What do you get when you combine Asheville’s most high-profile busking boy band with the largest street festival in the region? You get a great performance, that’s what. Playing this medley of Irish tunes “The Foggy Dew” and “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans,” Tomb Nelson and The Stillwater Hobos had drawn a crowd to rival acts on the actual Bele Chere 2012 stages.
For those of you who aren’t aware of Asheville’s Bele Chere festival, it’s very much like many street festivals across the world. There are vendor booths, activities for kids, tons of food (with heavy emphasis on local eateries in recent years) and several stages of live music. The only major differences between Bele Chere and most street festivals in mid-size cities is that Bele Chere is fairly large (officially claimed to be around 350,000 visitors per year, but that number has always struck me as wildly inflated) and that it doesn’t actually celebrate anything specific. The name “Bele Chere” sounds like poorly spell-checked French, and although the festival organizers claim it’s derived from “an ancient Scottish dialect that means Beautiful Living,” the reality is that it means nothing in any language (as claimed by the woman who founded it) and only celebrates the need to bring tourists into a once-dead downtown back in the late 1970s.
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These days, the last thing downtown Asheville lacks is tourists, and the festival itself has had something of an identity crisis because of this. Even the downtown merchants (the people for whom the original festival was started to benefit) overwhelmingly dislike the festival (80% said it was bad for business in a 2007 survey). But that doesn’t mean it’s not popular. A big part of that popularity is the free live music, with dozens of notable headlining acts rubbing elbows with regional and local bands.
And while there are plenty of good acts on those stages, it’s the street-level busking that draws my attention. This year, there were plenty of great acts playing for tips.