve that legacy and grow it, not much has been changed for the event’s second go-round. All venues from 2023 are returning this year, plus new additions Eulogy, Citizen Vinyl, The Odd and The Social. And before the lineup was announced, festivalgoers living within 75 miles of Asheville again got a chance to buy discounted passes before they went on sale at a higher rate to nonlocals.

But not everything in 2023 ran as smoothly as desired, so several tweaks are being made for 2024 to improve the overall experience — namely doing away with single-event tickets for AVLFest headliners. Last year, attendees had the option of paying an additional $20 per show atop the festival pass to see Watchhouse (formerly known as Mandolin Orange) at The Outpost and/or Kurt Vile & The Violators at Highland Brewing Co.’s Meadow stage.

Whitworth says the extra charge was the top complaint among 2023 festivalgoers, so for 2024 the all-inclusive pass — one of two festival options, along with a VIP pass — gets patrons into every event. As was the case last year, access is contingent on venue capacity, and attendees will be admitted as space becomes available.

“The people spoke, and we listened,” Whitworth says. “At the same time, I’ll still defend [last year’s approach] because, given the price of the festival and the price of the add-ons, it was still cheaper than any other festival ticket. My whole logic behind that was if you don’t want to go see Watchhouse or Kurt Vile, we’ll save you 40 bucks on your ticket price and kind of make it an à la carte thing where you can pick and choose your own adventure.”

Another enhancement is that the stage at The Outpost now faces south, which should help prevent daytime performers from melting in real time. On a star-studded bill of local talent on the Saturday of last year’s festival, longtime Asheville favorite Tyler Ramsey took the brunt of the sun during the AVLFest’s hottest hours but persevered to deliver a memorable set.

Shuttle services, which are included in the price of admission, will likewise see an improvement. “We thought the buses would probably be more utilized as far as the volume of people, so we opted for the luxury cruisers [last year]. We also wanted to make sure it had A/C and they were comfortable,” Whitworth says. “I used them a few times, and it was nice. But it was about me and four other people in a giant cruiser, so we’re scaling that back this year.”

Instead of a handful of luxury buses that have difficulty turning around in certain places, AVLFest 2024 will feature a greater number of 22-passenger vans, allowing for pickups every 15 minutes instead of 45 minutes, as was the case in 2023.

As for securing nationally known acts, rather than pounce early, Whitworth waited until other festivals had announced their lineups and most performers had released their summer tours. The extra time allowed him to grab routed dates from bands that were already playing in the area, including The New Pornographers and Jessica Pratt, whose Here in the Pitch is one of Whitworth’s favorite albums of the year thus far.

In terms of booking local acts for AVLFest, Whitworth says it’s a mix of artists who were unavailable last year and those who participated in 2023 and quickly expressed to him a strong desire to return. Many of those acts are what he calls “musical pillars in this town” — ones where “it wouldn’t feel right if they weren’t on board.” Whitworth envisions those people being part of each AVLFest going forward, and he’ll continue to work in a diverse mix of first-timers.

“I don’t want anybody to feel left out, and it’s unfortunately inevitable that some people will be left out,” he says. “I just hope people understand that there’s more years of this and your time is coming.”

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Did you say ‘free’?

Transfigurations may not be an annual event, but when it rolls around every five years, regional music fans know to block out a few days to partake.

The celebration of West Asheville cornerstone Harvest Records’ milestone anniversaries first took place in 2009, honoring five years of business with performances by Mount Eerie, The War on Drugs, Bonny “Prince” Billy and more at The Grey Eagle and Diana Wortham Theatre. In 2014, the festivities shifted to Marshall’s Blannahassett Island for sets from Angel Olsen, Lee Fields, Mudhoney and others, then returned to Asheville in 2019, featuring such acts as Danny Brown, ESG, Kevin Morby and Waxahatchee at The Orange Peel, The Mothlight, Black Mountain College Museum and Diana Wortham Theatre.

For the record store’s 20th anniversary, owners Mark Capon and Matt Schnable considered doing another big ticketed event.

Then they rethought everything.

“When planning began, we didn’t fully know what shape this year’s festival would take. But once the idea of a ‘story night’ entered the picture, fewer artists just made sense,” Schnable says. “There are plenty of solid music festivals out there, and although we always curated what we thought was a unique lineup in the past, a festival has been done many, many times.”

What hasn’t been done over and over is a free, multiday event. Yet as Transfigurations IV’s mix of familiar and unusual programming began to form for Thursday, Aug. 22-Saturday, Aug. 24, not charging admission likewise felt like the right move.

“Along with the stressor of picking and booking bands, you also inevitably have the massive psychological weight of worrying about ticket sales for months leading up,” Schnable says. “It struck me one day that maybe we could opt to create a free event as a sort of thank-you to the town for the years of support instead of just another big ask [of] buying a fairly expensive ticket to a music festival. Mark and I talked about it and settled on the idea soon after.”

Music will still be a major part of the weekend, namely an Aug. 24 show at The Orange Peel featuring Ethiopian legend Hailu Mergia, Asheville-based indie rocker Helado Negro (aka Roberto Carlos Lange) and New York City-based singer-songwriter Zenizen. Both days, various bands and DJs will perform in-store noon-5 p.m. And on Aug. 24 during those hours, vendors will set up booths, and other activities will take place for a party in the store’s back parking lot.

LOCAL LOVE: Asheville-based singer-songwriter Helado Negro (aka Roberto Carlos Lange) will perform at The Orange Peel during Transfigurations IV. Photo by Sadie Culberson

“It’s gonna be wild,” Capon says.

Once the Harvest crew learned that Hailu Mergia lives in Washington, D.C., the prospect of booking him grew increasingly plausible, and they were able to secure him early on in the planning process.

“We’ve been big fans of his for a while and are recommending his recordings to customers often,” Schnable says. “He’s been a legend since the ’70s but is continually being discovered by each subsequent generation — more now than ever, it seems.”

Regarding the rest of the closing-night lineup, Schnable calls Helado Negro “a new hometown hero,” and says Zenizen — a fairly new staff favorite, thanks to Capon getting turned onto her music — will be making her Asheville debut.

“[We’re] taking the small financial barriers out of the picture for a few nights, allowing people to experience the weekend and hopefully feel more connected to the town and their neighbors,” Schnable says.

He adds that some participating artists are donating their time, but most are getting paid their usual rates. As such, the Harvest team will be seeking sponsorship support from local businesses to offset costs of the celebration.

As for the mysterious “story night” component that Schnable mentioned, the two-night “Found in Sound” event arose from conversations with local filmmaker Erin Brethauer. The seeds of the experimental creation date back to when the former Asheville Citizen Times photographer lived in San Francisco in the mid to late 2010s and was involved in a touring storytelling event called Pop-Up Magazine.

“It was such a compelling experience for her that she presented the idea to us of framing a similar event loosely around Harvest’s 20th [anniversary],” Capon says. “The timing worked perfectly, as we were already imagining a Transfigurations that wasn’t just a bunch of bands but instead looking to do something that created a more diverse experience.”

The collaboration with the Harvest team, Brethauer and Transfigurations co-coordinator Madelyn Anderson takes place Thursday, Aug. 22-Friday, Aug. 23 at Diana Wortham Theatre. It’s been a time-intensive project but one that all involved are convinced will make for a captivating couple of evenings — even if talking about it remains somewhat of an abstract undertaking.

“The night is a bit hard to explain,” Capon says. “It’s a highly produced variety of stories loosely associated with the record store universe — but not necessarily about Harvest specifically — complete with animation or live scoring or set design or video interviews or a combination of those things. Or who knows what else? You’ll just have to show up to experience it. We’re confident anyone can enjoy it.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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