LEAF Festival Review & Photos

May 8-11, 2014 

written by Michael Phillips

photos by Alex Mengel

Tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina, LEAF is gathering at a location known as Camp Rockmont. The camp has a lot of fun features like a swimming area with water slides and diving boards, zip-lines, kayaking, and more. Surrounded by beautiful mountains with green hills, and blue lakes throughout the grounds, Camp Rockmont provides the perfect location to hold an event like LEAF.

Lake Eden Arts Festival is an arts and music festival that was established in 1995. LEAF Community Arts is a non-profit organization that is centered on community building and enriching lives through all forms of arts. It has occurred twice annually since its inception, and as such this was the 38th time the festival has been held.

Upon arriving, it became apparent that this festival was going to be much different than most I have encountered. Family and community was a large focus of the festival. It was a very kid-friendly environment, with multiple areas dedicated to entertaining the little ones in the crowd. Another refreshing aspect of this festival was the waste management. There were separate containers for Trash, Recycling, and Compost well-placed around LEAF. The festival staff and fans alike were equally very friendly.

With the lineup including just as many workshops and outdoor activities as music, there was something for everyone to enjoy at LEAF. And with 6 stages featuring musicians like Beats Antique, Bootsy Collins, The Family Stone, Zach Deputy, and Elephant Revival, the music didn’t fall short either.

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On Thursday night, The Alex Krug Combo kicked things off at 7:00 in the with their brand of Rock-Americana. Alex Krug is the soulful female front-woman of the band. Their tone was definitely reminiscent of Appalachia, blending rock with more traditional folk music.

Featuring a mash up of band members from acts such as Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Common Foundation, Empire Strikes Brass is on a mission to bring the funk to every show. Local to Asheville North Carolina, you might not expect the New Orleans flavor Empire Strikes Brass displays on stage. They really brought up the energy of the evening and I was happy to see them play a wide range of music, dabbling in a multitude of diverse genres.

Friday brought with it a little rain, but it never got too out of hand. Fortunately most of the stages were completely covered so minimal time was spent getting wet. Since music didn’t start back up again until 4:30 on Friday evening, I spent most of the day exploring the grounds and visiting vendors. There was a huge variety of different kinds of handmade items.. From beautiful handcrafted jewelry by Hannah Wood at Black Black Moon to incredible leather work from Intergalactic Hobo, every vendor offered something unique to the festival. One of the more unique aspects of LEAF was the diversity in all forms.

LEAF is the kind of festival where you can expect a surprise at every turn. In addition to all of the scheduled music and activities, there were also surprise performances from a variety of groups referred to as “Festival Roamers.” In particular, the group known as “Whee Ahh Fairie Kin” put on quite a show as wandering minstrels on stilts, fairies, trolls, and all forms of creatures would parade around the grounds singing songs and playing instruments. If you haven’t ever seen them in person, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. I had a hard time not following them every time they passed through… They always lifted the energy everywhere they went.

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To begin Friday’s music, Empire Strikes Brass took the main stage known as the Lakeside Stage. They brought just as much funk in their second set of the weekend as they did the opening night of LEAF. Again they hit all kinds of classics, new and old. One particular highlight of their set was a brassy rendition of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.”

Following Empire Strikes Brass, The Screaming J’s took the stage over at Eden Hall. Their sound had a definite ragtime vibe to it. Sounding like a band from an era of the past, it was refreshing to hear some good ol’ ragtime jams. After the Sreaming J’s set, I headed over to the Vision Lab to check out the art that was on display.

Popular visionary artists such as Olivia Curry, Andy Reed, Annie Bennett, Blais Bellenoit, and Madison Moore had their work on display in the Vision Lab dome. In addition to the vortex of art found in the dome, you could often find the artists hard at work live painting beside the music, using the energy of the festival as creative fuel to progress their work. The vibes were on point all weekend long in the art gallery. Every time I stopped in I would notice something new that would capture my attention. They also consistently had some of my favorite music playing in their dome, such as Tipper and Random Rab. It was a great to stop in and be surrounded by beautiful art and positive vibes.

As the sun began setting at 8:15pm, a band known as Boukman Eksperyans took the Lakeside Stage. Boukman Eksperyans is a band hailing all the way from Haiti. Beginning their set, several of the band members embarked together on a 20 minute drum solo. Using traditional Haitian rhythms and folk dancing, they captured the spirit of Haiti in a way that is rarely seen by American audiences. The drummers and dancers were only the beginning. After the initial drum solo, a full live band took the stage and captivated th audience once again with a fusion of Caribbean Reggae and elements of modern rock. Even though almost no English was spoken during their entire set, the music was absolutely moving in every way.

And once the sun was fully set and Boukman Eksperyans’ set was over, it was time for the legendary Beats Antique to take the stage. I have had the pleasure of seeing Beats Antique several times throughout the years, but judging by their stage set up, I knew this was going to be a something special. The stage was covered in large 3D crystals and screens to which a high-end projector was synched to deliver a next level audio-visual experience. They played mostly tracks from their new album “A Thousand Faces” but also incorporated some of their older tunes such as “Cat Skills” and “The Porch.” Always pushing the limits of reality, their performance included several theatrical elements that make Beats Antique one of the most popular bands on the festival circuit. Utilizing 3D mapping and on stage props such as a giant inflatable monster, you never know what to expect from their shows. Another tune that was a crowd favorite included samples of Les Claypool in a song titled “Beelzebub.”

There may be no better way to follow up a Beats Antiques set than to make the trek up a trail to an almost hidden part of the festival where the Drum Circle took place around a large but well-managed fire. People of all ages gathered together around the fire to partake in an almost carnal, trance-like state fueled by the constant beat of hand drums. As the night went on, more musicians came and played a multitude of instruments including saxophones, trumpets, and more. The drum circle continued on until the sun came up, and then I made the long journey back down the trail to my campsite to rest up for Saturday’s adventures.

Saturday started fairly early compared to Friday’s schedule. My day started with a 12pm workshop on making Kombucha with Michelle Van Sandt. For those of you who don’t know, Kombucha is a probiotic drink produced by the fermenting of sweet tea using a culture of yeast known as a SCOBY. Kombucha is rich in amino-acids, probiotics, antioxidants, glucuronic acid, trace minerals, and B vitamins. It is enzyme-rich and a living drink. The good bacteria present in Kombucha work with the bacteria naturally found in the body to aid in digestion in addition to several other benefits. Following the workshop I stopped in at the Lakeside stage to catch a set with Zach Deputy.

Zach Deputy is known for never having a specific setlist, always using elements of looping guitar and vocals to create a one-of-a-kind jam for the audience. Using a combination of funky guitar riffs and soulful vocals, Zach D lays down a properly groovy set every time. My personal favorite jam that he played was Electric Avenue. Following his set, a brass funk act called Red Baraat took the main stage. They brought an equally funky set and kept things moving right along until it was time for Bootsy Collins & the Funk Unity Band to call in the mothership.

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Bootsy Collins is most well known for being a part of James Brown’s backing band. He’s now well known for his own hits. As he took the stage, several astronauts were with him as he held his powerful star-shaped bass guitar. The bass was so intense that it was causing the lights in other areas of the venue to flicker. If you’ve never seen a Bootsy Collins show, I highly recommend it. It’s one of the strangest, most alien and funky experiences in the music scene today. From astronauts to flashy sequin covered suits, Bootsy and The Funk Unity Band always bring something fresh to the table.

As early evening turned to late night, music moved to the Eden Hall where The Fritz was throwing down some psychedelic rock. Following The Fritz was a DJ set by Infinite Geometry, aka Andy Reed. It was a downtempo dance party with an organic tribal feel. Though the music may have been a little too strange for some, it was perfect for me and my friends to keep the party grooving into the late night. Olivia Curry was creating the visual backdrop for the set and a crystal alter had been strategically placed to create a generator of positive energy. A beautiful vibe was created as I looked around and saw all the smiling faces of amazing friends and family.

After the DJ set by Infinite Geometry, Zach Deputy came out and played one last set for LEAF from 1:30 to 3:00 am. He once again laid down a masterful set, not repeating any songs from his last sets earlier in the weekend. Once his set ended at 3:00 am, it was once again time to make the journey up the hill to the drum circle area.

LEAF did an outstanding job with their choice of location for the drum circle. It was kept far enough away so that people who wanted to could sleep, but not too far out of reach to keep you from going up there. The best part of the drum circle was once I arrived, I was instantly surrounded by familiar faces. We yet again drummed, sang, and dance until the sun came up.

After 3 days of great times, things began to unwind and Sunday had arrived. The general energy of the last day of the festival was much more relaxed. Everywhere you looked people hesitantly packed up their camp. It’s that same bittersweet situation that happens at the end of every festival…

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There were many performances by bands that had previously played throughout the weekend. However the definite highlight of Sunday was when the historic “The Family Stone” took the main stage and delivered hit after hit of their legendary funk music. Classic hits such as set opener “Everyday People” and “Dance to the Music” ensured that no one left LEAF festival unsatisfied. Set closer “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”got the crowd moving one last time together in unity. It was truly a great weekend for art and music as a whole.

After this beautiful weekend, I am convinced that LEAF is on the forefront of the festival scene for truly making a difference in the music and art community. It is abundantly clear that the money raised by the organization behind this festival is put to incredible use spreading the knowledge of song, dance, and art to kids and adults world-wide.

If you haven’t had a chance to be a part of a LEAF event, I would recommend making your way to Black Mountain, North Carolina this fall from October 16th to the 19th to see why this festival has become known as one of the greatest gatherings the Southeastern United States has ever hosted. It’s events like these that pave the way for a new way of being. Huge thanks are owed to every individual involved from the ground up with this gathering! Thank you LEAF Community Arts for reaffirming my faith that this way of life is more about the community than anything else!

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