Spring awakening: Mavis Staples and the dancing children of LEAF
The Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) is one of the most anticipated arts events in Western North Carolina each year. People who camp have been doing so for years, in the same spot they first picked out a decade ago. People who drive in come from just about every nook and cranny between Asheville and Knoxville, down to Greenville, probably even up to Abingdon. They throw on something made of hemp, delight in local microbrews, local organic vegan food – or at least meat that was grass-fed and easy on the conscience. They show up because the festival uses solar power, sits in a pocket of mountains that glows with orange light in autumn, drips with dew-kissed greens in spring. They come for the boats and swimming and ziplines, or the hiking trails and midnight campfires. They show up because the dance barn is bumpin’ at all hours of day and night as people who brought special shoes for it devote hours on end to contra and salsa and waltzing, and everything else you can imagine.
Oh yeah, and the music.
I’ve been to LEAF three times now – twice in autumn and once in spring – and have always been impressed at the music they get despite the fact that music is not the primary focus. Back in October, you might recall, I showed up for the Be Good Tanyas, but Tim O’Brien was on tap too, Nashville Bluegrass Band, and more. This time around, Mavis Staples – a hero, a legend – was headlining. Abigail Washburn played a few sets, so did Ben Sollee, Ozomatli, Papa Grows Funk.
There’s one primary stage and a small handful of scattered stages around the property. The Roots family stage is close to the entrance/exit for easy escape when your kid is tapped and mid-meltdown. Surrounding that stage is a tent full of brass, woodwind, and stringed instruments kids can just pick up and play at will. There’s a Zorb, a magic bus, painting, and an area for kids to sell their goods and services, or to busk. (In October, I had to smile at the little girl selling shoulder rubs for $5 a pop.) Sure, the family stage has its share of magic shows and puppet performances, but I was struck this year by the youth poetry slam – won by our 12-year-old friend, but peopled with brave middle school kids bearing their authentic souls through creative language in ways I wish more adults would do. They slammed about bullying, gender identity, race, and the torture of being a middle school kid who can’t fast forward to a more confident, enlightened age. I came close to tearing up a few times at their unabashed honesty in front of their peers and a swath of adults.
Stringband music happens on the family stage too, though. So does socially conscious hip-hop and dance music.
Way out past VIP camping, over a creek and through some hills, there’s a barn stage. The venue is upstairs, above where the livestock would typically live, felt draperies hanging from the rafters like so much seaweed or shooting stars. There, we watched Ben Sollee deliver a stirring and invigorating set on Saturday afternoon. My life in 2012 saw no shortage of Ben Sollee performances, and I’ve yet to see two which came off the same way. This day, Sollee was relaxed and vibing off his collaborators. There seemed to be no pressure to deliver anything hardcore. “Let’s just jam,” he said at the onset, shrugging a shoulder and grabbing his bow. “Good stuff always happens that way.” Indeed, the set he dropped was jammed out mostly from his Half Made Man disc. But, the highlight was the songs-long dance performance from his son Oliver.
The kid jumped onstage at one point with a pair of glowsticks in his hand and just twirled and spun and ran in place with all his might. Head down, arms flailing, he looked up only for the nod of his father, approval to continue. When Ben stood up from his bazouki and tried dancing with Oliver, the kid just paused and waited, as if to say “Dad, you’re taking up the dancefloor!” Sollee relented and the boy wasted no time bopping and shaking and twisting outside the beat. It was quite possibly the most joyous response to music I’ve seen in some time. Completely unhinged and uninhibited, ignoring the lyrics, ignoring the phrasing – just a boy and some rhythm, letting go.
It was a lesson I heeded later on, when Mavis took to the mainstage. She entered with a cane, then dropped it and grooved. The songs were all she needed for support, I suppose. Backed by a tight, intuitive band and four soul-drenched backup singers, Staples made no mistake of showing exactly why, at 74, she’s still making music that matters.
“I’m here to bring you some joy, happiness, inspiration, and good vibrations,” she said. “Enough to last you…well, the next six months at least!”
She danced through plenty of good old Staples Singers gospel tunes and new stuff from her new album One True Vine (her second working with Jeff Tweedy) before lighting into “The Weight” and growling with every ounce of love in her heart, “Give it up for Levon Helm!” She burst into “Freedom Highway” and unleashed herself from the groove, following the song as far as it would take her, not just singing “Made up my mind/I won’t turn around,” but delivering it. There, I found myself, like Oliver Sollee, just tossing my hands up and going with it. May as well, I figured. The music isn’t going to dance to itself.