Last summer, the inaugural LEAF Downtown drew over 15,000 people and from a greater cross-section of people than LEAF’s own popular festivals, Performing Arts Director Ehren Cruz noted. Thousands jammed the main stage to hear Bootsy Collin’s brassy funk, topping a New Orleans theme. This one is soul-flavored.
Famed funk-soul-R&B-Latin fusion band War had a string of rock chart hits in the Seventies such as “Low Rider,” “Cisco Kid” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” When led by British classic rocker Eric Burdon, the Long Beach, Calif.-based band had a top-five summer smash in 1970 (its second year) with poetic, surreal “Spill the Wine” about a “leaping gnome.” The band plays that and other hits these days, with original member Leroy “Lonnie” Jordan its leader.
Also featured is Big Sam’s Funky Nation, led by former Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist Big Sam Williams, in closing the main stage 4:45-6 p.m. Sunday. They follow Bill Myers & The Monitors, and its half-century of jazz and soul.
LEAF SoulTown Review blends mostly soulful singer Mary Frances and others of Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band with the Empire Strikes Brass, 6:15-7:30 p.m. Saturday on the main stage.
Another special act is local soulful rock band The Broadcast, the City of Asheville’s Band Ambassador. The rising band helps open the festival by playing Friday at 2:15-3:30 p.m. on the main stage. “We’re excited to be part of LEAF Downtown,” singer Caitlin Krisko said. When playing in Hendersonville last Thursday, Krisko called it a dream come true to get to share music billing with War.
Also energetic, local and “can’t miss” is Jon Stickley Trio with brisk newgrass-progressive folk, as a closing act 4:45-6 p.m. Sunday on the LEAF Cafe Stage. The Blue Dragons do “feel-good blues rock” there, starting 11:45 a.m. and after Appalachian Old-timers in the Round and before Juan Benavides’ Flamenco soul.
Also on the Cafe Stage, singer-songwriter Dave Desmelik is one of the festival’s earliest acts — at 12:20-1:45 p.m. Saturday. He is followed there by popular rocking Laura Blackley & The Wildflowers, (Latin) Sol Rhythms Band, then HoveyKraft at 6:30-7:45 p.m with “jazz-tronica.”
Studio Zahiya puts on a world dance show Saturday at noon and 6:30-7 p.m., to both open and close the LEAF Arts & Park Showcase on the U-LEAF Community Stage; again there at 1:45 p.m. Sunday.
LEAF Downtown has three stages. The main stage is in front of Asheville City Hall and the Buncombe County Courthouse, down City County Plaza.
The Cafe Stage is by Pack Square’s Vance Monument. This clever enclave is partitioned enough by trees and a slight barrier, so performers can be heard well. It is a restful spot for a break, or people-watching.
U-LEAF is a youth-oriented stage, on Market Street. The Voices of Asheville Tent has a Quilt Challenge, 4-5 p.m. Sunday. The festival also has Unifire Theater’s fire act Saturday night, roaming performers, family adventures activities, LEAF Art Dash 5K, and a VIP package.
Many festival-goers said they liked how vendors are local, and border a path to the main stage. This contrasts to many out-of-town vendors at Bele Chere, which ended in 2013 and left a festive void that LEAF Downtown fills in its own style. There are over 80 local culinary, beer and craft arts vendors — partly curated by Asheville Grown.
The local focus helps enhance “inclusivity, community partnerships, and economic vitality in the greater Asheville area,” said the co-organizer, LEAF Community Arts (LCA) Executive Director Jennifer Pickering.
Cruz calls LEAF Downtown a “powerful bridge of inclusion for our community. This summer LEAF Downtown AVL furthers its vision to celebrate creativity, diversity and families in the heart of Downtown Asheville.”
The pre-party is Friday, July 29, 6:30-11 p.m. outside at the New Mountain Amphitheater at 38 N. French Broad St. in Asheville. Sophisticated electronic band Papadosio headlines. Opening is Push/Pull Strikes Brass, combining Empire Strikes Brass horn players with Push/Pull electronics.
Papadosio plays instrumental-based soothing swirls of sound, gripping swaying listeners at live shows with a variety of moods and an ideal backdrop for day-dreaming or lamenting about love.
This band appeals to multiple generations, boldly blending musical genres and eras into a soothing sound. Most fans looked ages 25-35 at its live local shows, such as in The Orange Peel last Halloween. “It’s great to collaborate with them” for LEAF Downtown, Cruz said, “and to see their music evolve and be appreciated by so many walks of life.” Cruz has known Papadosio for a decade, and seen more than 30 of its shows.
“Their music invites me to express myself with freedom and purpose,” Cruz said of its impact on him. “Whether engaging in passionate dance, allowing their music to form the backdrop to a heart to heart conversation with a friend — or relishing the site of hoopers, poi spinners, aerialists and visionary painters that often accompany their show — Papadosio’s performances offer a powerful visceral experience, for all of the senses.”
The band’s fourth and latest CD, in 2015, is entitled Extras in a Movie. It kicks off with a song aptly-titled for a LEAF-affiliated festival, “The Last Leaf.” It starts with Beach Boys-like a capella multi-harmony, before morphing into a modern song. “Bypass Default” peppers a solemn ballad (about someone as “unkind stimuli” with “troubled views”) with penetrating electronic notes.
They now use more guitar, kicking into “Ritual” and other celestial flows. “Glimpse of Light” is a vibrant, sonic highlight. “Open” harkens to Pink Floyd-ish outer spaciness.
Tunes flow in medleys. Critics describe them as “concise and structured — launch pads for the improvisational excursion” marking concerts. Stylistically, critics add, there is a “striking cinematic cornucopia of sounds: orchestral, electronic, organic, acoustic, psychedelic and celestial.” The band talks of veering into new styles (“colors”) and blends: “We’re starting to push that envelope … We don’t have filters … If our music was a spaceship, we’re taking little vehicles out and exploring.”
Lyrics often bite. Perky folk song “2 AM” about bar closing time castigates “drinking and driving global suicide,” and how “corporate lobbyists are writing your song.” “The Wrong Nostalgia” rips radio programming for letting “these (@$$#*)&$) on the airwaves?” Papadosio invented such words as “Obove,” for “over-arcing emotion.”
Now based in Asheville, Papadosio formed 10 years ago in Athens, Ohio, home of Ohio U. Bobcats. Two members were Ohio State students. The lineup is: guitarist Anthony Thogmartin, Billy Brouse and Sam Brouse all on keys and vocals; drummer Mike Healy, and bassist Rob McConnell. They credit influence of progressive rockers Yes, Jethro Tull and Genesis.
Papadosio matches LEAF socially; in media interviews, the band lauded “transformational” festivals with community impact. Cruz cites their “parallel missions — awakening, inspiring, and activating our communities through music and arts.”
Indeed, proceeds from the Official LEAF Downtown Pre-Party support local cultural arts education of expanding LEAF Schools & Streets.
For more on Papadosio and links to pre-party tickets ($27.37 with fee, $22 through Thursday), go to: www.newmountainavl.com/event/1264203-official-leaf-downtown-asheville/. For the festival schedule, scroll to the bottom of: http://www.theleaf.org/downtown/.