It happens twice a year, on a patch of land just behind the juvenile detention center in Black Mountain, NC, outside of Asheville. The Lake Eden Arts Festival moves in and throws a giant family-friendly celebration, embracing all kinds of creative expression, from juggling to blues music, to sparks-shooting hula hoop contra dancing. (Okay, this last thing probably doesn't exist, but if it ever did, you could rest assured it would happen at LEAF...or at least in downtown Asheville.)
I used to think that was a funny place to hold an arts festival where people are camping out, but now that I've been living in Asheville for two years, it makes perfect sense. If anyone believes in the healing, transformative power of the arts, Ashevillians are among the most convinced. Especially when it comes to local artists. We have so many glass and ceramics artists in this town, we could probably single-handedly supply a third world nation with coffee mugs and ashtrays and "tobacco pipes" and busts of unknown people, and ornate, non-descript, remarkably haunting glassplosions for at least a decade.
I went to LEAF once before, back in 2002. I was a different me then; the world was a different it. I camped on the edge of the lake that year with my sisters and niece, staying up late, contra dancing in the barn, punctuating the evening with more toasted marshamallows than I would otherwise have ever been interested in, in any other context. (I tend to be more of a marshmallow detractor, though I've learned to just shut up and let my partner make me a s'more now and then; she exercises some special magic on those things to make them edible.)
I have absolutely no recollection of who played LEAF in the fall of 2002. I hardly even remember listening to the music. I remember volunteering as a beer pourer, remember pesto-shmeared quesadillas, as many as I could cram in my mouth. I recall freezing my ass off and not sleeping well because, let's face it, late October in the Blue Ridge Mountains, high up, next to a lake, as the trees are just beginning to lose their leaves, is cold. It's an interesting idea for a trio of Florida gals to pile into a warm-weather tent for a weekend. But we did it, and we had a damn good time, from what I recall.
That was when I was just a traveling musician, between towns (I had just completed a near-year stint in New Orleans and was working on moving to Seattle). My job at festivals was to soak it all up, do whatever struck my fancy, ignore it all and just sit by the lake if I felt like it; challenge my then-seven-year-old niece to see which of us could roll down the most hillsides that weekend. (She won. Shocker.)
Nowadays, my festival experience is a little bit different. I take notes, I observe things, I remember details, or try to. I collect critical opinions and spew them forth in blog posts like this one. I'm older; I don't have kids yet, but I'm working on it; I enjoy the cold - and marshmallows - far less than I did when I was 25. I live in Asheville, where people chug pints of locally brewed Kombucha from the tap at the natural grocery store. Asheville, where Friday nights in the summer mean giant drum circles in the center of town, with dredlocked ladies in long skirts showing off their hoopin' dance skills. I saw someone at a drum circle this summer with a flashing rainbow light-up tambourine. They were workingthat thing.
I included that last paragraph because LEAF, like most things in the world, is a completely different experience when you live on the inside. A tweet I sent from the beginning of the festival said "It's like someone shook Asheville up and it's carbonated Buchi faerie tofu dust blew out the other end of the hula hoop." That pretty much sums it up. And that's a compliment.
First of all, there are children everywhere. Filthy, happy, dancing children. Giggling, juggling, running, bouncing, filthy, sloppy, hilarious, darling children. The children's area at LEAF featured a free ride in a giant blow-up hamster ball you can get inside and roll around in (our friends over in Pigeon Forge would call that thing a Zorb(TM)). There were tennis courts with toys laying everywhere - just walk through the gate, pick something up, and play. There's a kids' marketplace where youngun's could sell their arts and crafts, busk, or offer massages to other kids for pay. There was also a stage where we saw some really embarrassingly bad magic and puppet situations, but also an exceptional performance from one of Asheville's greatest prides: juggling/circus troupe Forty Fingers and a Missing Tooth.
Kids weren't just in the kids area, though. LEAF is like some magical alternative universe where children - well-behaved, considerate kids - are left to wander free while their parents kick it in the contra barn or relax with a (locally microbrewed) beer somewhere outside of the main music tent. Suddenly at some time in the middle of the afternoon, there's a parade of giant puppets, jugglers, magicians, and children in random costumes - probably whatever they could scrape up around their campsite.
Beyond all the family-friendly reveling, though, there is, indeed, excellent music. Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys played a rousing set of Zydeco in the contra dance barn. MC Yogi delivered a soul-cleansing 90-minute set on the mainstage, rapping about positive vibes and awakening and all manner of optimism. (A friend of a friend recently commented that Asheville is like the Greenwich Village of yoga rap. Indeed.)
The Tony Rice Unit had to cancel last minute when Tony got sick, but were replaced by the Nashville Bluegrass Band - a remarkable last-second score for the folks who book LEAF. But the real clencher for me was a beautiful, emotional, stirring set from Vancouver BC-based Be Good Tanyas.
I got turned on to the Tanyas in a backwards way, when I became completely enthralled with the solo work of Jolie Holland. I saw Holland play for the first time at Pickathon years ago and was completely enamored of her songwriting. I dug a little bit and found out she'd started out with the Tanyas - a band which included Frazey Ford (who blew me away a year or two later with her solo stuff at Pickathon), Samantha Parton, and Trish Klein, whose band Po'Girl I already knew and loved. It was one of those moments where I realized a seemingly otherwise random assortment of artists who dominated my listening habits had actually all played together as a band at one point.
Parton was missing for this tour after being in a car accident earlier this year. She was replaced by Ford's mother, whose voice blended perfectly with Ford and Klein, and brought another layer of shaking soul to the group. The Tanyas have a new album out, which is a collection of some of the best songs from their earlier albums, plus a few new tunes. They pretty much stuck to that set list, following their own muses and playing the hits somewhat early in the set. (I was surprised and excited when "Scattered Leaves" came out in the first 20 minutes.)
In the context of this beautiful sweeping mountain landscape - the hills in the background dusted with a thousand shades of orange, red, and yellow; children frolicking like a jubilant promise; people in canoes out on the lake; every shape and sort of local art being examined and enjoyed in tents throughout the festival; people hiking and dancing and making music of their own in scattered pockets along the hillsides - the intuitive, soulful harmonies of three women made sense of the whole colorful chaos.