Downtown Asheville ranks among those rare urban areas where there’s a thriving club scene and musicians are equally keen on performing al fresco. Because when your stage is set against a backdrop of towering rock faces, it’s hard to avoid making magic. Fans tend to show up for shows already stoked, making it easier for performers to give their best.
And this year’s Mountain Sports Festival presented by RBC Centura offers nearly a dozen different chances to put this sonic wisdom to the test.
All the music will happen at the Festival Village Main Stage in City/County Plaza. (Get there early to stake out your own sweet patch of grassy lawn.) And all shows will be staged rain or shine, reports Paul Clarke of Asheville Parks and Recreation, which is overseeing this year’s MSF. “So long as they’re not posing a hazard to the musicians or the public,” he adds.
Here’s a quick wrap-up of this year’s entertainment slate.
Friday, May 7
This distinctly Asheville three-piece recalls those great radio sister-acts of the 1930s and ’40s. The hard-worked harmonies produced by this all-female Menage are like candy, and the group’s stage presence is part camp sauciness, part genuine sexiness. The trio — a mainstay at Westville Pub, where all three performers also work — balances a string of varied Americana nuggets with original material treating the eternal seesaw of romance. The singers’ a cappella sound has recently been filled out with the addition of acoustic guitar, upright bass and a jazz-brushed metal bucket. That’s right: a metal bucket.
Ah, to dance amid the sweet air of a mountain evening — and here’s your chance. This Richmond, Va.-based combo has made its mark across the Southeast, embellishing traditional Latin sounds with distinct flourishes of just about everything else (from classical to hard rock). Fans of classic Cuban music will find enough true tropical flava here to leave them rum-drunk giddy. So much spice, so close to home…
Forget that my-life-ain’t-nothin’-but-a-doormat- an’-even-my-old-dog-is-wipin’-his-paws-on-my-heart vision of the blues; in its Chicago form, the genre has always held its own as the ultimate party music. Just ask Atlanta-based five-piece Delta Moon, which beefs up that dirty-low-down with rock-solid guitars and a vocalist who proves that white girls, too, can meet the devil at the crossroads. They’re the winners of last year’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn. — and vocalist Gina Leigh‘s alto will make you think Bonnie Raitt in all the right ways.
Saturday, May 8
Old-timey music has gotten so thick around Asheville these last few years, you have to be careful where you step — some of that ‘grass has been a bit too well, er, digested. Give it up, then, for County Farm, a local quartet that plays like bottled lightnin’, purveying infectious spirit and rollicking good humor. This true-grass group would be worth hearing if only for their take on the old standard “Quit Kickin’ My Dog Around.” Who knew traditional could be this much fun?
Fans of that classic Southern-rock guitar sound, get thee to Rufus Grove. This friendly five-piece (vocals, guitars, bass, drums and keys) is now wrapping up work on its debut release with producer/keyboard kingpin Dr+Dan. The new album, recorded at Asheville’s Collapseable Studios, reins in some of the former Boone-ites’ serious onstage improvisations while retaining the Dixie-fried flavor that’s the perfect soul food for post-Allmans jamheads.
A funky powder keg of dynamite musicians letting off a little postmodern steam — think glam rock crossed with Ween, says band member Bill Reynolds. This homegrown group has talent to spare: Reynolds (bass, vocals) and Mike Rhodes (drums) are both alums of former local phenom The Blue Rags; last year, Xpress readers voted Tyler Ramsey (keyboards, guitar, vocals) their favorite local musician; and Aaron Price (guitar, melodica) just finished a stint overseeing a regional theater production of Tommy. Reynolds and Ramsey also play in the hotshot Asheville rock combo DrugMoney. Robot is dangerous.
Sons of Ralph (Featuring Ralph)
For years now, Sons of Ralph have been the reigning kings at downtown Asheville’s Jack of the Wood pub. And if bluegrass can be compared to a solid ol’ Chevy, then what these boys play has a new T-Bird engine tucked under the hood. They’ve taken that trusty Appalachian style and goosed the living heck out of it with the utterly unexpected. This Madison County father-and-sons combo, filled out by couple of “adopted sons” on drums and bass, has resume to burn: Dad Ralph Lewis did a stint in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Make a point of hearing Sons of Ralph run their front-porch pickin’ through a rock ‘n’ roll spin cycle. But be forewarned: What typically shakes loose is a party.
The Firecracker Jazz Band
This Asheville bunch with the ragtimey bang have been Thursday-night regulars at Thibodaux Jones Creole Kitchen for months now — a sonic slice of New Orleans-style bon temps that’s perfect for setting your mind free as you suck the salt out of mudbug heads. The Firecracker Jazz Band makes music for getting the lead out and shakin’ off those workaday woes with a little second-line shuffle. Come get your fuse lit, and experience why Firecracker shows — complete with Sousaphone to drive home that martial beat — have become word-of-mouth local sensations.
Sunday, May 9
Jaimee Thomas Band
This Asheville group, now a mainstay at the College Street Pub, has a solid firebrand belter in Jaimee Thomas. The vivacious singer’s backing band is steeped in the bluesier tonalities of classic rock, with guitars stuck right up there in front, the way the ’70s always said they should be. Got Janis, anyone?
R.B. Morris and the Irregulars
The Tennesee-based R.B. Morris has written one of the great ramblin’-with-my-buddy anthems of all time, the rousing shout-along “Ridin’ With O’Hanlon.” But this literary singer/songwriter with the guitar-band jones is no one-cult-hit wonder; Morris’ zesty tales reflect his moonlighting gigs as both poet and dramatist. His rough voice is tender in all the right places, his roots-rock Irregulars are whip-smart and drum-tight. Fans of the rich Americana tradition sprung from the song-crafting ethos of Guy Clark, get to know Morris now — so you can start regretting how much of him you’ve already missed.
The buzz around this California instrumental outfit just won’t quit. The four-piece Particle — drums, bass, keyboards and guitar, all in service to a heady, funky fusion of techno-tipped rock — was a high point at last summer’s druggy Bonnaroo Festival. (The group’s monumental five-hour set of expansive, disco-beated jams is still a hot online topic among the legions of “Particle People.” Two-time Orange Peel alums, Particle is now touring on the strength of a slick new album, Launchpad, produced by Tom Rothrock (Beck, Coldplay). The group’s MSF appearance could quickly be mythologized like one of those North Mississippi Allstars/Bele Chere dates: I saw them for free back when…
Cinema in the Park
The MSF entertainment lineup includes an added bonus: a special installment of Asheville’s popular Cinema in the Park, to be held outside at Pack Place (the series normally convenes a few blocks west, in Pritchard Park).
The silent comedy College — a 1927 Buster Keaton vehicle with the slapstick star trying his hand at collegiate sports to woo a pretty lady — will be screened at 8:45 p.m. on Friday, May 7. Live music will accompany the movie.
To find out more about Asheville’s Cinema in the Park series, check out www.gidayu.org.