Exploring Asheville: 5 Days In A Musical Oasis

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It’s 1:20 a.m. late on a Tuesday night and Asheville Music Hall in downtown Asheville, North Carolina is packed with music lovers. The 10-year-old Tuesday Night Funk Jam is in full swing featuring a house band that includes regulars trombonist Derrick Lee Johnson (Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band) and guitarist Josh Blake (Granola Funk Express) along with guests such as the Marcus King Band’s DeShawn Alexander. This is the final night of my five-day trip to Asheville and I’m in awe at the number of music lovers who came out for the 11 p.m. start of this weekly institution. Most of those in the crowd are hanging on every note and while little of the jam session is planned in advance, the band onstage is throwing down on a level only top funk acts achieve. I can’t help but dance my heart out while making the most of my first Asheville Funk Jam experience.

I had only been to Asheville once prior to my recent trip to Asheville that spanned Saturday, October 7 to Wednesday, October 11. In 2005, I attended the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam but it was an in-and-out type affair in which I didn’t get a good feel for the city. When the Explore Asheville team reached out to me with the unbelievable offer of an all-expenses-paid adventure to Asheville to check out the local music scene, I jumped on the opportunity. I wound up seeing one impressive concert after another, explored a variety of music venues, visited a number of music-related sites and ate a bevy of delicious meals. Asheville quickly won me over as I fell in love with this jewel of a city.

Shortly after arriving and checking into the Hotel Indigo, I took a stroll around downtown Asheville. A few things struck me immediately: Asheville is extremely clean, the city is filled with mom-and-pop establishments with few chains to be found and there are many cool shops, restaurants and music venues all within just a couple of blocks from each other. Also, everyone I met was extremely friendly and when they found out why I was in town they jumped at the opportunity to tell me what they loved about Asheville. My first stop outside downtown was Pisgah Brewing, about a 15-minute drive from Asheville in the town of Black Mountain. Pisgah’s beautiful outdoor space was hosting the inaugural Marcus King Band Family Reunion. I got there just in time for the event’s finale, a Marcus King Band & Friends set.

Marcus King is such a talented guitarist and he did a great job surrounding himself with equally competent musicians to form the MKB. The group started with a batch of blues and soul-powered originals that each impressed. Marcus then played a few songs solo including a heartfelt and earnest rendition of Tom Petty’s “Learning To Fly.” Pisgah’s outdoor space was filled, but not so much so that I was uncomfortable at any point. I took a tour of the indoor portion of the brewery, where the Tap Room hosted additional performances, had a tasty pale ale and returned as the full band took the stage for the guest-filled portion of the evening.

First up was youngster Brandon “Taz” Niederauer who won himself many new fans by going toe-to-toe with Marcus on a well-jammed cover of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Dreams.” Later, saxophonist Ron Holloway and George Porter Jr. were added to the mix for a hard-hitting version of “On Your Way Down” by Allen Toussaint. The guests all stayed on stage and were joined by a few local musicians and The Revivalists vocalist David Shaw for another Toussaint gem, “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley.” Other highlights included “Compared To What” in honor of the late Col. Bruce Hampton, an intense “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” and a “Proud Mary” finale featuring most of the evening’s guests. At one point I turned to an Ashevillian with a huge smile on my face and asked, “Is this just a typical night around here?” She replied I had just picked a good time to come, but I soon learned she was just being coy.

My Sunday started with a tradition I had always wanted to partake in, the Bluegrass Brunch at One Stop. The Bald Mountain Boys showed off strong picking skills and harmonies as I ate a perfectly prepared biscuit, egg and bacon platter from the adjacent Mojo Kitchen. Not only was the trio onstage really clicking, but a group of buskers playing Dylan covers out front kept me entertained on both my way in and out of the Bluegrass Brunch. These gentlemen would be only the first of my many encounters with buskers around Asheville. I came across a variety of street musicians including a trio of kids who couldn’t have been older than 10-years-old that played a fantastic rendition of “Under The Boardwalk.”

In the afternoon I decided to do something a bit outside my comfort zone as I headed to Skinny Beats for a drum lesson from Billy Zanski. The students were a mix of those like me who had no experience and more talented percussionists. Billy did a fantastic job of instructing the newcomers while keeping the veterans engaged. His passion for drumming was contagious and I felt very impressed with myself when he told me I keep a pretty good beat. Next time I’m in town I hope to take part in the famed drum circle that takes place each Friday evening in Pritchard Park.

My trip to Asheville was filled with really cool experiences, but one of the coolest was a Beastie Boys-themed pop-up dinner presented by the Blind Pig Supper Club. Mike and Darlene Moore have been putting on themed dinners at a variety of locales in North Carolina since 2011. Those who purchase tickets to the event aren’t told where it will be held until a day or two before and the menu isn’t revealed until you get to the location. Mike and Darlene recruited a handful of chefs from Asheville and beyond to create dishes based on Beastie Boys songs.

I’m not an adventurous eater, so I was a bit hesitant before I arrived but one dish was better than the next. These chefs know how to combine flavors to perfection. Some of the dishes I had were “Gratitude” (cured chicken hearts on everything bagel, puffed sour malt and bay leaf oil), “Johnny Ryall” (Memphis-style catfish, root vegetable, wonder bread toast and ginger-barley jus) and “Slow & Low” (braised duck, white bean ragout, smoked beet and apple compote and kubaneh bread). Yet, the best part was the dinner was a fundraiser for Asheville Music Professionals, aka AMP, an organization which provides education, advocacy, connection and collaboration for musicians and music industry workers in and around Asheville. Great food with great people in a great atmosphere for a great cause. Annie’s “I Think I’m Going To Like It Here” kept running through my head throughout my first 24 hours in town.

The plan for Sunday night was to head to New Mountain Asheville for an evening of jamgrass featuring Horseshoes & Hand Grenades and Kitchen Dwellers. Just before leaving the pop-up dinner, someone told me the concert had been canceled. Here was true test for this city of 80K+. Would I have another option to see live music from a national act on a Sunday night?

My question was quickly answered when I was informed Brittany Howard was showing off her new Bermuda Triangle project at The Orange Peel. We turned our lemons into lemonade in that I had a chance to see just the fourth-ever concert from Bermuda Triangle outside the trio’s hometown of Nashville with the added bonus of checking out a venue Rolling Stone named one of the top five rock clubs in the U.S. As I made the quick trip from the bar-turned-restaurant where the Beasties-themed dinner was held to The Orange Peel, I worried the concert might be sold out. Within seconds of getting on line at the box office, a woman approached me with a free ticket. Considering I wasn’t wearing a sign that said, “journalist from out of town writing about Asheville,” the kind gesture was just another display of the generosity of Ashevillians.

Nashville rockers The Music Band opened and not only had me air drumming along with their throwback sound, but guitarist Harry Kagan cracked me up throughout the set with his hilarious banter. Kagan wore a shirt with a phone number on it and I later learned the number was his own. Kagan told a few funny stories such as the time a fan asked him for dating advice and receiving a text to the effect of, “Hey man, some dude is wearing your phone number on his t-shirt, I thought you should know” to which Harry responded, “I’m going to kick his ass!”

The Orange Peel is a big rectangle with a Southern vibe. While it holds a tight 1,050 patrons, there’s a big ass fan that keeps air circulating and temperatures comfortable. And when I say big ass fan, I really mean Big Ass Fan (the manufacturer out of Kentucky). Bermuda Triangle took the stage to the sounds of Missy Elliott, surprise No. 1, and Howard played Upright Bass, surprise No. 2. Howard and her best friends, Becca Mancari and Jesse Lafser, took turns performing songs they had written for the project. Their harmonies were breathtaking and for a few minutes the crowd was so enthralled you could literally hear a pin drop. Mancari and Lafser seemed so happy to be onstage with their pal and that hundreds (if not a thousand) came out to see this brand new project.

The beginning of my day on Monday focused on West Asheville. A 10-minute drive away from downtown, West Asheville is about a mile-long strip filled with more funky boutiques, unusual restaurants, breweries and music-related businesses. Our first stop was UpCountry, a relatively new brewery run by Grateful Dead fans. I loved the big steal your face logos on the massive brewing equipment. Upcountry also serves food and had a really cool arcade. Just as musicians have AMP, those who work in the Brewing industry have Asheville Brewers Alliance. The ABA’s Executive Director Kendra Penland told me the number of breweries in the region had expanded over 600% (!) in the past five years including 350% in Asheville alone. Upcountry was one such brewery, while another was Archetype – a funky, garage-style space that just started a post-brunch concert series. Hey, I guess when there’s live music going all the time you take whatever time slots you can get to draw people in! Another thing I noticed was pints were often priced at $5, a far cry from prices in New York City. I had myself a small and delightful witbier for just a few bucks at Archetype.

Asheville isn’t just home to plenty of music venues, it also hosts many musicians, a handful of record shops and cool companies that make and sell musical instruments. Make Noise designs and manufactures modular synthesizers at price points from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Tony Rolando and Kelly Kelbel started the company nearly 10 years ago and as word of Make Noise’s inventive synths spread, the company kept on growing out of new facilities until settling in at a former bank in the heart of West Asheville. Many newer companies have revived old buildings in the Asheville area that had previously been left to rot. It’s a testament to the creativity of Ashevillians how they have kept old architecture and structures while continuing to grow the city. Make Noise’s Walker Farrell did a solidjob explaining how modular synthesizers work and the science behind the sound. It looked like it would take me months of practice to craft the perfect sound out of one of those things, but oh the fun I’d have experimenting with a Make Noise unit.

My next stop was at yet another source of great music for Ashevillians, and anyone for that matter thanks to the internet, Asheville FM. The volunteer-based, grassroots community radio station is a rare one that started as an internet stream and developed into a terrestrial outlet. Despite just recently making its first paid hire, Asheville FM has so many great shows and volunteers interested in helping the station and DJing that they are going to have some tough decisions ahead about their schedule. I spoke with general manager KP Whaley, the aforementioned first hire, about just how much work the station’s network of passionate volunteers put in to keep the music (and talk shows) coming. These folks put lots of love and care into everything they broadcast. An example of which was DJ Sarah B, who let me sit-in on her Songs For Friends program. Sarah has great taste in music and I was introduced to three bands I’d never heard before during my short time in the studio. I also liked her concept of playing one track a week from a classic album until she reaches the end of the LP. The White Stripes’ Elephant is the current album she’s working through.

On Monday night I saw Wilco end their October tour at the historic Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in the U.S. Cellular Center, but before I headed to the show I took a tour of a few venues that I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to see a concert at during my trip. Up first was The Grey Eagle, a cool spot just outside the River Arts District, a part of town that is home to 185 artists with studios and galleries in 25 buildings on the banks of the French Broad River. I was struck by how eclectic the schedule of upcoming shows was for The Grey Eagle and learned over 10,000 acts have played its stage. The venue is a wide one, yet felt intimate. Plus, how many music halls have an in-house taqueria?

After writing news articles about upcoming concerts about Salvage Station since it opened in 2016, I felt I had to check that venue out. Salvage Station is on a huge piece of land filled with salvaged automobiles and other funky oddities. There’s a big outdoor space that holds 2,500 as well as a smaller indoor stage. A restaurant serves Southern and Appalachian-inspired fare and it seemed like a great place to hang. It too is on the banks of the French Broad River and concertgoers have the option of tubing down the river to gain entry to Salvage Station.

Star Wars wasn’t my favorite Wilco album, so I’m glad we’re beyond the days of the band playing the album in its entirety to start each show. Jeff Tweedy & Co. delivered a memorable 29-song performance at the Thomas Wolfe, a vibey theater in the heart of downtown Asheville. I wondered if I’d be stuck sitting all night, but thankfully the audience stood from the moment Wilco opened with “You Are My Face” through the end of “The Late Greats,” 150 minutes later. Once again, I was impressed with how focused the capacity crowd was on the music and the lack of talkers.

On Tuesday I visited a building where many amazing albums and in-studio sessions were and continue to be recorded, Echo Mountain Recording. Two buildings host the main spaces at Echo Mountain: a 1926 former AME Methodist Church church and a building which formerly housed the Asheville Salvation Army. Echo Mountain has only been open since 2006, but has already hosted sessions for such albums as Band Of Horses’ Cease To Begin, The Avett Brothers’ I And Love And You, The War On Drugs’ Slave Ambient, White Denim’s Stiff and Widespread Panic’s Street Dogs. Studio manager Jessica Tomasin had many fascinating stories to tell and showed off Echo Mountain’s vast collection of vintage gear and how they use every nook and cranny of the buildings to record, even the bathroom and shower. Tomasin is like many Ashevillians in that she does double-duty and beyond. It seemed like many music industry folks in town worked on a handful of different projects and for Jessica, her second “job” was running AMP. Tomasin uses her expertise to help the music professionals around her and her passion is contagious.

Echo Mountain also hosts the offices and studios of Independent Arts & Music or IamAVL. Remember Josh Blake from the start of our story and the Asheville Funk Jam? Well, one of Josh’s day jobs is a partner in IamAVL which offers both live streaming and in-studio recording sessions. Blake is celebrating 20 years in Asheville and he has become a fixture of the city’s rich musical culture. IamAVL have cameras installed at venues around town and stream multiple concerts a week via YouTube as well as AMP panels and more. The company also uses Echo Mountain’s The Church as a gorgeous location for its Echo Sessions series. Later that night I’d see Blake show off his chops at the Funk Jam and can re-live what went down, including a bizarre and somewhat awful mini-set from Breastfist, through IamAVL’s channel.

With the 11 p.m. start for the Tuesday Funk Jam, I headed to West Asheville once again on Tuesday night. This time around I feasted on BimBeriBon’s “real, feelgood food” and chatted about the Grateful Dead and jam scene with one of the restaurant’s founders, Mitch Orland. BimBeriBon focuses on local produce and meats and even though they don’t use refined sugars, the desserts I tasted were heavenly as were the duck special and wild housemade sodas. I still had a few hours to kill, so I stopped by Mothlight to catch a few local acts.

Nerds/geeks/awesome people like myself are well accepted in Asheville, a town where residents and visitors are encouraged to let their freak flags fly. There are plenty of arcades in town including at Retrocade and the Pinball Museum, but also at the game room at The Mothlight, where one can get in a few games of NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while listening to music in the adjacent main room. In true Asheville fashion drummer Ryan Oslance was up for double-duty as he was behind the kit for both Special Strength and Aleuchatistas at The Mothlight. The former played a deliciously weird blend of surf-rock, jazz, pop, bossa nova and new wave led by a woman to who truly goes to the beat of her own drummer, Pam Howe. Pam has insane vocal range and her phrasing was unlike any I’ve heard from any singer. Aleuchatistas created a huge sound for just two members. Their music was so intense I felt like I needed a shower before I headed to the Asheville Music Hall for the Funk Jam.

Around 2 a.m. I left the Funk Jam after dancing off what little energy I had left. For most of the prior three hours, Derrick Lee Johnson and Josh Blake had led the house band in reeling off a string of propulsive and soulful covers with guest musicians coming off and on stage at a furious clip. I knew Breastfist would perform a mini-set in the middle of the Funk Jam and I was excited as I heard great things about the Brooklyn-based band. Breastfist took the stage in highly unusual attire including one member wearing a mushroom penis. Perhaps it was having to come in cold, but the band’s instruments sounded out of tune and their music had many looking around the room with puzzled looks on their faces. I headed outside for a scene out a family reunion as there were lots of hugs and handshakes exchanged from those catching up with old friends. Derrick thankfully camped out side stage as if to say, “alright, Breastfist, it’s time to move on” and eventually we got back to bootyshaking grooves from uber-talented musicians.

I was a mix of emotions as I made the quick walk from the Music Hall to the Hotel Indigo. Reality was setting in that my trip was nearly over. Asheville has such an amazing vibe, I didn’t want to leave. My flight wasn’t until the afternoon on Wednesday, so I still had a few more stops to make before heading home. The first was a guided tour at the Moog Music Factory. Let me just say the free tours are given at 10:30 a.m. or 3:30 p.m. each weekday and are a must for music lovers visiting Asheville. In just under one hour I saw how Moog’s famed synthesizers are made, learned about Bob Moog’s bittersweet failures and brilliant successes all involving crazy innovations. The ELP fan in me was especially blown away to see what a massive synth Keith Emerson would tour with and to see Keith’s synth tech working in the back of Moog’s factory. We started and ended the tour in the Moog Store, where visitors could play nearly everything on display. I took my first and only chance to play a Theremin and boy is that thing difficult to operate. Still, I want one!

My last two stops were food-related. Throughout my five days I received recommendations from dozens of locals I encountered and one of the names that was repeatedly mentioned was Tupelo Honey. I had one of the most delicious brunches I’ve ever eaten. No hyperbole, no joke – the plate of a rich biscuit, eggs, potato cracklins and Creekstone Farm steak was outstanding. My waiter was very helpful despite the place hopping with eaters and I’m glad he was as he informed me the black sauce in the middle of my plate was maple bourbon bacon jam. He told me I should dip everything in it and the bacon jam took the food to the next level.

On the way to the airport I stopped at The Montford Pull Up, a deli fit within a convenience store. I only knew about it because they serve sandwiches from the joint at The Orange Peel, as it’s kinda hidden. My intrigue was piqued by a sandwich dubbed the “Granny Wallen,” featuring turkey, bacon, cream cheese, havarti, apples and lemonade mayo on ciabatta bread. As I flew home I chowed down on my Granny Wallen and savored every bite. I can’t imagine The Montford Pull Up will remain hidden for very long.

Asheville is a wonderful city with so many places to visit for music fans that I feel I only hit the tip of the iceberg in five days. The great part is a bevy of the options were free including the Bluegrass Brunch, Tuesday Funk Jam and Moog Music Factory Tour. People are nice and are more than willing to answer any questions you may have, while the Explore Asheville website is packed with information and a calendar of events. This trip to Asheville may have been covered, but I’ve already booked my return in December and this time I’m paying.