Just Another Saturday Night In Asheville

by Caleb Calhoun

Photo by Romantic Asheville

It’s Saturday night in Asheville, and let’s be honest, there isn’t another town this size in the country that does it this well. My plan is to cover the Jennifer Hartswick/Nick Cassarino show on a tip from Kaitlyn Conner of Maradeen, but I am disappointed about what else I will be missing.

The Maggie Valley Band is playing with Brie Capone over at The Mothlight, Rainbow Kitten Surprise is at The Orange Peel, and my personal favorite, Emma’s Lounge, is headlining the Asheville Music Hall. And that’s just the top three events competing for my attention, truth is you can go about 15 venues deep in this town and know that you are still going to get quality music in a groovy establishment.

Still, I’m pretty excited for the Hartswick/Cassarino show. These two consummate professionals are known for their song-writing as well as their ability to elevate those songs through their personal musical prowess. I arrive early and am happy to see that this will be a particularly intimate show. Isis Music Hall is the perfect fit for this kind of event, with a full menu and the ability to offer table service directly in front of the stage (which is high enough to not be obstructed). They offer an environment that allows for full appreciation and digestion of this kind of high end, quietly overwhelming show.

And quietly overwhelming is exactly what it is. Cassarino comes out by himself, first serenading the anxious audience with a song that is a commentary on the state of our country. He sings, “Oh say can you see,” interspersed with the line “We are nothing close to free.” His vibe reminds me a bit of Malcolm Holcombe, but that voice: full and buttery smooth when he fades into falsetto with just enough rust on it when he is in his normal register. I can’t wait to hear his and Hartswick’s vocals compliment each other.

After setting the tone with a protest song he heads into a ridiculous cover of Michael Jackson‘s Human Nature. His deep falsetto is perfect for this song, but it’s his guitar now that is really blowing me away. His solo in the middle of the song is indescribable except to say that were I not watching it live, I would probably have never believed that this was only one guitar.

With the audience warmed up and ready to receive he brings Hartswick out to join him. I’m really enjoying the music, but I am a little distracted as too the whereabouts of my photographer. He was supposed to be here forty-five minutes ago now and I don’t have any camera equipment with me. I’ll find out later that his car is broken down near Marion, NC, and he is walking down the side of the interstate with no cell service, but for right now all I know is that he isn’t here.

I curse in my mind and pull out my iPhone to try to grab some stills, hoping that through the magic of photoshop they will be at least usable later. I’m really feeling anxious and unsure of whether I should even stick around at this point.

Then Hartswick and Cassarino launch into an old Bobby Bland song, and the power, the soulfulness of their sound banishes any other concerns I am having at the moment. I don’t know that I have ever seen a more beautifully orchestrated duet, each piece from Cassarino’s guitar, to both of their vocals, to Hartswick accenting songs with her trumpet fit together seamlessly and tastefully.

They roll through a perfectly designed set list sharing a chemistry that is clearly born out of a solid and long-standing relationship and playing everything from covers to brand-spanking-new original tunes. The show is intimate and intelligent, meeting and exceeding the expectations of myself and those around me.

As it draws to a close I check my watch… if I hurry it’s possible that I can catch the entirety of the Emma’s Lounge set and so I do away with formalities and goodbyes and speed across town. The band, who describes their sound as space-age folk-wave, is doing something different and original with their live shows and I’m pretty stoked that I am not going to miss it after all.

Asheville Music Hall is popping and I arrive just as the opening act plays their last notes. I was first introduced to Emma’s Lounge about 18 months ago when they played their first show in Asheville. There were only about five people in attendance who had ever heard of the band and most of them, suspiciously, had the same last name as one of the musicians. Still, I walked away that evening confident that I had witnessed the genesis of something epic.

Eighteen months later as I look around the venue that Emma’s Lounge has nearly sold out I realize that even I didn’t fully expect the pace off their meteoric rise – a rise that has been made possible by their talent, their drive, and perhaps most importantly, their love.

They take the stage dressed in purple and gold, finessing their way in for just a few minutes before dropping into a solid Get Out of Your Own Way, a newer song for them. They hit Run Amok, a fan favorite, before Brendan Bower, the youngest member of the band by perhaps a decade, steps up to lead a blast of a cover of Green Day‘s Basket Case.

After a few more original songs they make a shift. Logan Venderlic (vox and guitar) and Bower leave the stage. Drummer Mackenzie Richburg comes out front and grabs an acoustic guitar as Meg Heathman (vox and keyboard) and Emma Forster (vox, fiddle, and best dance moves ever) move forward to join her. Together the three women play a short acoustic set, a medley of Dylan‘s Make You Feel My Love, Trampled by TurtlesAlone, and an original of Heathman’s titled Let Me In. It is beyond beautiful and a perfect change of pace. The chemistry is unbelievable and the harmonies between Heathman and Forster are otherworldly.

Then Venderlic and Bower rejoin them and they pull out a dark and heavy Undertaker before turning through Tooth and into an extended jam of their song Greenville. They stretch out the bridge, adding a heavy tease of The Wall before playing a few bars of The Trans Siberian Orchestra before heading back in the general direction of the song. Bower has taken over now and is sounding a bit like Derek Trucks, a sound you don’t usually hear coming from a seven-string. This kid is something else, a virtuoso, a prodigy, whatever you want to call it, he is for real and we are going to be listening to his music for decades.

They finish off the set strongly and the crowd chants for more. So far tonight this band has played everything from acoustic Dylan to 90’s punk to folk to jam to rock, when they launch into a medley of Take the Power Back>Killing in the Name Of by Rage Against the Machine no one is even surprised anymore.

The crowd is losing their shit and on stage Bower and Forster are shredding on their guitar and violin respectively. “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me,” the crowd and the band chant as one, then, as the last notes ring out, they turn one more time, pulling out their happiest, most popular song Shakin’ and Swayin’. The whole track is basically a testament to the beauties of festival life, the need for acceptance, and the fight against judgement, bias, sexism, and racism. As it winds down Venderlic wraps it all up with the final words that will be sung or spoken from this stage tonight:

“Everybody just needs some love.”

Caleb Calhoun is an author and journalist who lives in Asheville, NC with his best friend and canine partner Dr. Gonzo (aka Beanface).

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