As concerts return to our lives, they bring with them so much more than just live music. Along with concerts and festivals comes a re-emergence of the communal aspect of mass gatherings that’s been missing for nearly a year and a half. At the forefront of these events which bring together entire communities are the local festivals. While these small events don’t carry with them the major headliners found at bigger shows, local festivals bring together familiar faces from the community, many of which we haven’t seen in some time.
Among those local festivals that are helping return a sense of normalcy was AsheJam which took place over the weekend at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center in Fletcher, NC, just outside of Asheville. The first-time, three-day event brought together a range of artists from local Asheville mainstays Travers Brothership and The Snozzberries to nationally recognized jam outfit Perpetual Groove to throwback artists like Pure Prairie League and Atlanta Rhythm Section. The biggest headliner of the weekend, however, was the reunion of the local Asheville music scene.
One important distinction to make here is that the use of the word “local” does not denote an absence of quality. Instead, AsheJam came together with production value almost unfathomable for a small gathering without any major headliners. Across the two main stages (Do Da Jam Stage and AsheJam Stage) and an Off The Grid Stage ran entirely on solar power, AsheJam was a paradigm of professionalism as the community rallied together with its best and brightest.
The after-work crowd gradually filtered in on Friday to catch the tail end of Headonistas from nearby Atlanta, GA who provided some upbeat jams to kick off the weekend for many. Though Hedonistas put on a captivating show, the dayglow painted Love Bus placed prominently between the two stages was a major point of focus as impromptu frisbee tosses erupted throughout the performances.
Snake Oil Medicine Show represented the old guard of Asheville music royalty as the long-standing WNC act delivered a unique blend of rockabilly jamgrass with a bit of wonky psychedelic thrown in for good measure. With a lineup of fiddle, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and a sort of electric banjo, it would be impossible for SOMS to sound like anything familiar. The bassist, reminiscent of Les Claypool, and jazz drummer only further contributed to that elusive effect known as the Asheville sound.
While some may overlook the local festivals for the lack of headliners, that can often be the most endearing thing about them. Instead of waiting around all day for that big name, the no-rush feel of AsheJam instead allowed for the exploration of new artists. The biggest discovery for this writer came in the form of one Sam Lewis, a singer-songwriter out of Nashville with the look of James Taylor, the voice of Jim James, and the simplistic songwriting style of a young John Prine.
The true headliner of Friday’s schedule came in the form of Interstellar Echoes, a Pink Floyd tribute band out of Atlanta. Opening with “Speak To Me/Breathe”, the band’s commitment to authentically replicating the Brit-psych pioneers was palpable through complete movements of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” as well as each part of “Another Brick In The Wall”, along with some mighty fine lasers. The show took on a personal touch as the keyboardist proposed to the female vocalist following “Great Gig In The Sky” (she said yes). The nostalgia-inducing headlining performance came to a close with “Comfortably Numb” as crowds left with anticipation for the following day.
The true start to Saturday’s festivities came promptly at 4 p.m. with The Snozzberries. Headed by guitarist/vocalist Ethan Heller, the ever-rising jam mainstays delivered a blend of improvisational music beyond classification that quickly jumped from Frank Zappa jazz jams to the heavy psychedelic riffs of Black Sabbath. Though the party was already underway on the main stages, the Off The Grid Stage provided a reprieve for those not interested in the barroom dad-rock covers of Normal Bean Band, and instead offered solace with the chilled out indie grooves of Asheville youngsters Pink Beds.
As the day wore on, fans were treated to a double dose of Grateful Dead covers beginning with Gent Treadly. A former touring partner of the late Vince Welnick, Treadly continued to carry the flame with Dead classics interspersed with its own creations, including a loving tribute to the late Dead keyboardist “Keep On Walking”.
Following the electric blissed-out Dead covers from Treadly, it was time for something similar but completely different with Grass Is Dead on the neighboring Do Da Jam Stage. Whereas Treadly stuck to the playbook of the classic Grateful Dead sound, Grass Is Dead went the other direction with a set of barroom brawler Dead. Even after two consecutive hours of Grateful Dead covers from two increasingly divergent acts, audiences still clamored for more by the time Grass Is Dead shuffled offstage.
While Mad Professor was originally slated to bookend the headlining set from Perpetual Groove, COVID-19 travel restrictions kept the U.K. DJ across the pond. The AsheJam production team, ever the professionals, rolled with the punches as the show went on to present the Atlanta-bred jam stalwarts.
P-Groove was able to further push the musical boundaries of Saturday’s program, as the band toggled from ambient soundscapes to hard-hitting jams and even well-placed covers of Butthole Surfers‘ “Pepper” and Johnny Cash‘s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”, which both somehow fit perfectly into the same set. In the end, Perpetual Groove gave the audience the reigns and allowed the energy of the crowd to dictate the direction of the show, often with thrilling results.
After Perpetual Groove’s headlining set, there was still one more band on the docket with Asheville’s own Travers Brothership. Even after the long-awaited set from P-Groove, there was still no matching the AVL locals who, despite (or perhaps due to) playing in the area for years, were able to captivate the crowd with high-intensity funk and searing acid blues-rock. In the end, it took a gang of local musicians to show everyone how it’s done as Travers Brothership brought the second day of AsheJam to a close.
Speaking as a recent emigree to Asheville, the most satisfying moments of Saturday came from finally seeing the local movers and shakers play with their own bands. In a small town like Asheville, where live music is one of the main industries, the local musicians are a ruling class all their own. Throughout the pandemic, they were forced off the road and struck homebound for the first time in years. This led to a whole new re-emergence of a local scene at the One Stop At Asheville Music Hall, where weekly open jams often resulted in a who’s who of touring musicians who call Western North Carolina home.
Returning to the increasingly familiar grounds of the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center on Sunday, the final day, the rituals of the 20-minute drive to nearby Fletcher had become almost a ritual—which isn’t to say that I wasn’t running late for the third day in a row. The day’s program wound down early on Sunday, which only encouraged hordes of fans to show up even earlier and plop their camping chairs down for an afternoon of nostalgia rock, kicking off with the folk stylings of Pure Prairie League.
Even after 52 years of music, PPL can still put on a show and certainly knows how to play to its strengths. From the “back in my day” reminiscing of bassist Michael Reily to Donnie Lee Clark‘s still-buttery vocals, Pure Prairie League’s inoffensive folk-rock was the perfect way to wind down on Sunday, rather than ending the weekend with the raucous rock n’ roll of Saturday night. Unsurprisingly, the whole set led to a climax of “Aimie”, before handing things off to the Southern rock royalty of Atlanta Rhythm Section.
Fifty years beyond the band’s commercial heydey, the mostly middle-aged crowd that remained at AsheJam for the final set of the weekend still had ARS’ lyrics rolling off their tongues. Another vintage band of yesteryear, singer Rodney Justo engaged in a bit of dad humor as he talked about gaining the “COVID 19” pounds, as well as remarked how his band wrote about selfies nearly 50 years ago before closing the show with one of their biggest hits, “Imaginary Lover”.
With that, AsheJam came to a close as crowds filtered out in the waning 6 p.m. sunlight. Together, as we poured out of the Agricultural Center parking lot, there was a common sense that we had all come a little bit closer this weekend. For many of us, the faces we saw this weekend will now stick out at the grocery store or the gas station, as our community becomes a little bit more acquainted with each passing gathering. Together, we grew stronger through our shared heritage of live music.