Into the Vortex

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On June 27th and 28th, Asheville, NC played host to one of the more interesting festivals this live music lover has experienced. 

The inaugural Vortex Music Festival featured two days of music by top local, regional, and national acts such as Perpetual Groove, Toubab Krewe, Telepath, SeepeopleS, and Laura Reed & Deep Pocket. DJs and visual artists were scheduled for a side stage. 

On paper this looked pretty interesting and it was… but not for the reasons one would think.

 

Friday headliner Toubab Krewe and Saturday headliner Perpetual Groove were promoted as playing "2 full sets + encore".  Both bands were eventually forced to disappoint fans by playing single sets without encores.  The entire weekend was plagued with low attendence and sets both shortened and behind schedule.  Seeming to apologize in advance for the very short set they were about to play, Perrpetual Groove guitarist/vocalist Brock Butler greeted a thin crowd with the encouraging words, "We’ll make the best of the time they’ve given us".  That is exactly what everybody at Vortex did.  From the bands and staff to the ticket holders Vortex was like no other festival.

As defined by Webster’s, a vortex is a spinning, often turbulent, flow of fluid or air.  I’m not sure how that applies to a weekend of live music but then again not much that surrounded this event made much sense… except perhaps the lineup. With a name like Vortex Music Festival one would think of swirling mayhem. This festival had none of that – at least not on the surface. 

vortex-d1-2.jpg With only a few hundred presale tickets sold, the majority coming from headliner, Perpetual Groove‘s website,  Asheville Civic Center fell well short of a "vortex" of dancing bodies.  Nevertheless,  having a great time with friends in a comfortable setting, while watching good music – if that could could be concentrated into a swirling mass you would have not only a vortex but a category 5 festival.  Vortex Music Festival was category 5 and then some.  Vortex proves that a festival should not be judged by ticket sales but rather by what people are saying during the event and as they leave.

Small promotional budgets are expected for inaugural events… but if people don’t know about it, they surely aren’t not going to show up for it. Promotion for Vortex was very limited outside of Asheville.  Perhaps this was by design.  Maybe the whole idea was to keep the festival as low key as possible.  If this is the case then Night Skye Entertainment reached their goal and deserve a big "THANK YOU" for putting on such an interesting show.

Mixups are to be expected at any festival…entire bands being forgotten is not. 

Falling behind schedule is typical of any festival…but to be an hour behind only a few bands into the festival means either the event will go on all night or the bands are going to be asked to play shortened sets. 

Ticket holders that traveled far distances to see their favorite bands were frustrated all weekend.  Toubab Krewe and Perpetual Groove fans were quick in discussing their frustrations with the promise of "2 full sets + encores" from the headliners.  But just as the PGroove frontman had later commented, all who performed and attended made the best of the time that was given..

An actual website was never found for the event.  Schedules were not posted online and were very hard to find during the weekend, making it difficult for anyone to know when their favorite bands would be performing.  One Saturday performer arrived early Friday to show support to the bands playing that day.  He was denied access with the explanation that his pass was only good for the day he was playing.  This is not All Good.  Wouldn’t you want as many people inside as possible?  Surely you don’t expect one of your performers to purchase a one-day pass… do you?

Inaugural events can sometimes turn into a trainwreck or worse yet for the organizer…a money pit.  Hopefully this was not so much of a money pit that there won’t be a second Vortex.  From the moment you stepped into Asheville Civic Center it was clear that this first Vortex was not going to be a typical festival. Entering the 7,500+ seat venue one couldn’t help but ask, "Where is everybody?" 

Josh Phillips Folk Festival was midway through their set, the third act to take the massive stage, with huge PA, and state of the art intelligent lighting.  Nobody was there to enjoy it.  Did they not know about Vortex?  Were they all at other festivals?  Have gas prices forced even the diehard live music lovers into seclusion?  There were perhaps a dozen people on the arena floor.  A few were dancing while others watched with arms folded.  Photographers were huddled at the front of the stage.  A lone taper sat in the back, face lit by the lights coming off the stage.  A quick count concludes that two hours into Vortex Music Festival there were more staff and security than patrons and guests. The sight was surreal.

No matter where I postured myself inside the cavernous arena the sound was worlds better than I had experienced at the venue in the past.  It may have been due to past shows at or near capacity, but nevertheless it was a welcomed relief to have crisp clear sound at Vortex.  As Josh Phillips Folk Festival finished their strong set of originals by sailing frisbees to the back of the Civic Center arena, I came to the realization that I was about to spend an air conditioned weekend, enjoying some of the top acts the southeast has to offer, with arena-sized production, and all the room in the world to roam.  I thought, "this can’t be too bad" and it wasn’t.  It was an interesting festival.  Interesting as in different, not bad. Haven’t you always wanted to play frisbee indoors and not break anything or get reprimanded for playing inside?

The music was fantastic all weekend long.  Enthusiastic sets were performed by all of the acts, including the DJs, and visual artists who at most had only 20 people dancing in front of the second stage, located in the basement of the enormous Civic Center.  Those 20 dancers seemed oblivous to the fact that they weren’t on a dance floor fighting for space with thousands of others.

vortex-d1-3.jpg On Friday Strut continued where Josh Phillips left off with  a happy-go-lucky set of originals laced with tongue-in-cheek lyrics.  Strut was followed by Stephanie’s Id who had people talking the entire weekend… there should be big things in their future.  Upon taking the stage it was apparent that Stephanie’s Id was there to showcase themselves, their original sound and songwriting prowess,  regardless of how many people or how few were there to enjoy it. The voice of Stephanie Morgan (vocals/keys) and vibes of Matthew Richmond (vibraphone) teamed up with Chuck Lichtenberger (keys & vocals); Michael Libramento (guitar); Krum (drums); and Jon Reid (vocals, trombone, trumpet, melodica), created a haunting chill in the arena, leaving the crowd mesmerized, wanting more,  and primed for the upcoming SeepeopleS set.

SeepeopleS never ceases to amaze their fans with thought provoking lyrics from Will Bradford and their ability to layer sounds into songs that truly cannot fit into any particular genre. Much like the Flaming Lips or Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles, SeepeopleS force the listener way outside of the box with odd time signatures, screaming guitar work, sampling, and their fith and sixth members who were positioned at the back of the arena behind their respective instruments, the soundboard and and lightboard.  It’s not often that light or sound people get noticed, but you couldn’t help but look back from time to time to see two masters at work.  Collectively, SeepeopleS appear well suited for arena rock shows and Vortex was a great opportunity for them to showcase this.   Their set was laced with fan favorites such as "Butchers," "Apocalypse Now," and the appropriately named "Rocker."  An appearance by Stephanie Morgan, of Staphanie’s Id during "National Anthem" and "The Way The World Will Fall" was icing on the cake for the small but appreciative crowd.

Festival peak (in attendance) had perhaps 300 people on the arena floor for the Toubab Krewe set on Friday. Instead of the promised two sets plus encores, Krewe fans were treated to a single set that kept everyone dancing,  hooping, or playing frisbee until 3:00 am.  In typical Toubab fashion they did it with long purposeful jams, very few breaks in the music, and little interaction with the crowd.   Toubab until 3:00 am was the perfect ending to Day 1. If only a few more people were there to share the phenomenal music that had been performed.

click "next" for day two.

Click the thumbnail to open the photo gallery – all photos by Brad Kuntz

 

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On Day 2 Marsupial woke up a sleepy Saturday crowd with their brand of guitar driven rock, and it was great!.  It didn’t take long into their set for bodies to appear from all of the nooks and crannies of the Civic Center.  Everyone in the building soon wanted to be a part of the Marsupial experience. 

vortex-d2-1.jpgFrom the opener, "The Tide" to the set closer, "Truth Hits Everybody," the obviously loyal Marsupial fans and festival goers got a dose of the type of rock that lifts you, spins you around, smacks you in the back of the head, then picks you up again, all without leaving you with a headache or any bruising.  A short walk through the crowd found people hooping, dancing, hand banging, fists pounding in the air, and smiles on everyone’s faces.  It would be no surprise to hear Marsupial on the radio drawing fans from multiple genres.

After the strong set from Marsupial, it seemed as if  Vortex day two was going to be much like the previous day –  another small but appreciative crowd, great sound, fantastic lights,  and great performances by the bands, DJs, and visual artists. 

Next up was Laura Reed & Deep Pocket.  A high energy set is what their fans have come to expect and on Saturday, Laura Reed & Deep Pocket did it again, eventually being the first of the Saturday to have an encore demanded of them.  The crowd in front of the main stage rivaled the 300 or so that danced to Toubab Krewe much earlier that morning. 

When told they had enough time remaining for only one more song, the crowd made it clear to organizers that they weren’t happy about it by shouting requests mixed with woots and applauds.  Eventually Laura Reed & Deep Pocket were allowed not only that last song but 2 additional encores!

vortex-d2-2.jpgDubconscious followed Laura Reed & Deep Pocket and although a good many ticket holders came to Vortex specifically to see Dubconscious, their set lacked anything lustrous.  The vibe in the room was like the calm before the storm.  The storm being festival headliner Perpetual Groove appearing with their new keyboardist John Hruby.

Hruby had replaced former keyboardist Matt McDonald only a few weeks earlier.  Of the loyal PGroove fans that made it to Vortex, half seemed apprehensive about the next chapter for the band.  Still others felt confident that this was going to be a good change.  One thing was for sure: PGroove has some one of the most loyal fans in the business, and even during a time of change, when most fanbases become divided, the PGroove family appeared on this night to be united in their support of the favorite band. 

Opening with a stellar version of "Deception Structure," PGroove put all doubting thomas’ to rest.  They followed with "A Day The Way," "Sundog," a cover of the Butthole Surfers’ "’Praise You," back into "Sundog," and even a new song featuring Hornsby-esque playing from Hruby. Covers "All My Friends" (LCD Soundsystem) and "Digging In the Dirt" (Peter Gabriel) closed out the shortened set, and ended the inaugural Vortex Music Festival.

Besides the lack of attendance, shortened sets, and beer sales ending early (11:00 pm both nights), everyone who attended Vortex seemed to have a great time. It was an indoor hoopers heaven. 

How often do you get to play frisbee inside an arena while watching your favorite bands kill it under the big lights? 

How often do you get to explore an empty arena and sit huddled in a "cave" with good friends while listening to Toubab Krewe play directly above your heads?

How often have you gone to a festival of any kind and had no wait for the bathrooms?  Clean bathrooms? No beer line?

Probably not, and if judging a festival by the quality of the music, Vortex will have picked up steam next time this storm hits Asheville.

Click the thumbnail to open the photo gallery – all photos by Brad Kuntz

 

 

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