A face in the crowd

“We all pretty much dance the cosmos — for me, it’s more of an intuitive process.”

— Anni Paisley

You know the feeling. You’re walking downtown and you see a familiar face — someone you don’t know but recognize because he or she is a local fixture. Downtown Asheville’s streets and shops are buzzing with interesting, standout sorts of people. Indeed, much of the credit for that hip, creative, avant-garde Asheville vibe goes to those folks who help make downtown what it is just by being themselves. Ever wonder what they’re all about? Xpress did — so we rounded up some high-profile personalities and made their acquaintance.

Name: Chris Stack

Years in Asheville: Zero

Vocation: Musician, photographer, marketing manager, electrical engineer

Style: White shirt, beige pants, bone necklace

Chris Stack first came to downtown Asheville a decade ago, lured by the music of the Paul Winter Consort. Attracted by the people and the energy, Chris kept coming back, though he’s never actually relocated from his home base in Spartanburg.

While family and job keep Chris rooted to South Carolina — he works as a marketing manager — he makes the 50-minute journey to Asheville each weekend. You may have seen Chris hanging out at Malaprop’s, or striding through the Renaissance Faire strumming his bouzouki, or playing flute to accompany a belly dancer at Jerusalem Garden. He’s very much a man about town, connecting with locals and active in the music and theater scenes.

Local poet Daniel Rojas puts it this way: “Chris is a fantastic musician and an all-around nice guy.”

Surprisingly for a man with a passion for medieval instruments, Chris began at the high-tech end of the musical spectrum. An interest in synthesizers prompted him to pursue a degree in electrical engineering. At one point, he was hired to work on some circuit boards for Bob Moog — another Asheville connection. Chris’ work with synthesizers fueled an interest in the work of Peter Gabriel. And Gabriel’s music — which runs the gamut from ’80s electronica to the more recent world-beat compositions of his Real World label — led Chris to Middle Eastern music.

Still, Chris didn’t land in Asheville’s music scene right away. Interested in the belly-dance troupes that cropped up around town, he began attending shows. An avid photographer, Chris took portraits of many of the dancers and was accepted into the fold as a visual artist.

These days, Chris plays at Jerusalem Garden on weekends, alongside other free-lance instrumentalists and dancers. He’s done some solo gigs at Jae Restaurant and has joined Earth Tribe Productions, creating the music for their environmentally themed Dream Web, slated to premiere at the BeBe Theater in October. “I started playing music in second grade,” he reveals, adding with a laugh, “but I’ve performed in public more in the past year than in the whole rest of my life.”

Chris’ nearly 30 bamboo flutes get a workout at gigs. And he recently took up the bouzouki (a long-necked, mandolin-style instrument); August Hoerr of the dance group Baraka Mundi traded it to Chris for an accordion.

Many players on the local Middle Eastern scene use stage names, often given to them by the drummer Safed. Chris was recently designated Hajji, an aptly chosen name that means “making the pilgrimage.” “I go back to work on Monday and people say, “OK, what did you do this weekend?” Chris observes, adding, “It makes for interesting conversation around the water cooler.” And though Asheville and Spartanburg are geographically close, they’re really worlds apart. “Here, people think I’m more straight-laced,” he explains; “in Spartanburg, I’m the wild man.”

Name: Jean McLeod

Years in Asheville: Since 1995

Vocation: Volunteer, city caretaker, protector of beauty

Style: White blouse, tan skirt, sensible shoes

You’ve seen Jean McLeod around; she’s the one-woman force attacking litter throughout downtown. She’s out there nearly every day, patiently collecting papers, bottles and who knows what else from under the freeway, around the library, and even in the bushes where no one else would bother to look.

Jean moved to the Battery Park Apartments in 1995. Not content to sit around idly, she started looking for a project. “When I looked around for something nice to do, I saw trash on the streets, so I started picking it up,” she recalls. Soon after, Public Works Director Mark Combs published a letter asking locals to help caretake the downtown area. Jean responded, explaining that she was making it a habit to pick up litter and asking permission to expand her efforts. Combs wrote back.

“We got to be really good friends,” Jean says with a smile. “He said I could go anywhere I want to. I go as far as Short Coxe (to the south) and Broadway (to the north).”

With city support, Jean continues her mission. Quality Forward, a local nonprofit, provides her with trash bags and a retriever (a long metal pole that she uses to grab bits of litter). At age 74, Jean can’t bend as easily as she once could, so the retriever makes her job easier. “I have osteoporosis, but this keeps me walking,” she explains.

In the summer, Jean waits until the heat dispels in the late afternoon to begin. But even in the fading light of evening, she insists that she never feels scared. “The police have been wonderful to me,” she reports. “Everyone on the street is my friend. Even the alcoholics call me ‘Ma.'”

Name: Greg Brown

Years in Asheville: Two

Vocation: Poet

Style: Blue jeans, blue shirt

When I interrupt Greg Brown outside Old Europe, he’s busy scribbling in a lined notebook. You might recognize the 20-something by his long, black hair, usually pulled back in a ponytail. Often asked about his ancestry (which he prefers to keep to himself), Greg describes himself as “ethnically ambiguous.”

If you’ve ever heard him read at an open mic, you know how this up-and-coming writer can rivet an audience with his unrestrained poetry and soft-spoken delivery. What you may not know is that Greg works with children in the psychiatric department at Mission St. Joseph’s.

Greg came to Asheville two years ago with his then-girlfriend; the relationship didn’t work out, but he decided to stick around. “I’m aware that several years ago the poetry scene, especially the slam scene, was really big here,” he says, adding, “I think there’s about to be a renaissance.” Not content just to sit around and wait for it to happen, Greg got together with a few friends and mapped out a plan for a regular open mic at 45 Wall St., beginning in the near future.

He sees the need for a more underground approach to pulling in young writers, perhaps using zines to give new poets an outlet. “The Asheville Poetry Review is great,” he allows, “but Asheville needs something more accessible, too.”

It was T.S. Eliot who turned Greg on to poetry — or, more specifically, the teacher who first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to Greg’s high-school class. “It was almost a Dead Poets Society thing,” he recalls, describing how his teacher climbed on the desk to bellow Eliot’s haunting verses. “It was very inspiring.”

These days, Greg’s a big Jorie Graham fan. “Her stuff takes me away, even more than Eliot,” he admits. “Her poetry is really fragmented and uses a lot of white space.”

So what poem would he suggest that everyone read? “Graham’s ‘Underneath, #9,'” he answers quickly, adding, “or … one of my poems.”

Name: Anni Paisley

Years in Asheville: Two

Vocation: Tarot reader, puppeteer, musician, storyteller, creatrix

Style: Long, flowered dress, sandals, black hat with feather trim

“The mountains have a very mysterious quality. They have a way of holding the vibration for this particular region,” muses Anni Paisley over a cup of herbal tea. You may have seen her reading tarot cards at local cafes or at Instant Karma, where she sets up on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

“The tarot is something that’s a part of me,” she explains. “I have a feeling I can sense the world beyond the world we live in.” Tarot came to Anni when she was a teenager living in her native New York City. While out with a friend, she saw a copy of the Ride Wake tarot deck and bought it on impulse. “I did a reading on my friend, sort of as a joke,” Anni recalls, “but something snapped in me and I realized I knew how to read.”

Two decades later, Anni’s affiliation with the tarot has taken her across the country and back. She’s read at such places as the Ben & Jerry’s Festival in Vermont and the Crystal Dragon bookstore in Boulder, Colo. … as well as on a blanket spread out on the sidewalk.

An avid traveler, Anni has made the scene in Burlington, Boulder, San Francisco, the East Village and Eugene, Ore. While hanging out at Spirit Dancer, a shop in Vermont, Anni met up with Asheville residents Mickey Mahaffey and Susie Mosher, who encouraged her to give WNC a try. Weary of Vermont winters, Anni had been planning to head south anyway but had her sights set on Athens. On her way out of town, she stopped by a cafe and found a copy of Spirit in the Smokies, an Asheville-based, New Age-oriented publication, lingering on her table. Then, when she tried to get a ride to Georgia, she was offered a lift to Asheville instead. “Oh, that was synchronistic,” she says with a laugh.

Anni first rolled into town on Christmas Day 1999. She hung around until after New Year’s before heading on to Athens. When it turned out that Athens wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, Anni did a tarot reading and determined that she needed to further explore what Asheville had to offer. So she hopped on a bus, her last $30 in her pocket, and landed smack in the middle of Bele Chere. “There were people running through the street wearing horns, and music was playing,” Anni recalls. “I arrived on my Mayan birthday, a red-dragon day. It was a very auspicious day to arrive.”

These days, Anni is also busy establishing herself as an artist. She creates puppets — both marionettes and hand puppets — and writes puppet shows. “I’m hoping to get the puppet shows going late this summer,” she reports. Anni also plays music, writes and sings songs, and incorporates poetry into her self-described eclectic style.

Her tarot readings revolve around two decks: the Voyager deck (which uses photo collages of National Geographic-type images) and the Brian Froud Faerie deck. Tarot decks work with archetypes, universal models that everyone can identify with. “We all pretty much dance the cosmos,” Anni explains, adding, “For me, it’s more of an intuitive process and less about archetypes and forms.”

A few tips when having a reading:

“People often want to know what they should ask. I tell them to ask a nonspecific question, such as, ‘What do I need to know?'” Anni advises. “If they have a specific question, sometimes the tarot answers a different question, which is actually more pressing. It’s a bit of a trickster!”

Finally, try to keep an open mind. “This tradition is very controversial in this part of the country,” Anni points out. “For me, it’s a calling; it’s a divine gift.”

Name: Thomas Moore

Years in Asheville: Seven

Vocation: Musician, theatrical director/performer/technician, model

Style: Green-and-purple kurta, loose pants, beads

“I have lots of nicknames, but I like my name,” admits Thomas Moore, adding, “There’s an Irish poet with the same name.” In the seven years he’s spent in Asheville, Thomas has had ample opportunity to adopt a theatrical moniker. He’s been involved with the Surreal Sirkus and Baraka Mundi, he plays music at Jerusalem Garden, and he fronts his own band, Dazuluzad (a palindrome).

Although he’s performance-oriented, Thomas remains down-to-earth. He came to WNC by way of Tallahassee, where he was living as a Hare Krishna follower. “I was a cook, and I was serving food on campus [at Florida State University],” he remembers. Though he hadn’t taken vows at the time, Thomas had to follow certain rules to live in the Hare Krishna temple. “Well, I met a girl,” he laughs. “Her name was Grace, and everything seemed perfect.” Together they decided to move to the mountains; Grace kept on traveling, but Thomas realized he really liked Asheville. “I enjoyed the people I met on the street and the relaxed energy of downtown,” he recalls.

When he first arrived, he attended a Native American gathering where he met one of Asheville’s elders — Snake Hawke. “He said to me: ‘I know some people you should meet. They’re called Surreal Sirkus, and you’ll find them at Beanstreets,'” Thomas recounts. Sure enough, the performance company he describes as “a practice in chaos” quickly adopted him.

Thomas still joins in on Sirkus antics as a guest performer or light designer; these days, however, he’s turned his attention to other projects. As a founding member of the tribal dance troupe Baraka Mundi, Thomas frequently performs as a musician. “When I started, all I did was play flute,” he recalls. Now he plays the oud, an 11-string, fretless ancestor of the lute. “It’s become my passion,” he confesses. “I played guitar for 10 years and I loved playing strings, because they can accompany my voice, but I could never improv on the guitar like I did on the flute. That came through on the oud.”

Along with Jerusalem Garden collaborator Sajad (a.k.a. Safed), Thomas is about to head into the studio to start recording his first solo album. His love of the oud extends beyond the solo effort, however — it’s what sparked the formation of the experimental outfit Dazuluzad. “It was an idea that came from playing the oud with a saxophonist on the street,” Thomas reveals. He added a tabla player, creating a kind of Middle Eastern jazz/rock fusion. These days, the group includes a drum kit, electric bass and a percussionist, and they’re planning to add ambient guitars, keyboards and sax. “It’s very in the moment,” he says about the group’s improvised performances. “We feel free to jam and know that everyone’s listening to each other. It’s interesting to hear my sound after the band filters it,” Thomas says. Dazuluzad is gearing up to play at the Lexington Avenue Arts Festival in September.

Name: Lisa Wolfe

Years in Asheville: Two

Vocation: Student, retail salesperson, aspiring dressmaker

Style: Long skirt, backless shirt, sandals, head scarf, silver jewelry

“It doesn’t seem like anybody’s from Asheville, but everybody comes here,” observes Lisa Wolfe. She should know — working in two prominent downtown shops, Street Faire and the Open Door, she’s seen a lot of people come and go.

Lisa hails from Bath, Maine, a small coastal town. Her high-school guidance counselor precipitated her move to North Carolina, steering her toward UNCA. Lisa had intended to travel after finishing high school but had no clear plan, so she applied to UNCA sight unseen.

“My eyes were so big when I got here!” Lisa exclaims, recalling her first day in Asheville. “I loved it. I was really excited.” At first, she saw only Walnut Street and Broadway; coming from a small town, that was enough. It took Lisa awhile to discover there was more.

During college orientation, Lisa decided to look for a job, landed her current position at Street Faire, and became part of the downtown scene. Unlike many students, she gets by without a car, depending on friends, mass transit and her feet to get to work and classes. “I feel good when I’m walking, because I know I’m not contributing to the air-pollution problem,” she explains, “but I have to get up so much earlier to get to work. I wish the public transportation was better.” Other than that, Lisa says she doesn’t mind riding the bus. “There’s interesting people. … I’ve never had a bad experience.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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