Over the past year or so, Asheville's concert scene has boasted the likes of Willie Nelson, Widespread Panic and Patti Smith. Despite the stiff competition, however, Xpress readers glommed onto the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam as their hands-down favorite. For the past 13 years, Haynes has returned to his hometown to stage the jam with a revolving lineup of world-class talent. Haynes -- of the Allman Brothers Band and Gov't Mule fame -- is no slouch himself, of course. But the internationally esteemed guitarist, vocalist and songwriter is also one of the few musicians in the business who allows audience members to tape their shows. Plus, all proceeds from the Christmas Jam benefit the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for folks who couldn't otherwise afford one. What's not to like? -- TR
Blue Spiral 1 has hit on a winning combination -- a spacious, airy gallery in downtown Asheville featuring a stunning array of contemporary art. Since 1991, Blue Spiral has exemplified owner John Cram's commitment to showcasing the work of Southeastern artists, notes gallery manager Wendy Outland, adding, "It's not true that all the great art is in New York."
So how does Blue Spiral keep snaring Xpress readers' votes? "I hope it's because we're continuing to develop new exhibits and bringing new artists into the gallery," offers Outland. This year's shows have included Hot/Ice (eclectic takes on teapots and pitchers), the Southeastern Photography Invitational, and Southern Vistas (landscape ruminations). Outland also attributes some of Blue Spiral 1's success to its relationship with a pair of other businesses Cram owns -- New Morning Gallery and Bellagio, both in Biltmore Village. -- TR
Blue Spiral 1
38 Biltmore Ave, Asheville
The next time you're on Coxe Avenue in downtown Asheville, check out one of Lucho Gomez's public murals. In a parking lot next to the downtown post office, Gomez has transformed the dreary back wall of an auto mechanic's shop into a work of art, spelling out a stylized "Jesus" in shimmering turquoise, yellow, orange and magenta. The 29-year-old Gomez was warmly received back in February at his first Asheville show at Gallery 31, which featured the smaller-scale work he does with acrylics on wood. Self-taught (with help from his mother and sister, both artists), Gomez calls his style "very Japanese-influenced, very simple ... and almost like minimalism," adding, "It's more of a graphic-type art vs. fine art."
Gomez grew up in a Cuban family in Florida, then knocked around the Southeast before settling in Asheville two years ago. He now waits tables at Trevi while honing his technique. Another tidbit: Though he won't disclose his given name, he reveals that Lucho is a nickname (meaning "stubborn" or "fighter") bestowed on him by an aunt when he was 3. Does it fit? "I'm a little hardheaded," he admits. -- TR
Asheville must be one of the few towns around where a rock band and a bluegrass ensemble can both come out on top -- with the Marc Keller Band and Sons of Ralph, Featuring Ralph sharing Best Band honors.
The 4-year-old Marc Keller Band has blazed a name for itself on the local club circuit, with front man Marc Keller (guitar, vocals), Mick Hayes (bass, vocals), Jack Mascari (guitar, vocals) and Phillip Grigg (drums, vocals) hammering out the audience's favorite classic rock. And as an opening act, the band belts out original tunes -- many of them destined for a spot on their first CD, now in the works. "The band has worked real hard," says Keller. "I'll give us an A for stamina."
At the other end of the musical spectrum, Sons of Ralph unites bluegrass veteran Ralph Lewis with (you guessed it) sons Don (fiddle, guitar, banjo, vocals) and Marty (guitar, Dobro, vocals). Gary Wiley (bass) and Richard Foulk (drums, percussion, vocals) round out the beloved quintet. The band, notes Don, usually starts its sets at the equally popular Jack of the Wood pub (see below) with bluegrass before working its way into rock and something more like "bluegrass rock." "We have fun," says Don, adding that the band is also working on a CD, tentatively titled Sons of Ralph Live: Tune to this; it's slated for release this fall. Tuned-in fans are ready and waiting. -- TR
Judging by the crowds that spill out onto the sidewalk outside Jack of the Wood Brew Pub most weekends, this hot spot knows how to reel them in. A modern version of an old Irish pub, the comfy quarters invite you to linger over your Green Man Ale (brewed on site) and tasty pub grub while gabbing up a storm with your chums. And then there's Jack's emphasis on live music, which often hews to the traditional line of Celtic, old time and bluegrass. When asked why Jack is such a hit, Joe Eckert (who co-owns the pub with his wife, Joan Cliney Eckert) offers this tribute: "Thanks to our loyal customers -- they're very cool. [And] to the music makers, especially the Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday sessions, and the Sons of Ralph, for the great sounds. And, finally, the staff, for helping to keep it going on." At 5 years old and counting, Jack shows no signs of stopping. -- TR
Jack of the Wood Brew Pub
95 Patton Ave, Asheville
The varied offerings of Highland Brewing Co. have again won the collective hearts (and palates) of Xpress's discerning readers. The Asheville brewery co-owned by Oscar P. Wong and John Lyda rolled out its first barrel in December '94 and now produces 5,500 barrels (that's a whopping 170,500 gallons) per year, says Chris Wode, director of sales and marketing. The brewery's flagship Gaelic Ale has proven to be the most popular, notes head brewer Tim Keck. But folks also are fond of Highland's Oatmeal Porter, St. Terese's Pale Ale, Kashmir IPA, Black Mocha Stout and Cold Mountain Winter Ale (the latest batch will be available in November). Highland brews are available on tap all around town and in bottles at many grocery stores. So what's the allure? "I'd say this -- not because I work here -- Highland beers are world-class beers," declares Keck. Cheers. -- TR
Highland Brewing Co.
42 Biltmore Ave, Asheville
Asheville's fun little free music festival sure can gather the superlatives. What else but Bele Chere could sweep all three categories? And when Xpress reveals its new list for 2003 -- including Best Free Place to Cast Aspersions -- Bele Chere will no doubt rocket to the top once again. But with 300,000-odd people (well, maybe they're not all odd) flocking to the annual three-day extravaganza, maybe Bele Chere really can be all things to all revelers. Of course, since this is Asheville, there's no chance of a universal sentiment on any topic. Some readers declared the Best Free Activity to be loitering on sidewalks, sex and sleeping (independent activities, we hope). And Most Outrageous Event drew votes for the "gay parade," the Nude Run (somehow I missed that one), sweet potato queens and a baffling ballot for "Legalize Hemp." C'mon Bele Chere, you big unifier -- you gonna stand for that? -- TR
From the sweetly fanciful Amelie to the powerfully complex Monster's Ball, the Fine Arts Theatre dishes up a multiplicity of movie treats that make the film house a sanctuary for folks fleeing the megaplex. "We're dedicated to first-run art-and-independent film and to providing the community with another outlet for the arts," explains Manager Neal Reed. Another brainchild of arts entrepreneur John Cram, the theater has been giving local audiences their alternative film fixes since 1997. With two screens in the deco modern structure -- and at least 50 premieres annually -- it's hard to imagine not finding something of interest. At press time, Reed was anticipating the release of the digitally remastered director's cut of the beloved Cinema Paradiso -- set, appropriately enough, in a mesmerizing movie theater. -- TR
Fine Arts Theatre
36 Biltmore Ave, Asheville
You can also check out www.fineartstheatre.com for the latest on upcoming films.
Listening to the rich, warm tones of Glenis Redmond's voice is a distinct pleasure. But it's the truths she tells that seem to resonate most deeply. Here's a life-affirming snippet from "Salute to Miracles": "I have been emancipated by miracles/learning from the simple people in my life/to be earnest and yearning,/open to beauty."
Asked about her inspiration, she answers as befits a poet: "Life is a dance, and I basically -- no matter what music is playing -- I try to tune into what that is. Sometimes it's a slow dance or an African dance that's beating. ... Sometimes it's a funeral dirge. I just try to pay attention to what the music is." Meanwhile, Redmond also looks after a busy life: In between traveling the country as a performance poet, raising twin 13-year-old daughters (Amber and Celeste), she's also working on a second book of poetry, Everything Under the Sun, a collection of musings on love and loss.
Honorable mention goes to Rick Chess, associate professor of literature and language at UNCA and director of the university's Center for Jewish Studies. Many of his poems draw on his fascination with Jewish culture, history and mysticism, he notes. (Check out www.slate.msn.com/?id=111601 for a surprising Chess selection.) -- TR
What a banner year for Marc Keller. Not only does his eponymous rock group tie for Best Band honors, but the Asheville guitarist himself gets the nod for Best Local Musician. An Oklahoma native, Keller hails from a musical family: His granddad plucked the guitar, his uncle fiddled and his mother got around on the piano. "There was a lot of music around," Keller recalls. He launched his own career while still a teenager, playing at bluegrass festivals (he also plays the mandolin) before moving on to the blues and finally settling in the rock neighborhood. In town since 1985, Keller also can be found playing solo acoustic guitar at Vincenzo's Bistro on Monday and Tuesday nights. "Being a working musician, you kind of go with the flow -- whatever's working," he suggests.
Perennial favorite David Wilcox -- widely known for his acoustic-guitar skills, gentle voice and feel-good lyrics -- placed a very close second. There's not much to say about Wilcox that Xpress readers don't already know; a frequent winner in this category, he's been knocking audiences dead (both locally and farther afield) for many years now. -- TR
In its 57th season, the Asheville Community Theatre is still turning heads. "I think that we're just filling a need in the community, short of the professional theater, that is attractive to a lot of folks," offers ACT's Roger Bargainnier. The figures bear him out. A total of 14,544 people attended shows at the classy downtown theater last season (including those staged by other companies) -- a 6 percent increase in attendance, he reveals. And ACT's staging of Annie last fall broke all known attendance records for the community-theater group. Bargainnier is also brimming with excitement over ACT's newest venture: 35 Below, a new performance space set to open in November on the theater's lower level, made possible by a grant from The Janirve Foundation and the "extraordinary donation" of theater equipment by Scott Shannon. "We need to get everybody in the middle of Asheville Community Theatre," he declares, adding, "It's a busy place over here." --TR
Asheville Community Theatre
35 E Walnut St, Asheville
Lots of video stores designate a specially labeled shelf where their staffers can serve up their personal favorites. But how many let their customers do the same? Precious few, I suspect -- which may provide some clues as to why Segrof Video is the darling of Xpress readers. Co-owners Mara Roth and Catherine Brown have created a friendly, quirky establishment that caters to loyal customers seeking alternatives to the mainstream fare that the big studios relentlessly churn out. Segrof's varied categories range from its impressive foreign collection (filed by country) to its director's hits and the American Film Institute's top 100 movies. Then there are cult favorites like the The Dancing Outlaw, a tale of a singing, dancing mountain man. "There's a sequel we're waiting on -- The Dancing Outlaw Goes Hollywood, believe it or not," Roth reveals. Besides boasting notable selections, the owners also emphasize the personal touch. "We've got a great group of people that work here," Roth declares. "They're really good." It shows. -- TR
197 Charlotte St, Asheville
The power of women talking about their bodies -- and more specifically, their vaginas -- has turned The Vagina Monologues into an international phenomenon. Playwright Eve Ensler based her script on more than 200 interviews she conducted with women about how they felt about their vaginas, molding her characters out of the women's words. The results ran the gamut from the funny ("There's so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them -- like the Bermuda Triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there") to the wrenching (a Bosnian refugee describing her horrific rape during wartime), noted a Time magazine account.
The Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, a UNCA student group, hosted a performance of the award-winning play back in February -- with all proceeds benefiting OUR VOICE, Helpmate and the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, according to UNCA. The production, featuring 15 UNCA students and faculty, was staged as part of the national V-Day Campaign. The annual event allows communities to produce the show royalty-free to raise money for groups working to stop violence against women. (The play obviously has struck a chord; The Vagina Monologues also won this category last year, when the grassroots community-theater group Consider the Following staged it.)
Winning honorable mention this year was Plaeides Productions' The House of Yes, staged in June at the Be Be Theatre on Commerce Street. The dark comedy revolved around the, uh, unusual Pascal family, whose members display a peculiar obsession with the Kennedy family. And that's just for starters. -- TR
With three dance floors, four bars and 19,000 square feet of space, Scandals has been a long-standing favorite of the gyrating masses. Owner Art Fryar says his patrons tell him they feel comfortable at the private gay club. "They can come and enjoy themselves without fear of harassment or violence," he says. But Scandals provides a welcoming, high-energy environment for all. "You can get in if you're straight or bisexual or asexual," he notes -- as long as (per Alcohol Law Enforcement regulations) you're a member or a member's guest. And for that extra bit of spice, you can count on the Friday- and Saturday-night drag shows to heat up the downstairs Boiler Room. This summer, Scandals opened its newest bar -- a smoke-free area called eleven -- in the upstairs space that once housed a restaurant. The affable Fryar seems understandably proud of the club, which has been going strong for 22 years. "It's a world-class venue that just happens to be in Asheville, North Carolina," he proclaims. Dance on. -- TR
11 Grove St, Asheville
Ask Tyler Richardson to name some of the most memorable recent shows at The Grey Eagle Tavern & Music Hall and he reels off an impressive list: Hot Tuna, The Larry Keel Experience (with Tony Rice) and The Reverend Horton Heat. And he hasn't even gotten to the regular performers that light up the space. But a great listening spot involves more than a stellar lineup. Robinson and co-owner Martin Kasun strive to make their sound system do the musicians justice. "We want to make them sound as good as they are," offers Robinson. "And that, combined with the intimate environment that we have here, makes for a really good show, a really good experience." Further enhancing the experience is a mellow atmosphere that lets folks enjoy the music without worrying about being hit on all night or having a fight break out. And then there's the audience itself. "We definitely couldn't do it without the people coming down to enjoy it," says Robinson. "That's what really makes the place great." -- TR
Runner-up Asheville Music Zone -- a music mecca in its own right -- posted a strong second.
The Grey Eagle Tavern & Music Hall
185 Clingman Ave, Asheville
Asheville Music Zone
81 Broadway St, Asheville