Arts » Arts Feature

CenterFest's head-spinning 20th

A Durham tradition takes to the streets



I f you've ever had the desire to get down and spin around on your head in the middle of the street in downtown Durham, you could have done it with the city's blessing in 1984. CenterFest, the Durham Arts Council's annual downtown street fair was in its infancy then, and break-dancing was in vogue. Paul White, special events manager, says that the festival tried to keep up with current trends, and in '84, break-dancing was the hot one across the country. "CenterFest actually tried out and had a break-dancing contest," White laughs. "I know--it's very funny 20 years later, but it was a big thing they were touting on the poster that year."

This year's festival won't have any sanctioned breakers, but festival-goers can have a look at the '84 scene and beyond. "We're putting together an exhibit that's gonna be in the DAC that takes a look back through old photos, old fliers, old T-shirts of where the event has been, where it is now and what it means to various people in the community," White says.

The 2003 festival will also see artists outnumbering the performers by a good margin: The downtown streets will be lined with vendor booths exhibiting paintings, jewelry, sculpture, pottery, glassware, clothing, printmaking and photography. But White says the focus is shared by both artists and performers. "The artists selling their stuff on the street are the visual side of it," he explains. "As long as it's handcrafted by the artist, and the artist who made it is here representing their work, we have it in the show."

"We have a good reputation," White states, of the fair's ability to draw out-of-town vendors from as far away as Indiana and Louisiana. "What we tend to build on for our visual artists is that we tend to treat them very well. I think that just goes along with Durham and hospitality. We may not be the biggest market in the Southeast, but we always guarantee good treatment when the artists come to town."

For those who want a different kind of interactive entertainment, there's always music. From the lineups over the years, it would seem that the festival caters only to local musicians, but White says that isn't the case. "Due to the fact that we're a free event, we tend not to bring in the bigger names. The emphasis at CenterFest has always been to expose the Durham community to as many art forms as we can. So a lot of times, some of the artists we can afford are closer here to home. Now and again, we'll go out and get a regional act, or somebody who's got a little bigger name recognition. But in order to have the event reflect the Durham community, we need to make sure the Durham community is a part of that in attending and in presenting."

White and the DAC keep the musical cast rotating, giving artists a break after they've been in attendance several years in a row. "If it's the same-old, same-old, they [festival goers] don't want to come," White says.

Jon Shain is a CenterFest veteran who has built up an impressive repertoire of different kinds of music over the years, to get him out of the "same-old" mold. Flyin' Mice was the first Shain incarnation, started in '89 as a duo with bassist John Whitehead (drummer Mark Simonsen, and Aaron Olivia and Ben Saffer on electric guitar and banjo joined later.) Begun as an acoustic blues project, influenced by what Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady did as a two-piece with Hot Tuna, the group branched out into what was soon labeled psychedelic bluegrass. "It was this real mixed bag of American roots styles and occasionally we even played stuff that we didn't know what we were doing," Shain laughs. "Irish music and stuff like that."

But the main thing that made the guitarist break up the band in '96 was the jamming "Most of the time there wasn't a set list, and some of the jams would go on and on," Shain sighs. And though Shain will do a Flyin' Mice song on occasion, he says he's not into nostalgia enough to do a Flyin' Mice tour again. "Well, if there was some kind of perceived demand for it, but that hasn't been demonstrated to me yet. Although I know some guy in Japan [who] bought 50 Flyin' Mice CDs a year or so ago."

His next band, Wake, got labeled country rock, but Shain says it wasn't supposed to be a Flying Burrito Brothers clone band. "In some ways, certain parts of it were folkier than flying Mice, but other parts of it was louder and more rock, because I played electric guitar in that band," he says. "And I only played acoustic with Flyin' Mice. So with Wake, we often had a two-electric-guitar attack, a loud country rock kind of thing, but with distortion on the guitar."

Nowadays, Shain performs solo or as a trio, as he will be doing at CenterFest with longtime friend F.J. Ventre on bass, and John Currie on dobro. He has a new album out, No Tag, No Tail Light, that has been getting local as well as national airplay. He describes the music as classic songs that could have come from any era. But with Shain, the melodies are just as important. "The melodies are where these songs get into your head and you can't get 'em out. It's like somebody composed these classic melodies and I guess with me I'm trying to find those melodies." Shain will perform Saturday, Sept. 20 at the Music Loft / Durham Parks & Recreation stage at 2 p.m.

White expects a crowd of 50,000 to 60,000 people will visit for the festival's 30th anniversary, which takes place Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 20-21, from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Saturday and noon-6 p.m. on Sunday. "We'd like to invite everybody back whose been a part of CenterFest whether as an attendee or a supporter or a sponsor and just sort of revisit," White says. "Thirty years is a long time--let's honor an event that's been a great part of Durham." And although CenterFest is technically free, White says the DAC does ask for a donation at the gate, but, "if someone doesn't want to or is unable to give they're certainly welcome," he says. "The whole idea is keeping the event accessible for the whole community." EndBlock

CenterFest Schedule
Saturday, Sept. 20
Herald-Sun Stage (east)
11 a.m.: Durham Music Teachers Association
noon: Open Air Dance (dance)
1 p.m.: General Assembly Chorus (barbershop)
2 p.m.: Susan Reeves Quartet (jazz)
3 p.m.: FLEX Band and Show
4 p.m.: Pandemonium
5 p.m.: Armand and Bluesology (blues)

Music Loft/Durham Parks & Rec Stage
11 a.m.: The Flood
noon: Ron Johnson Magic & Comedy Show (kids performer)
1 p.m.: THE CYPHER
2 p.m.: Jon Shain Trio
3 p.m.: Memphis
4 p.m.: Rags To Riches Theatre for Young Audiences

Sunday, Sept. 21
Herald-Sun Stage (east)
noon: Mad Dog Blues Band (blues)
1 p.m.: Brett Chambers & Usual Suspects (fusion/ r&b)
2 p.m.: Cody Cods (rock)
3 p.m.: Tony and the Magnificent Voices (gospel)
4 p.m.: Kickin' Grass (bluegrass)
5 p.m.: Kimbute (reggae)

Music Loft/Durham Parks & Rec Stage
1 p.m.: ESP - Emerson, Smith and Phelps (bluegrass)
2 p.m.: KYLER (acoustic rock)
3 p.m.: T.R.O.S.A. Choir (rock)
4 p.m.: Stella (a capella)

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