LEAF Downtown Asheville is Aug. 1-2; free festival fills Bele Chere void with Bootsy, Sister Sparrow
By Pete Zamplas- LEAF Downtown Asheville debuts this weekend Aug. 1-2 in Pack Square Park as a new and free music and arts street festival, featuring distinguished soulful singers such as Sister Sparrow’s spectacular Arleigh Kincheloe and funk showman extraordinaire Bootsy Collins.
Helping fill the Bele Chere mid-summer void, the festival has a LEAF-like local emphasis with more than 90 vendors including craft brewers, also healing arts, roaming artists, art installations and interactive play. The Family Adventure Zone, EASEL RIDER, and the Prestige Subaru Adventure Zone are among family attractions.
LEAF Community Arts (LCA) Executive Director Jennifer Pickering is partnering with local businesses for this festival. “We are hoping to create a complementary experience for our downtown friends and businesses.”
She and her husband Leigh Maher, LCA’s CFO, are putting on a festival on a smaller, more concentrated and financially-doable scale than the defunct Bele Chere. They are initially using three music stages. This privately-funded event looms as less like publicly-financed and bigger Bele Chere, and more like the twice-a-year LEAF festival in Black Mountain which is in its 20th year. Pickering calls it an “expanded platform for LEAF’s community work, and deeper collaborations.”
Pickering is intent on “infusing the power of the arts, culture, and creativity. LEAF Downtown will further the goals of inclusivity, community partnerships, and economic vitality in the greater Asheville area … and to connect cultures through music and art.”
The festival introduces many to LEAF. “Long has it been our dream to bring the performance magic, cultural majesty, and beautiful family atmosphere” to downtown, Performing Arts Director Ehren Cruz. She calls it “two days filled to the brim with music, art, workshops, great food and drinks, family activities, and lifelong friendships.”
LEAF Downtown unleashes a very LEAF-like New Orleans flavor to honor the “Big Easy,” 10 years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city Aug. 23-29, 2005 and displaced residents including to this area. It was among the five deadliest hurricanes ever in this country.
Brassy funk abounds on the main stage with top acts Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band, Red Barrat mixing in sounds of India, and blues and gospel-infused Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds. Sister Sparrow is sensationally soulful singer Arleigh Kincheloe. Many R&B enthusiasts are apt to deem her the festival’s jewel. Sister Sparrow performs on Saturday.
The longest legacy is with Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band, which plays Saturday at 8:15 p.m. and played at the Spring 2014 LEAF. William Earl Collins, 63, in the Seventies was bassist for two flamboyant stage acts — soul star James Brown (such as for the hit “Super Bad”) — then George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, with whom Collins and elder brother “Catfish” are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bootsy’s Rubber Band formed in 1976, as a touring unit of Clinton’s P-Funk collective, and recorded six albums.
Their R&B charter-topper album, entitled “Bootsy? Player of the Year,” spawned their number one single “Bootzilla.” Collins acted as that character, “the world’s only rhinestone rockstar monster of a doll.” His seven top 20 R&B hits also include “The Pinnochio Theory” (no. 6) in ’77, “Body Slam!” (no. 12) in’82, and “Jam Fan” (13) in ’79.
R&B singer Sister Sparrow
Collins collaborated with Buddy Miles in 1992, with rap star Snoop Dogg in 2004, then in ‘05 rapping with his hometown Cincinnati Bengals NFL players. He teaches online in Funk U.” He is a DJ in the Grand Theft Auto V video game of 2013. He acts on stage as Casper the Funky Ghost. “Bootsy” is for his big platform-heeled boots. He is also known for his flashy star-shaped “Space Bass” guitar.
Bootsy Funk Dynasty Day is Friday in the New Mountain club, with music workshops with Collins’ band. The fee is $100-$150 per person.
There are two other festival stages. The Community Arts Stage, outside the firehouse, offers family-friendly entertainment such as circus arts and LEAF Streets and Schools youth shows. Near the newly-renovated Vance Monument, the Cafe Stage has acoustic acts by food trucks.
Musical acts include Dangermuffin, The Main Squeeze, Old Landmarks Gospel Blow Out, The London Souls, Arouna Diarra, and To All My Dear Friends.
Local acts include LEAF Love Band of musicians led by Josh Blake, soulful Indigo de Souza, funk-jazzy Empire Strikes Brass, Voices of Asheville Tent, Old Landmarks Gospel Blow Out led by Lyric, Old Timers in the Round, and Whee Ah Faerie Kin costumed characters on stilts.
The festival kick-off party is Friday in New Mountain, with The Ohio Players. The funk band’s number one pop hits were “Fire” and “Love Rollercoaster,” in the Seventies. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $25, at the door. This is among LEAF partner concerts in Asheville this weekend.
The festival’s $75 per-person VIP option includes greeting artists, sunset rooftop cocktails, VIP Lounge at Twisted Laurel, beer and appetizers, Pickering noted. She said this helps absorb festival expenses, and many sponsors have helped.
The Cocktail Crawl of 20 local mixologists led up to the festival. Its opening event, at 9 a.m. Saturday, is the LEAF Art Dash. The 5K downtown run and Family Relay benefits LEAF Schools & Streets. The festival concludes at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Estimates are two-day attendance will exceed the 7,500 estimated for each summer monthly single-day Downtown After 5.
Bele Chere was the largest free festival in the Southeastern United States, spreading across downtown. It lasted 35 years, from 1979-2013. By ending it, the city saved $200,000 to help balance its budget. A revenue drawback was that patrons’ money went to vendors from out of town. That diminished sales in local establishments, for more than 80 percent of downtown Asheville business owners surveyed in 2007.
A difference is the new festival has healing arts, as at LEAF. Longtime “Astro-Shaman” healer Benjamin Bernstein told The Tribune he was not allowed at Bele Chere, and is grateful he can set up in the new festival.
Musically, Bele Cher played it safer with mainstream rock, blues and country; and had alternative rock. Headliners included the 1964 Beatles cover band, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Government Mule featuring Asheville native Warren Haynes, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and Travis Tritt. Sixties legends Richie Havens and the Family Stone Project each played LEAF and Bele Chere.
LEAF veered mainstream such as with Indigo Girls this spring. Both festivals have had funk bands appealing to a younger crowd. LEAF is famed on international artists, including with Latin and African beats, and New Orleans acts.
The Fall LEAF Oct. 15-18 further honors the “sights, sounds and tastes of the Big Easy.” Headliners include Grammy-winning Aaron Neville, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and RebirthBrass which topped the CMJ Jazz charts and earned a 2012 Grammy for Best Regional Roots Music Album.
More festival details are at www.theleaf.org/downtown/