Ask Blue Spiral I owner John Cram why he thinks his Hall of Fame gallery once again won this year's title, and you'll get a very straightforward answer.
"It's big," says Cram with a laugh. As the proprietor of one of the region's largest art spaces, Cram sees Blue Spiral I as a gallery that can maintain a broader focus on the visual arts -- from paintings and photography to decorative ceramics and even furniture -- in an ever-changing series of displays. With six major shows and as many as 24 smaller exhibitions each year, Cram's gallery is easily one of the area's most active.
"There are other wonderful little galleries," notes Cram, "and we all have our niches. Our niche is broader in the art market, because we're not as focused as some of the other galleries." -- SS
Blue Spiral I
38 Biltmore Ave., Asheville
In wandering the alleys of downtown Asheville, you may have come across the work of local artist Lucho Gomez -- perhaps on the back wall of some building or other vast urban canvas. At first, you might have mistaken his giant murals for mere graffiti, but if you've ever stopped to look at one of these looming displays of street art -- whose striking use of vibrant colors is combined with a simple, elegant graphic technique -- you'll immediately grasp why the art-loving populace of Asheville and environs has voted Gomez Best Local Artist for the second straight year. Artists typically take the road less traveled -- and what better reason to stray off the beaten path yourself in quest of art? -- SS
What's not to like about The Sons of Ralph? As one of Asheville's most-talked-about live bands, the barnstorming, mountain-brewed bluegrass kings have more than paid their collective dues to gain the title of WNC's Best Band. Well known for their incredibly entertaining shows, the group combines traditional bluegrass instrumentation with heavy musical nods to the diverse likes of Hank Williams, Earl Scruggs and Jimi Hendrix (among many others). Their musical flexibility has earned the energetic Jack of the Wood regulars a loyal and enthusiastic following, due largely to namesake padre Ralph Lewis on mandolin and vocals. Sons Marty and Don Lewis on guitar and fiddle (respectively) provide the musical sibling rivalry, while Ralph's "adopted" son, drummer Richard Foulk) rounds out the group. Mountain Boys an all acoustic, all original CD is due out in October. -- SS
If you've never set foot in Jack of the Wood, do yourself a favor and swing by sometime for a nice, cold, fresh-brewed ale. Great traditional musicians from around the country, as well as homegrown acts like County Farm and The Sons of Ralph, have done a set or two on the Jack of the Wood stage. Factor in their made-on-the-premises beers (compliments of Green Man Ales) and their ever-popular pub-grub menu, and it's easy to see why Jack's is Mountain Xpress readers' preferred place to spend their leisure hours. There's something about sitting in a wood-paneled, smoke-free pub that's openly friendly to traditional-music fans that makes it not so much a place to drink as a true brewgrass experience. -- SS
Jack of the Wood
95 Patton Ave., Asheville
Chances are, when somebody mentions ballet, the first things you think of are tutus, classical music, and women standing on their toes while pretending to be swans or snowflakes. Perhaps the last thing the word "ballet" would summon up in your mind is the tiny West African nation of Guinea. But if Mountain Xpress readers have their way, this may soon change. With its dramatic blend of spirited African dance, intensely performed traditional music, and vibrant costumes, Ballet Warraba has made its presence known on the local dance circuit. Substituting the thumping of djembes for orchestral string sections and bare feet for pink ballet shoes, the members of Ballet Warraba are slowly redefining dance in the minds of Mountain Xpress readers. -- SS
"Fruit allures!" as Frank Zappa might have put it. And scoring a double thumbs up a mere year after opening The Orange Peel -- Asheville's largest privately owned live-music space -- is "a nice birthday present," enthuses Lesley Groetsch, who co-owns the joint with husband Jack. With polished hardwood floors that can accommodate close to 950 people and a 46-foot bar with more than 40 taps, the Peel has already brought in some tasty ear candy in its short life. Among Groetsch's favorite shows: Sonic Youth, Arrested Development, Ladysmith Black Mambazo -- and King Crimson, which kicked off its current tour there in a sonic cavalcade of guitar-whacking weirdness.
On the dance front, the club beat last year's winner, the dance-focused Scandals, feet down. "I'm surprised that enough people recognize that [the Peel is] a great place to dance," confesses Groetsch. "But it is a great place to dance." -- FR
The Orange Peel
101 Biltmore Ave., Asheville
11 Grove St., Asheville
With tons of free music, the streets lined with vendors peddling deep-fried everything, and a sea of sunburnt tourists, Asheville's Bele Chere festival has once again claimed the title of Best Free Activity. Sure, it's a pain to park downtown on that packed and sweaty final weekend in July, but it's a small civic price to pay for hosting the Southeast's biggest street party -- and a family-friendly affair, to boot! This summer's festival, featuring living legend Bo Diddley and Southern-rock upstarts The North Mississippi All-Stars -- not to mention a surprising lack of rain -- was definitely a benchmark year for the long-running event. Hopefully, they'll just keep getting better. -- SS
"They're always consistent," Mike Rangal said in praise of Highland Brewing Company. That's a major challenge for any microbrewery, and Rangal should know: He owns the Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company, which finished second in this year's voting. You'll find Highland beers -- Gaelic Ale (the local fave), Oatmeal Porter (my fave), Kashmir IPA (voted "Best of the South," India Pale Ale category, at the ninth annual United States Beer Tasting Championship), St. Terese's Pale Ale, Black Mocha Stout, plus the seasonal Cold Mountain Winter Ale -- not just in WNC bars and stores, but across and even outside the state. (Last year, I spied a 22-ounce Gaelic in an Outer Banks grocery). Demand is now close to outstripping production, reports Highland's combat-boot-wearing Master Brewer Tim Keck, who credits their success to a great crew: "People who love what they do and love the product they're making."
At APBC, try the popular Shiva IPA (so hoppy!) and the Rook Porter (so smooth!). -- FR
Highland Brewing Company
42 Biltmore Ave. (underneath Barley's), Asheville
Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company
675 Merrimon Ave., Asheville
By an overwhelming majority, this year's winner for Best Movie Theater is downtown's decidedly independent motion-picture venue, the Fine Arts Theater. That's no surprise: The Xpress Hall of Famer claims top honors in this department year after year. But the runner-up in this year's voting was the Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company Theater.
It's an interesting trend, two upstart cinemas taking on the big players like Carmike and Regal and coming out on top. What is it that makes Mountain Xpress readers overwhelmingly prefer the independent theaters over the giant, near-monolithic chains?
"[The Fine Arts and Asheville Pizza] are the only two independent theaters in Asheville," explains Fine Arts owner John Cram. "It's not sending the money out of the community. We offer culture," says Cram, "not in a can." -- SS
Fine Arts Theater
36 Biltmore Ave., Asheville
Ten years ago, Glenis Redmond moved to Asheville specifically because of the performance-poetry scene. A decade later, the poetry scene has calmed down a bit, but Redmond is still here practicing her craft. These days, Redmond is a full-time touring poet with several major works to her credit, including her full-length book of poetry Backbone. A former addictions counselor, Redmond now works as literacy coordinator at Project STEAM, an after-school program for at-risk teens. Most recently, Redmond has been asked to conduct the poetry residencies for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in D.C. But even with all this on her poetic plate, Redmond still finds time to perform at local benefits. For her, it's all about community.
"I feel honored to be accepted and embraced by this community," says Redmond. The honor, Glenis, is all ours. -- SS
You done good, Asheville: Tyler Ramsey truly deserves this win. Ramsey, now the keyboard player giving Fisher Meehan's muscled-up DrugMoney much of its delicious heavy-pop weight, is probably still best known for fronting his own now-defunct trio. When that group folded after upward of six years, the long-drink-of-water keyboard whiz lent his tall talents to cool local bands Hollywood Red and Wayne Robbins & The Hellsayers -- "Stuff that I heard and thought: I've got to do this," Ramsey explains. In the process, he developed a well-deserved rep as a simpatico support player, this town's musical go-to guy. Ramsey is now planning some solo gigs, putting a public face on his choice, finger-style guitar playing, long a treasure known only to musician friends. A word to the wannabe wise: Get in on it.
Former busker Michael Farr, with his sunshiney voice and Summer of Love vibe, took a close second. Peace, out. -- FR
Concerts on the Quad -- UNCA's long-running, free outdoor-entertainment series -- provided yet another bring-the-picnic-basket mix of family-friendly music magic this year, serving up everything from Caribbean flavors (Sons of Steel) to award-winning folk (husband-and-wife duo Zoe Speaks). And they capped it all off with a tasty, ticketed slice of the charming Folkmoot USA in late July. The popular series, which has now wrapped up its 21st season, is held Monday nights in June and July, outdoors on the UNCA campus (on bad-weather nights, the action repairs to Lipinsky Auditorium).
Shindig on the Green (those zesty off-stage jams!) and Downtown After 5 (the David Lindley and Wally Ingram show in July was a series highlight) took a very close second and third, respectively. -- FR
For Asheville Community Theatre's popular August show Sylvia, a 14-year-old was running the lights. And that, says Susan Harper, the group's still-new managing director, is what true community theater is all about. "Anyone can walk in off the street and have a leading role," enthuses Harper. Last year, the 57-year-old ACT got a burst of new energy with the opening of its downstairs, black-box venue, 35below, which enabled the company to stage cutting-edge material (last November's The Santaland Diaries, for instance) while keeping the 399-seat main theater available for more mainstream fare, Harper notes. This season, ACT's emphasis is on such feel-good material as The Sound of Music (running through Oct. 12) and Neil Simon's Rumors (opening Nov. 21). "Our audiences have asked us for more musicals ... and more comedies, so that's what we're giving them," says Harper. -- FR
Asheville Community Theatre
35 E. Walnut St., Asheville
Walking into Segrof Video for the first time, it's easy to feel a little lost. Quality films line the walls, and the shelving eschews the usual generic categories, such as "comedy" and "drama." Instead, you'll find Segrof's gems of cinema and the small screen arranged by such themes as "Sanity Check" (which includes entries like A Clockwork Orange and Following) and "Classics & Remakes" (featuring the definitive originals of films like Bedazzled and Ocean's 11, as well as their modern retoolings).
But clever shelving alone does not a great video store make, and this is Segrof's third year running as numero uno. So what is it that keeps folks saluting this Charlotte Street store? "People really appreciate the quality and the different kind of movies that we have," answers Segrof co-owner Catherine Brown. Quality, it seems, is better than all the blockbusters in the world. -- SS
197 Charlotte St., Asheville
An East German teen endures a failed sex-change operation and a bad marriage to a U.S. serviceman, later winding up abandoned in a Kansas trailer park and fronting an unsuccessful rock band. In summer 2002, the North Carolina Stage Company gave us a rousing version of off-Broadway musical smash Hedwig and the Angry Inch, plus a two-night redux at The Orange Peel in June. Asheville gave it two big, er, thumbs up.
That said, however, a bunch of sexy strippers tied Hedwig in the balloting. This past summer, all-sassy-lass troupe The Rebelles teased this town with several tempting tastes of their stylish and -- dare I say it? -- thoughtful burlesque, creating such a buzz-on-the-street event with Through Sick & Sin at the NCSC that people were crashing sold-out shows and offering outrageous sums for tickets.
Botched sex-changes? Nekkid girlies? You go, Asheville.
The NCSC's stripped-down March production of Hamlet took a close second. And as the Great Dane himself declared, just before his lights went forever out: "The rest is silence." -- FR
Ooh-la-la! The Rebelles gave us classic balloon dances (each teasing pop! from a lit cigarette uncovering a tad more naked flesh). Great character names (Tequila Mockingbird? Please!). And an actual interesting plot (zesty entertainers vs. uptight politicos).
"There were legs," pronounced one fan, "but no lags."
"People love it when you combine sex, politics and pop culture," observed Rebelles founder Christine DiBenedetto.
But if you missed the 15-member troupe's spirited burlesque shows -- their "Cabaret Risque" performance at the now-defunct Ion Gallery for the Asheville Area Arts Council's Big Orange Ball back in June, the two summer weekends of Through Sick & Sin at the North Carolina Stage Company, or the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival appearance in September, never fear -- more opportunities will surely be, y'know, fleshed out.
DiBenedetto credits The Rebelles' success to talent, commitment and drive. "When you're an amateur at something, the possibilities are endless," she proclaims.
Last year's winner, The Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, took a respectable second this go-round. (Note to Haynes: This December, maybe try showing a little more thigh). -- FR