Looking back at the WNC’s most recent LEAF Festival

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Review by Breanne Smith28066_4380040152138_648283939_n

Photo by Lori Sky Twohy

This past Fall I had the honor of attending my fourth Lake Eden Arts Festival on the campus of Camp Rockmont.

Lake Eden Arts Festival is a culmination of all things fun. The people who produce this glorious festival twice a year, i’ve come to learn, simply know how to have fun. Plain and simple, inside out, up and down. FUN. On top of fun being the main theme here, the underlying awesomeness that is LEAF is the constant contact with children not just in the U.S, but across the world, with its LEAF in School in Streets programs. LSS and Leaf International is a highly recognized program where professional musicians actually go into the field to help these children put their attention in arts, which is essential for the development of growth. This international recognition has attracted musical artists from all over to grace the stage at their festival which is held twice a year on the beautiful Lake Eden in Black Mountain, NC.

This is an outreach program that puts on a festival. Nonprofit organizations throughout Asheville and the surrounding area nourish the people within our communities, caring for those in need, protecting our historic heritage, educating young and old, and nurturing our cultural soul. LEAF does it best. Western North Carolinian’s love music and festivals and they are attracted to LEAF because it makes you feel good about wanting to feel good. Jocelyn Reese, the director of LSS, says program’s primary goal is to reach underserved populations of students and increase self-esteem in children. A lot of arts enrichment programs are underfunded, she says, if they’re funded at all. She’s encouraged to see that people are realizing students need more than what they’re currently getting.

Jocelyn says none of this would be possible without the LEAF outreach programs of both LSS and LEAF International. By outsiders becoming members of this program, people are directly supporting these important programs. When people, such as you and I, become members, we help pay for artists, supplies, instruments, materials, transportation, and community collaborations.

On the same vein of going to a festival put on by an outreach program, you should expect some amazing young talent to take stage with the major artists invited by Billy Jack Sinkovic (Performing arts director). The real magic happens when these artists lead workshops with outreach organizations and are teaching their skills to younger generations.

This was the first year I’d ever heard the term “FOMO” which is “fear of missing out”. Which happens at LEAF because of the immense events that are promoted. No matter how much fun you’re having at LEAF, there’s always something else happening at the exact same time. This can sometimes go to your head. The way I’ve learned to deal with this is to have friends at one event, and while passing them to segue to the event they just came from, quickly exchange your excitement and move along. However, it is impossible to witness everything but that is the one of the best things about LEAF.

Being Billy Jack Sinkovic’s last year with LEAF he obviously wanted to go out with a bang.

He invited Belgian Polyphonic Afrobeat queen- Zap Mama. Also known as Marie Daulne- frontwoman of the band got the attention of LEAFER’s with her illustrious voice and beauty. Wrapping together Daulne’s rich juxtapositions- high-wattage method and high-minded motivation, the personal and the universal. The band buzzing with howls and whistles, the band melds a feather-light reggae bounce into a deeper, funky groove in their set. There’s not a note of negativity for miles. Instead, the listener is aloft on good old-fashioned polyrhythms and Saturday night fun. Whether Daulne’s coaxing a funky vibe out of a children’s game (“Kwenda”) or leading a simmering bout of call and response (“Hey Brotha”), she seems to draw from a bottomless well of party-starting energy which is what happened that Saturday night at LEAF. Each song managed to cram a rainbow of color onto its small canvas while never coming off as too much. The bluesy, piano-driven melodies,  boasts both the burning soulfulness of song and the upbeat pulse of  salsa. Listening to Daulne cross so elegantly, so seamlessly over the length of an show,  from genre to genre and emotion to emotion, leaves nothing to doubt: This is one solid band.

Also on the bill was the voice of a country and the son of a legend, Mali’s own Fieux Farka Toure’. Still only in his early 30s, he has had an intriguing career. He became and has transformed his dad’s style by playing electric guitar and adding bass and drums. Initially, he sounded like a Malian answer to a British 70s blues band, but then developed an increasingly distinctive African approach, while switching from electric to elegant acoustic guitar. If you were expecting a gentle acoustic evening, you got the opposite. He started out on electric guitar, backed by bass and drums, for what he described as a “relaxed” opening, with his fluent, pleasantly laid back playing still allowing for rapid-fire flurries. He began to speed up with song Souba Souba, which brought the tentl to its feet. Then he switched direction with a far-too-brief acoustic section, in which he demonstrated his elaborate, gently sturdy solo guitar work before being joined by Senegalese kora player Diabel Cissokho. Their exquisite duet on Future echoed his father’s celebrated collaborations with Toumani Diabaté.

Finally, he switched back to electric guitar for a loud, messy wailing blues, then acoustic again for an impressive workout with his band, with the crowd giving the energy back to him. With such feedback here and across the world, he’s on his way to becoming Africa’s next guitar hero.

Night gave way for an anticipatory album release but WNC’s own Acoustic Syndicate. This would be their first release in almost a decade so spirits and expectations were high. “Rooftop Garden”  got people jamming and grinning and singing these deep and hopeful tunes encouraging people to think as they dance, expand their minds and open their hearts to the good that can be done around them. The band revisits topics of love, kinship and the natural world on this album but in other ways this disc marks a creative shift for the Syndicate. While McMurray has long been Acoustic Syndicate’s charismatic lead singer the show captured the rise of another distinctive voice in the band, Bryon McMurray. Bryon’s familiar, funky banjo often takes a backseat to his Fender electric guitar that along with his warm and even vocals create a sound somewhere between Bruce Horns by and The Samples. With their latest release and the show I witnessed, Acoustic Syndicate caught their third win in WNC and is taking their talents further than ever.

Delhi to Dublin was a band that caught the attention of LEAFER’s immediately. It was right up our alley with part Bollywood wedding, part Celtic kitchen party, and all electronic dance fest. With six band members, the band ensured there was a lot going on to keep the audience’s attention. The musicians moved up and down and across the stage while performing Bollywood-style dance moves and engaging each other in instrumental battles Sara Fitzpatrick looked like a sultry Celtic pirate as she engaged the audience with her no-holds-barred fiddle performance. Each member was alluring and charismatic in their own way, and no one stole the stage from the others. In fact, lead vocalist Sanjay Seran was the most generic-looking of the bunch. While exciting, the full force of the band’s performance verged at times on chaotic. The most interesting parts of the evening were when only select members were on stage, revealing the full extent of their skill and musicianship. This is one band I’ve got on my list and will be checking them out as soon as I get the energy and chance.

The crowd also became in enthralled with The Soul Rebels. They gave a medley of songs with teasing transitional interpolations of Curtis Mayfield and other familiar riffs, blending their original compositions and covers into a danceable mix that didn’t leave many in their seats long. Taking only a few short breaks to introduce the band, the Soul Rebels made sure that there was always music to dance to and even provided coaching to get the whole tent stepping side to side in unison for their lead single “504.” With spots of rapped verse from a number of different members, some call and return and hype tactics, the night had the vigor of a hip-hop show at times, further vitalizing the crowd. Each member brought their own personality to the stage and the sound. Erion Williams served as the front man on stage, emceeing the night and taking many melodic roles as the lone saxophone on stage. In addition to the man stage left who proved both agile and genuinely happy on his trombone, Corey Peyton seemed to fill in the roll of accents and harmony in the second trombone spot, often joining in with quick phrases that highlighted the solos and verses from other members on stage. The trumpet team of Marcus “Red” Hubbard and Julian Gosin were fundamental energizers on stage, often taking the lead on the vocal parts and the most animated dancers, but with any great brass band, the sousaphone bass lines lead the changes more passively from the backline, in this case by Edward Lee who played continually, seemingly without pause for breaths. From the stage to the lake, not a single person could refrain from dancing by the end. It was a short set that ended a bit earlier than many could have expected, but for 90 minutes, the Soul Rebels supplied a stream of non-stop boogie that gave everyone an unavoidable strut in their step as they embarked on the rest of their day.

One of my favorite acts of the entire weekend was Lake Street Dive. With lush, tasteful harmonies, beautiful pop grooves, and soulful gravitas, Lake Street Dive captivated the audience with everything good about pop music.  By the end of the first song, it was clear that we were in the hands of four musicians who knew their instruments and were all pulling in the same musical direction. Lead singer Rachael Price is magnetic.  Few frontmen/women are able to hold court the way that she does.  With only her big, soulful voice and her arms planted firmly on her gyrating hips, she had us eating out of her pop diva hands.  Her voice is a nuclear power house one moment, and a sultry whisper the next. Every member of the band is adept at his or her instrument.  Bassist Bridget Kearney played funky, jazz-laden bass grooves song-in and song-out.  Her version of “I Want You Back” had James Jamerson smiling in bass player heaven.  Mike Calabrese held it down on the drums, playing a four-on-the floor beat when appropriate, and opening it up and letting it rip when the song called for big playing.  And who has a guitarist who also kills it at the trumpet?  Lake Street Dive does in Mike Olson. Their harmonies are so tight, so present, so heavenly that at times it sounded like they had an organist.  Apparently, singing brilliant three-part harmonies is a prerequisite to be in this band. Don’t let their name fool you.  This is no backwoods band made of drunks.  Lake Street Dive is armed with conservatory chops and soulful pop music, and they’re ready to take on the world.

Another WNC favorite, Rising Appalachia had the barn and the dining hall packed out to the dirt roads. People knew these women and had to get close enough to take it all in. If you go see Rising Appalachia, I dare you to be unmoved. The duo of sexy, eclectic sirens are Leah Song (how ironic) and Chloe Smith. The two sing fierce falsetto while complimenting each others amazing acapella. The wave that comes from the two sharing notes is accompanied by their instruments. Leah is a dream on clawhammer banjo, fiddle, guitar, and tambourine. She also mixes in a little spoken word. Chloe plays banjo, guitar, fiddle and dun dun. The backbone of the two is made up by Abram Racin, on stand up bass. A young man named Imhotep plays bass drum, dun dun, m’bala, symbols, and does a few dance steps. Biko Casini  is in the background on djembe and congas, while Forest Kelly beatboxes and plays washboard. “Filthy Dirty South” was their latest release and by far their most anticipated. Their dueling cajun fiddles and special guest, David Brown was a pleasant surprise. David Brown is a local guitarist who is highly favored by most musicians in the area due to his pure talent. No matter what your musical preference, these girls take traditional Appalachian folk and put their own eclectic spin on it while still making it plain fun. They incorporate the idea of roots music with heavy jazz undertones, rustic fiddle and banjo, irresistible energy and create soulful female harmonies that is impossible to ignore. Their latest album, “Filthy Dirty South” incorporates all those things. Their live infectious fun and you get a unique sense of enjoyment. These two have pure skill and and deep love for tradition and one serious sense of fun and individuality. I would recommend checking them out if you love traditional music mixed with innovation and skill and who doesn’t like that?

Billy Jack Sinkovic invited a unique blend music (like always) and had one amazing headliner; The voodoo mysticism, funk, rhythm and blues, psychedelic rock and Creole king, Dr. John himself with his band The Night Trippers. Sunday afternoon, a sharp-dressed, bow-tied man walked across the stage, turned on an antique wood-paneled floor-standing radio at stage left, and revealed Dr. John at his Wurlitzer, a skull strategically perched on its corner facing the audience. (And it was one reverent audience at that standing and enraptured most of the set. The shuffling groove locked in and true for the “Locked Out” title track. The second half dug deep into the songbook, right back to Dr. John’s debut album from 1968, Gris-Gris. Right Place Wrong Time, his 1973 hit, came out great and got the electric piano lost in the mix and ran into one giant fantastic jam which really got the place rocking. The man looked like he’d slept in his blue pinstriped suit, loafers, hat and wraparound shades, but it didn’t matter.

Three songs later, after band introductions that disguised the true improvised nature of their undertaking, Dr. John sang Such a Night.

As they wound up, the refrain of the 1973 hit song echoed through the tent. “If I don’t do it, you know somebody else will.”  Sarah Morrow served as the Dr. John show’s emcee. She announced Rebennack’s arrival onstage. She positioned herself front and center stage, and remained there. She directed and cued the musicians. She assigned herself numerous trombone solos. As Rebennack has never featured another musician so prominently, her expanded role was a gem in the rough. After playing “Iko Iko,” Rebannack and company devoted much of the set to “Locked Down,” the excellent 2012 album that Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach produced. Dr. John revisiting that classic, swampy gris-gris style that put him on the map. After a half century of creating music for others and himself, Dr. John continues to write, arrange, produce and interpret with a passion that has yet to quit. He dazzled and delighted the audience at LEAF and was a great way to end the festival.

Most go for the acts, and end up finding things about themselves they didn’t know before. You make lifelong friends and you’ll always have an ever-present remembrance in the back of your mind of how you felt. It’s the idea of how incredibly free and child-like you felt at LEAF. You find yourself here. LEAF has become a hub of friendly, fun- oriented and like minded people that I can now call my family and can’t wait to see what LEAF fun is right around the corner in Spring!


Check out all things LEAF at http://www.theleaf.com

and all these great bands-


Zap Mama- www.zapmama.com

VIeux Farka Toure’- http://www.vieuxfarkatoure.com

Acoustic Syndicate- www.acousticsyndicate.com

Delhi 2 Dublin- www.delhi2dublin.com

The Soul Rebels- www.thesouldrebels.com

Lake Street Dive-  www.lakestreetdive.com

Rising Appalachia- www.risingappalachia.com

Dr. John and The Nite Trippers- www.thenitetrippers.com


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