Asheville summer festival organizers get creative as coronavirus concerns linger


An aerial shot of the 2017 summer LEAF Festival./ photo courtesy of LEAF Global Arts

The arrival of summer means the return of festival season — a time to dust off the camping gear, brave the porta potties and celebrate the region’s eclectic music, art, food and culture. It’s one of the perks of living here, right?   

But as the effects of the coronavirus epidemic drag on, festival-goers may be losing hope of any live, in-person event happening in 2020. But, despair not! While some of the festivities have been canceled, some event planners have decided to postpone, get creative, or simply wait in hopes of good news to come. Ashvegas checked in with the organizers of some of Asheville and the surrounding area’s most anticipated music, art and culture events to learn what may be in store for festival-lovers this summer.

  • LEAF Festival (Available virtually Friday- Sunday, May 15-17)

Organizers of LEAF, a twice-yearly event that draws a combined 20,000 people to its Black Mountain grounds for three days of family-friendly music, art and learning, had been gearing up all winter to celebrate the 50th iteration of the festival. In addition to marking 25 years, this year’s event would have included updates to the festival layout and other enhancements to the overall festival experience.

LEAF, the twice-a-year music festival and event at Lake Eden in Black Mountain, will go virtual this weekend./ photo by Jason Sandford

“We were really amping up for the 50th festival to be a big celebration,” says Leigh Maher, the organization’s CFO, who also oversees the festival production. “There was gonna be some pretty interesting and fun changes that we were really excited about, so it wasn’t just throwing the regular festival. This was gonna be a big shift.” 

While the official 50th LEAF event has been postponed until Oct 22-25, would-be attendees can tune in to the very first all-virtual LEAF Festival — dubbed V-LEAF this weekend. Over the course of three days, V-LEAF will broadcast a blend of live streamed and pre-recorded concerts from local and global performers, along with artist workshops and even a virtual poetry slam. 

Viewers will also be able to make donations to the artists, sign up for memberships and participate in an online auction to support the nonprofit, which produces arts education programming locally and internationally. “We’re a nonprofit organization for the arts primarily — we’re not an essential basic need organization — so we understand where some of that giving shifts for people. But the arts are important too,” Maher explains. “These are the kinds of times when culture actually gets lost because the focus is on essential living.” 

Want to really feel like you’re there? Maher has a little advice for those looking for the full festival experience. “I encourage people to camp at home. If you have a yard, set up your LEAF camp in the backyard and have the family out in the yard and camp. Or if you don’t have a backyard, set up a couch fort,” he says. “I think we all definitely need a sense of community and so people experiencing a communal thing separately but together is part of what we want to cultivate.”

  • Downtown After 5 (Available virtually Friday, May 15) 

The first concert of the Downtown After 5 series this year will also be held virtually. Performers will play live at the Orange Peel while local live music film crew, IamAVL, streams the show on the festival’s Facebook and Youtube accounts. Funk rock band April B. and The Cool will kick off the five concert series at 5:15 p.m. followed by hip-hop and soul singer, Lyric, at 7 p.m. 

Meghan Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association and Foundation, said in a press release that with grants from the Downtown Association, the Brown Family Charitable Fund and an anonymous donor, the organization plans to distribute 200 $50 Ingles gift cards to local music industry workers. “It’s important to us to not only stay engaged with our Downtown After 5 audience, but to also put some local musicians and music professionals back to work doing what they love,” Rogers said.       

  • French Broad River Festival (Canceled until 2021)

The 23rd annual French Broad River Festival, which was originally scheduled for May 1-3 and later postponed until October, was canceled after elected officials in the town of Hot Springs prohibited all large public gatherings for the remainder of the year. Festival organizer Matt Kern, who says that the event has become “a way of life” for him and other founders, was blindsided by the decision.

“I understand that they’re afraid of people coming from all over the Southeast that are bringing coronavirus to their little town, so I totally get their decision. But it is hard to deal with,” Kern says. “I felt like I’d been punched in the gut when I heard that.” 

He explains that the festival also generates roughly $15,000 a year for local charitable efforts, with recipients like Homeward Bound and the Hot Springs Community Learning Center. “It goes a long way in these little communities and they’re not going to get that now,” says Kern. 

While saddened at the thought of not connecting with scores of familiar faces this year, Kern says that the festival will “definitely be back” in the spring of 2021. “We’re looking forward to it and we think that people will be very ready for it,” he says.

  • Montford Music & Arts Festival (Postponed until Sept.20)

While the daylong music and arts festival usually takes place on the third Saturday of May, Dan Rogers, who’s serving as the festival’s chairman, says that the event has now moved to Sunday, September 20. He says this year, attendees may see a scaled back version of the neighborhood festival, which usually stretches along Montford Avenue from Chestnut Street to Waneta Street, to comply with social distancing and other health and safety guidelines.

But like many festival organizers, Rogers says for now he’s taking a wait and see approach before mapping out the logistics. “We’re gonna just see what happens. People are predicting a second wave, so planning is surreal, quite frankly. Right now we’re planning on it,” Rogers says. “My guess is that we’d make that decision for go or no-go in the first part of August.”

  • Shindig on the Green (July 11,18, 25; Aug.1, 15, 22, 29; Sept. 5) and the Mountain Dance Folk Festival (Aug. 6-8) 

Loretta Freeman, the chair of the committee for Shindig on the Green and The Mountain Dance Folk Festival, says that while both events are currently still on for the scheduled dates, the planning team is in close talks with city officials regarding health and safety of concert goers. 

Should social distancing remain in effect, alternative plans will be made — although, according to Freeman, at the expense of the full festival experience. “The sun setting over your shoulder with live performances, down and nestled, surrounded by a beautiful symmetry of historical buildings in a perfect climate with blue skies changing to dusk with the breeze from east to west,” Freeman says. “Streaming live will never capture this landscape.”