Some quality of the mountain air seems to attract individuals of particular talents. Simply take a walk through the River Arts District, down the boulevards of downtown, or through the Arboretums’ carefully manicured gardens, and it should be obvious to you that Asheville harbors great creative minds. And I’ll tell you, there’s no better way to catch these minds in the act than in one of downtown’s many worthy venues.
Of all the fine things to do in downtown Asheville, I think catching a live show may be one of my favorites. I don’t do it often enough, that’s for sure. But every time I do, I come away with a night to remember. So that you too may cultivate these pleasant recollections, I invite you to read on and discover five of the best places to see live shows in downtown Asheville.
1: The Orange Peel
“The real deal: The Orange Peel.” I’ve been trying to get them to adopt that little ditty as their slogan. The negotiations are ongoing, but I’m optimistic.
More to the point, the South Slope’s Orange Peel may be the most famous of downtown Asheville’s live music venues. They’ve hosted big names in their time—Bob Dylan, Smashing Pumpkins, the Beastie Boys—and I get the sense that national acts think of the Orange Peel when they think of playing in Asheville.
Upcoming performances as of this August include a comedy show by Joe Zimmerman, the Breakfast Club playing 80s tributes, and the 5th Annual Cat Fly Film Festival, showing local shorts. With that kind of range, you can see how the Orange Peel got its reputation.
Stop in for a show, local craft beers, and small plates from Pull up at The Peel, their front-room kitchen. Under the ‘Peel, you’ll find PULP, a private, full-service bar-and-lounge, perfect for small gatherings and cozier performances.
Parking: With some luck, you may find a spot on the roadside. Otherwise continue north past the Orange Peel for a slew of garages and lots.
2: Wortham Center for the Performing Arts
Downtown Asheville’s very own non-profit arts center. Nestled just behind the Museum of Art, Wortham lies within walking distance of Pack Square’s many amusements. Inside, you’ll find no fewer than two theaters and a studio, which I’d say is pretty good for a city of Asheville’s modest size.
Their rich buffet of upcoming performances includes a concert by the Blue Ridge Orchestra, a performance by the Dance Theater of Harlem, and the biblical musical David: The Faces of Love. As you can see, the Wortham lives and breathes culture with a capital “C,” but far from being pretentious, the Wortham stands as a proponent of local arts, community, and all-in-all good fun.
Parking: One of my favorite parking garages lies right next door. Talk about convenience.
3: Ben’s Tune-Up
Asheville may be known for its breweries, but to my knowledge Ben’s is the only one specializing in sake. For that matter I doubt you’ll find more than a handful of sake breweries in the entire Southeast and so you can see that Ben’s Tune-Up must be a special kind of place.
This downtown auto-shop become beer-garden serves Japanese-American fusion: fried tofu, firecracker stir-fry, edamame chip-dip. Again, I think you’ll find all this is a rarity. As far as the live shows go, Ben's hosts local bands every night for the low-low price of free admission, seeing as anyone who steps foot in the place is compelled to sample the menu.
It definitely lies more on the dinner side of dinner-and-a-show, but when there’s a taste there’s a place. Plus, where else can you enjoy your music alongside a fine glass of yu-tang sake spritzer?
Parking: Ben’s sits on the outskirts of the South Slope, where downtown gives way to less dense construction. I don’t think you’ll have a problem here.
4: North Carolina Stage Company
Few know that I’m retired from a brief but dazzling career as a stage-actor, having played the household-name roles of “Wolf” in Into the Woods Junior and “Police Captain” in Pirates of Penzance Junior. I like to think that extraordinary chapter of my life (from about the ages of twelve to thirteen) has made me a passable judge of live theater. And so I say: North Carolina Stage Company is one of the good ones.
I’m familiar with the place from having witnessed a couple of entries in the Jeeves saga, concerning a capable butler and a bunch of rich idiots. These plays were laugh-out-loud funny, which of course speaks to the capabilities of the actors, many of whom are repeat performers at the Stage Company.
It may not look like much from the outside, and it may not be very big on the inside (at around 120 seats), but I consider it downtown Asheville’s premier spot for smalltown live theater. It’s cozy, affable, and within walking distance of Malaprop’s bookstore.
Parking: You may get lucky with street parking and there’s a host of spaces around the Grove Arcade a few blocks to the east.
5: Asheville Music Hall
Much like the Orange Peel, Asheville Music Hall is one of the larger places to catch a live show in downtown, with 360 seats, and of course, mainly hosting musical performances. Whereas the Orange Peel lies on the South Slope, you’ll find Asheville Music Hall on Patton Avenue, not too far from Pack Square, downtown’s central hub.
Upcoming acts include the Magic City Hippies (Playing poolside grooves), Free Radio (Cosmic Appalachian hip-hop), and this October, the Rocky Horror Music-Show/Costume party. That last one sounds like an especially good time to me. As far as food, the Music Hall’s attached neighborhood hang-out, One Stop, serves pizza, wings, and drinks.
Weekly events include the “Early Jam” every Tuesday at 8pm, showing their house-band Trilateral Omissions until 10pm, when the stage is given over to small local acts. It’s a more informal affair, with a suggested donation of just $5. I think of no better opportunity to familiarize yourself with Asheville’s most authentic local live performers.
Parking: I’d suggest that garage on Pack Square I mentioned earlier. It’s a bit of a walk, but a nice one.
The Orange Peel
101 Biltmore Ave, Asheville, NC 28801
Wortham Center for the Performing Arts
(828)-257-4530 18 Biltmore Ave, Asheville, NC 28801
195 Hilliard Ave, Asheville, NC 28801
North Carolina Stage Company
15 Stage Lane, Asheville, NC 28801
Asheville Music Hall
15 Stage Lane, Asheville, NC 28801