In addition to its scenic mountain landscapes and world-class selection of craft beer, Asheville, NC is known across the country as an eclectic music hub. Concert venues line the streets of downtown and extend all the way out to the city limits. Almost every weekend, visitors and residents alike are forced to choose one over the other, but from Thursday, August 3rd to Sunday, August 6th, 16 of the city’s top music locations became one for the inaugural AVLFest.
Presented by Wicked Weed Brewing and a slew of dedicated local actors, the festival delivered over 200 artists on 25 stages across town. The vast majority of those artists, as well as the fans, came from within the Blue Ridge Mountain jewel of Asheville, creating a unifying sense of community for a music destination shockingly devoid of any multi-day festival.
Here are 10 of the best things we saw at the inaugural AVLFest.
One of two separately-ticketed headliners of AVLFest was Watchhouse. Helmed by Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz and hailing from Chapel Hill, NC, their blend of restorative folk music was fitting for Asheville’s newest venue, The Outpost, situated along the scenic French Broad River.
Unfortunately, nature had other plans for the pastoral plot, as pestering rain dotted and at times drenched Asheville all day long. Luckily for Watchhouse and the legions of fans who came out in raincoats to see the band on Thursday night, an employee the band later thanked as Bob spent the afternoon hauling wheelbarrow after barrow of hay into the large grass field so that the concert could occur.
“I feel like our music pairs well with a light drizzle,” Emily quipped at one point between songs.
Summing up the vibe, Andrew crooned in “New Star” from the band’s 2021 self-titled album (its first after changing names from Mandolin Orange), “At least we’re all here together.” And the crowd was with them throughout the program—rain and all—as one could nearly hear a pin drop throughout the show. This was something not done out of lack of enthusiasm, but rather out of reverence for these songs and these songsmiths. At certain times when the group’s impressive and able band would kick in during instrumental passages, the crowd would awake from its reverent state and make its enthusiasm heard.
Watchhouse – “Silver Dagger” (Joan Baez) – 8/3/23
[Video: Fuzzy Dunlop]
Watchhouse – “Waltz About Whiskey” – 8/3/23
[Video: Fuzzy Dunlop]
One of the premier late-night shows of AVLFest, Asheville’s own (though it would probably be simpler to specify which bands aren’t from Asheville) Supertight certainly understood the assignment when they hit the stage Thursday night at the historic Asheville Music Hall downtown to close the event’s first day. From their matching tracksuits to a bevy of crowd-pleasing covers—beginning the night with “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”—Supatight’s performance kept fans tethered to the Music Hall for longer than was probably wise on day one of the musical marathon. Several of the band members also earned bonus points for opening up shop the next afternoon for the first set at The Grey Eagle with their side project Random Animals.
In a town with a jam-friendly reputation and at a festival with surprisingly minimal improvisational presence, The Snozzberries broke through with heavy psychedelic rock at The Funkatorium in the South Slope neighborhood on Friday. At one of the first stops for the after-work crowd, guitarist Ethan Heller kicked off the weekend proper with the screeching speed-metal intro to a song he introduced as “I Lost My Dog And My Grandpa Died”. He later clarified that that isn’t the actual name of the song, but that no longer seems important.
Especially in a town that attracts as many jam bands as Asheville, both from hither and yon, The Snozzberries stand out in the increasingly monocultural noise. That aforementioned heavy thrash intro ultimately opened up into deep, adult-film funk that the band thoroughly explored for a good 15 minutes despite the fact they only had an hour-long set time. The name of the game all weekend long at AVLFest was leaving audiences wanting more. Most locals took solace in the fact that many of these bands are their neighbors and will be back again soon.
Even in just the first half of that truncated set, the band was able to display their varied influences as they showed a sensitive side with a somber second song “Leaving Without You”, followed by an instrumental, dancetronic jam. One of my few regrets all weekend long was I had to leave 30 minutes and 2.5 songs in to head across town.
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The Snozzberries – Wicked Weed Funkatorium – 8/4/23
[Audio: Asheville George]
Waiting on the outskirts of town was headliner Kurt Vile & The Violators at Highland Brewing. The second of two separately-ticketed headlining shows brought the seminal slacker rocker to Asheville where his laid-back style, long hair, and flannel shirt made him fit in alongside any local.
Early on in his set, Vile won new fans throughout the audience as he followed up a solo acoustic cover of John Prine‘s “How Lucky” (which he recorded with the late songwriting master before his death in 2020) with a sit-in from Nikki Lane. During this Nashville interlude, Vile ceded vocals to the rising songstress for her collab with Lana Del Rey “Breaking Up Slowly”. Lane’s name was already on the lips of nearly everyone at AVLFest all day, with her set later that night at The Orange Peel already highlighted on our schedules well before Vile gave her a friendly plug following the sit-in.
The electric bulk of Vile’s set blew away any preconceived notions of the guitarist as a lackadaisical performer. Despite his nonchalant air about him and breezy songwriting style, many points during the show bordered on near-noise rock while Vile displayed his guitar prowess through a sea of effects pedals. Showing plenty of love to his latest disc (watch my moves), the show appeared to come to a close with the psychedelic epic “Like Exploding Stones”, only for Vile to step well over his time with the perfect closer, “Cool Water”, sporting the repeated line “Hey, where you goin’ now? / Are you goin’ home?” as many dashed to their cars/shuttles to make it to the next show.
Kurt Vile, Nikki Lane – “Breaking Up Slowly” – 8/4/23
[Video: Fuzzy Dunlop]
By far one of the most highly-anticipated sets of AVLFest was Nikki Lane Friday night downtown at The Orange Peel. A venue already well-known around town for trying to fit as many people into its shows as possible, this was easily the most crowded set of the weekend.
At the helm of an ace country backing band, Greenville, SC-born Lane represented the kind of strong hero that Asheville sound-alike town in Tennessee is always in need of. Songs like “You Can’t Talk To Me Like That” and “Highway Queen” tell the stories of secure, independent women whose stories make up a larger and larger demographic of the new country landscape. Along with her fierce writing style, her smokey delivery begs comparison to alt-country queen Margo Price.
Lane showed her vulnerability, too, telling the made-for-Disney story behind “Good Enough”: When her dad didn’t show up for “Donuts with Dad” in grade school, only for her grandfather to walk in and ask, “Am I good enough?” Coming off her Josh Homme-produced 2022 breakthrough Denim & Diamonds, we all better have enjoyed seeing Nikki in a 1,050-capacity room. Because odds are it’s not going to happen again anytime soon.
Nikki Lane – The Orange Peel – 8/4/23 – Full Show
[Video: Iam AVL]
Keeping up the streak of stellar late-night AVLFest shows were local indie-rockers Pink Beds at The Grey Eagle in the city’s developing River Arts District. While the group’s bio declares that they started life as an “indie pop” band back during 2020 COVID lockdowns, Pink Beds’ sound continues to evolve with each hometown show. Like coming back and visiting home while on break from college, there is new growth and knowledge shown with each trip to the old stomping grounds.
On this particular evening, the band’s indie groove took on a certain after-hours tenacity that kept the dance floor shaking at one of Asheville’s most storied venues. With electronic-infused improvisations interspersed through the band’s shimmering song structures, Pink Beds (on this particular evening) sounded like if Dawes was more into psychedelic mushrooms. After a long day of running around—with an even longer one coming up over the horizon—the danceable jams let the late-night ravers burn off their last calories of energy before closing the book on day two.
Pink Beds – The Grey Eagle – 8/4/23 – Full Video
[Video: Iam AVL]
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One of the quintessential Asheville shows arrived on Saturday as Toubab Krewe took over the lush New Belgium Brewing Company campus along the French Broad River. The local ensemble performed in the golden hour in a sight that could easily serve as a postcard from ExploreAsheville.com. The band is inherently Asheville, even though its signature blend of world music has little, if anything, to do with Appalachia. Instead, Toubab Krewe is emblematic of this city and its diverse meld of styles.
With manifold instrumentation, the band crafted complex and driving rhythms worthy of its position as one of the day’s unofficial headliners. The quintet is also adept at straightforward rock moments, with guitarist Drew Heller capable of much more than he lets on. Rather than a shredder, he’s a builder, and instead of flashy leads, he’s part of the team. Together, Toubab Krewe crosses boundaries with its intercultural influences as they speak the universal language of rhythm.
Red Clay Revival
Another classic Western North Carolina band Red Clay Revival, based in nearby Leicester, began the slow wind-down of the fourth and final day of AVLFest. This jamgrass unit fit the part with multiple pairs of bare feet onstage at The Orange Peel on Sunday, led by frontman Doug McElvy who commanded the stage not only with his intimidating physical presence but equally daunting chops on vocals and guitar.
Transplants from Alabama, the band embodies the new sounds of the mountains by mixing traditional elements of fiddle, banjo, and acoustic guitar with stylistic staples of rock with keys, electric guitar, and drums. With songs about how rules are made to be broken and sitting broke on the side of the road, Red Clay Revival bridges rockabilly twang with bluegrass elements to conjure up a roaring good time. It’s no wonder they’ve earned the seal of approval from the likes of Keller Williams, Tim Carbone, and Larry and Jenny Keel, all featured on the band’s appropriately titled 2012 album Barefoot.
Red Clay Revival – The Orange Peel – 8/6/23 – Full Video
[Video: Iam AVL]
Indigo De Souza
The other clear rising star alongside Nikki Lane was sadgirl indie rocker Indigo De Souza, who first moved to Asheville back in high school. One of the more intriguing locales of AVLFest, this packed set took place at the Burial Forestry Camp, a former camp turned brewery that housed workers for the Depression-era conservation department known as the Civilian Conservation Corps.
De Souza’s angsty, Courtney Barnett-like lyricism echoed through the Biltmore Village and into Asheville to attract one of the largest crowds of the weekend. Her song about therapy and the process of re-parenting, “Younger & Dumber”, was well received by a local populace obsessed with self-improvement, while others like “You Can Be Mean” provided some cathartic mid-day screams. Just like at Nikki Lane, audience members hopefully made sure to enjoy seeing this emerging voice in such a small venue.
Finally, the only way to properly end the inaugural AVLFest was with an all-out funk blowout by The Fritz at The Orange Peel. A group with lineup changes befitting of the transplant town from which they hail, these days the quintet is helmed by the fiery and evocative Datrian Johnson (John Medeski’s Saint Disruption).
With a songbook that stretches back a decade, The Fritz’s progressive funk sound is as much a part of Asheville’s musical identity as any of the twang or jams. Closing out the hour-long set with the band’s most well-known song, “Stuck In Between”, the crowd gave that last boogie all the energy they had left from the long weekend.
Feeling that energy, The Fritz couldn’t resist the loudest encore chant of the weekend and of this writer’s recent memory. Fittingly (Fritzingly?), the set, the weekend, and the first-ever AVLFest came to an end as the hometown band got the entire hometown crowd leading the call-and-response “I got something that I need from you / I got something that I want to do.” There certainly was something we needed from The Fritz, and we got it.
The Fritz – The Orange Peel – 8/6/23 – Full Video
[Video: Iam AVL]
Of course, on a lineup with 232 bands playing on 25 stages, it’s impossible to touch on everyone and everything that made the first AVLFest such a success. There are just a few more artists who stood out at this year’s debut, including slide guitar wizard Billy Cardine, who reunited his Billy Seas project for an ornate set at the Wortham Center.
But it truly does not get any more local than Josh Blake, who seemingly teleported from one venue to the next all weekend long, flitting from one project to another. Whether it was with Josh Blake’s Organ Trio (or JBOT), leading the legendary Tuesday Night Funk Jam (which happened on a Friday), or just playing with a pick-up three-piece that you happened to stumble on at the River Arts District Brewing Company on Sunday afternoon, there is no local Asheville music scene without Josh Blake.
Josh Blake’s Organ Trio (JBOT) – The Orange Peel – 8/5/23 – Full Video
[Video: Iam AVL]
After seeing 26 different bands at 13 venues, taking 35,090 steps, and somehow accruing 0 parking tickets, the last honorable mention goes to the dedicated venue owners and operators, promoters, artists, fans, tourists, residents, friends, and family that make this community what this is. I’ll see you all next year, but I’ll also see you all tomorrow around town.
Check out photo galleries from all four days of AVLFest below courtesy of the team at Fiasco Media.