Xpand Fest unfolds into second year as Asheville’s downtown celebration


Plankeye Peggy

By Caleb Calhoun

It’s Xpand Fest Saturday. When I finally arrive at the festival’s location along Coxe and Buxton avenues in downtown Asheville, I immediately run into local songwriter Hannah Kaminer. This will be a theme for the day. Pretty much everyone I know that is in town is here, including a hell of a lot of lovely people I’ve never even seen before.

There are six separate stages, most of them hosting only local acts (the one exception the Main Stage where NOLA’s Big Sam’s Funky Nation finishes out the night). There are more than 50 local vendors, eight local food trucks, 10 to 15 tents representing various levels of activism, street performers, puppet stages, a lemonade stand where Travis Elrod himself will expertly mix and pour your drink.

As I arrive Plankeye Peggy is about to take the stage. They’re all shirtless and wearing tutus, a bit of a change from their traditional pirate-themed ensembles, but it is 90 degrees out. I check in for my credentials and get a bead on the event.

First, the entire festival is really a platform for the UN’s seventeen sustainable development goals, and everyone involved in the event, musicians included, are aware and on board with what those goals are. In fact, the artist’s application for the festival includes a section asking the musicians to choose which of those goals they associate with the most and why it matters to them.

More importantly, I’m blown away to find out just how well Xpand Fest is treating everyone involved in the process, top-to-bottom. We have the feeling that we matter here, that we are an important part of this endeavor.

Octopus Garden

Perhaps that’s the handle for the entire festival, now in its second year. It’s the idea that we are all worth something, and that nothing like this can ever happen without an entire community. It’s an idea focused on growing the arts and values like sustainability. It’s an that’s spreading.

Of course, all of that is in between a who’s-who of a lineup of local musicians. There is no chance of catching everything, but I get to what I can. Jane Kramer singing from the top of a bus feeds my soul. Plankeye Peggy fires up my wild side. The Last Word-Benders foster my creative spirit, and Stephanie Morgan and Pink Mercury free up my feet for the dance party that Big Sam’s Funky Nation throws at the end of the night.

In between, I get down to Window Cat, PRETTYPRETTY and chat with David Earl and the cats from Freeway Revival. I miss out on SIYAH and The Paper Crowns, two of my favorites, while I prepare for an interview, but catch an impromptu chat with the bassist from Big Sam’s, Jerry “JBlakk” Henderson, which helps to relieve my FOMO.

Jane Kramer

Then it’s time for the main event, the one non-local band at the festival whose lead singer, world renowned trombonist Sam Williams, can’t stop talking about how amazing Derrick Johnson (of Tuesday Night Funk Jam, Evil Note, and about 37 other bands in town) is. I’ve been listening to their music coming in, preparing for an interview with Williams and wanting to be able to sing along during the show, but nothing I have heard on any of their stellar albums could possibly prepare me for the energy of the live show they put on.

A few songs in, glistening with sweat and grinning like a grey-haired madman, I decide to do a thing. I grab my typewriter, and with no rail and no photo pit, I sit down with my back directly to the massive stack of bass speakers in front of the stage.

I can feel the music pulsing through my chest, through my pelvis. It runs up and down my spinal column like electricity, lighting my eyes, animating my feet. It surrounds my shoulders like Reiki, it pulses through my legs like my very blood. I can feel my heartbeat slowing to match the pace of the kick drum, I can feel every note that JBlakk plays on his bass – I can see the shape of the sounds William’s trombone belts out through the nerve endings in my skin.

But more than anything, I can feel it in my gut. This isn’t just shallow shake-it music, this is music that cuts to your very core, a festival that moves you to the very core. This is love and fun and positivity with a side of responsibility. This is pure happiness in the streets. Most of all, this is what makes Asheville, Asheville.

Caleb Calhoun is a journalist, poet, and author who makes his home in Asheville, NC for the sole purpose of pissing off everyone who moved here before him. He likes to read Edward Abbey novels, wear dresses, and use Oxford commas. He has a pet mermaid named Dr. Gonzo and more of his writing can be found on LiveMusicDaily.com among other places. You can follow him on Facebook or email him at Caleb.Calhoun@gmail.com.