Vendors, buskers, street preachers and festivalgoers rubbed shoulders, exchanged cash, chowed down and drank copious amounts of beer during Asheville’s busiest time of the year. A few scenes from a long, hot Saturday (with just a little rain).
“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way.”
The busker’s crooning in front of the Flat Iron, and not for the first time. Soon, in a strange mashup, his songs will converge with those of a trio, including a guitarist and saw player, that also takes up a spot at the landmark.
Moving by, holding a puppy in his arms, a man exclaims. “Wow, this is a cool town, but it’s no New Orleans!”
Over at the intersection of College and Rankin, a growing crowd gathers around a magician, just beginning his act. They include a “Trust Jesus” street preacher, who has for the moment furled his banner, with its long list of sins, and leans against a nearby wall to enjoy the show.
The sound of Charlie Daniels’ “Long Haired Country Coy” still booms from the K99 booth’s loudspeakers (“a rich man goes to college, and a poor man goes to work”)
The square formed by Haywood and College is, unlike Friday night, empty of street preachers, who seem to have mostly moved over to the Vance monument, where three men in beige shirts and ties stand nearly motionless, their signs proclaiming “Fornicators & Drunkards shall not inherit the Kingdom of God” and “God isn’t tolerant of sin.”
Plates crammed with festival food, people make their way by, most not even pausing. In front of Pack Place, the local beer stand, shared by the Pisgah, French Broad, Asheville, Highland and Green Man brewing companies, is doing a brisk business, dishing out cold cups for $5 a pop. Lines are long, and the occasional customer grumbles about being asked for their ID (“But I already showed it when I got the wristband!”)
On Biltmore businesses, craft booths, non-profits and the occasional cause (Stop the High Rise!) all vie for the attention of passerby. Some proudly hang signs proclaiming “We are a downtown Asheville merchant.” Others have come from Raleigh, Charlotte or any number of other cities across the region. There is, apparently, gold in these hills.
The Fine Arts Theatre, however, is having none of it, and the marquee staunchly proclaims “Closed for Bele Chere.”
At the Biltmore Avenue stage, Hot Politics finishes up their set, growling “Heyyy, let me ride that donkeyy!” before shouting at the audience “You’re beautiful!”
Back up at the monument, the street preachers have switched over their signs (the new ones read “Sodomy is sin” “Every knee shall bow to Jesus” and “Warning: Judgement is coming.”)
They’re also getting some response. A tall, shirtless man with pronounced sideburns shouts “There’s no freedom of religion except freedom from religion.” A short time later, a woman with green, heart-shaped sun glasses, maracas and a Fisher-Price xylophone comes up to the men, standing still under the pounding summer sun.
“I love you, why can’t you love others?” she says, before walking back into the crowd.
Saturday, early evening
A brief bout of rain drives both street preachers and Zendik Arts sellers out from their usual spots. One man wearing a Ten Commandments sandwich board takes a break from haranguing passerby to go roaming through the crowd.
But soon the rain dies off and while lightning still crashes in the distance, the crowds aren’t bothered, and come streaming back out from the overhangs under which they’d taken refuge.
It’s dinner time. So as the sun comes out, the crowds make a bee-line for the food vendors, thronging around while workers laboring over hot food dish out plate after plate. There’s old favorites like funnel-cake ($5, $6 with toppings), gyros ($7), chicken on a stick ($6) or a heaping plate of vegetarian Indian dishes ($7).
Whatever artist is playing, or song booms from the radio stations’ booths, speakers, the sound of constant drumming from The Roots of Rhythm’s tent on Lexington Avenue is a constant.
But not everyone’s a fan of drums. One man, already staggering, stops on the street below the balcony of a downtown apartment to shout at the musicians above.
“I’m going to come up there and twist your f***ing throats!” They keep playing.
They pitch in part of a unique rhythm of this moment at Bele Chere, joined by the sound of babies crying in their strollers, constant chatter and one young girl tapping drum sticks on a detached cymbal clutched under her arm. Soon, a long-haired young man with a harmonica, sitting on the curb, adds his own sound.
Eventually the missionaries too make their return: as the crowds get their food, a solitary man stands at the corner of Haywood and College, holding a “John 3:16” sign. He is silent, a smile fixed to his face.
Over at the Flat Iron, the saw player and his compatriots (one now sporting an accordion) are still going strong. They’ve drawn a crowd, and after completing one particularly lively number, their audience erupts into a wave of applause. The dollar bills keep coming, and they launch into another number, as the beer and food seem to flow without end.
—David Forbes, staff writer