"Bigger than ever" might not be a term of endearment for most women, but it keenly summarizes the ambitions of the third annual Femme Feast, the Chapel Hill celebration of female-centric artistic endeavors. The brainchild of Mr. Mouse, owner of The Cave, it's blossomed from more humble beginnings into a three-venue, three-night affair.
Formerly known as Femme Fest, it's turned into a feast to distinguish it from similarly titled events in Charlotte and elsewhere—and, it seems, to emphasize the size: Femme Feast features 21 artists from around the country and is hosted by a pair of local comedians. Chapel Hill Comics has also donated stacks of comic books featuring female protagonists, which patrons can grab for free.
"It started as a way for us to supplement the fact that Sleazefest is gone, and summers are slow," says Mouse. "We thought we should do another mini-fest, but we didn't want to rehash Sleazefest. Showcasing all these talented women just seemed like a natural."
Inaugurated as a two-venue extravaganza, Femme Fest was hosted only at The Cave last year after financial troubles sunk its original co-sponsor, Mansion 462. However, things went so well last year, Mouse decided to ramp it up further, involving neighboring establishments the West End Wine Bar and Talulla's. Getting into the spirit of things, the Turkish restaurant plans to hire a belly dancer to further fete womanly wiles.
One key to last year's success, according to Mouse, was comedian Michelle Maclay, who he says had him in tears with her between-set commentary. Being a between-band comedian or emcee became Maclay's preferred role after she spent 18 months in Virginia performing a similar function. She's always been drawn to music (her father plays and used to take the family to The Cave often, she remembers) and prefers interacting with the crowd to delivering a stand-up spiel. Plus she's sympathetic to the trials of female musicians.
"What we share is there are way more men than women in the field," she says. "It's unfortunate people behave as though we should be surprised there are all these talented women in the music industry. So it's kind of a double-edged sword that we have to do a big festival to celebrate it."
Maclay, who graduated high school with Mouse before spending time in New York City, reconnected with the bar owner when she returned to the Triangle two years ago and has been hosting The Cave's first-Friday-of-the-month comedy show for the last four months. She's brought in Greensboro's Jennifer McGinnis, who she met hosting a show at Fuse, to help her handle the multiple venues.
"Jennifer's hilarious and high-energy, with strong material and a great stage presence," Maclay says.
Talulla's is ecstatic to take part in Femme Feast, which dovetails with the restaurant's attempts to offer more live music. "Since moving here from New Orleans," says Talulla's sommelier/ booker Sia Yazdanfar, "the one thing I've found lacking is enough venues to showcase all the talent in town."
He's particularly excited about Saturday's show featuring Dark Water Rising, a trio of Lumbee Indian women who play rich harmonic, moody, hypnotic rock backed by a trio of brothers. But they're hardly the only notable performers.
Anyone who's heard the sultry country-torch stylings of Taz Halloween, The Cave's Friday night performer, is generally forced to tighten his chin strap or risk dirtying his goatee on the dusty floor. Knoxville's Jodie Manross performs early on Saturday. Though small of stature, she backs up her lithe folk-rock with a voice big enough to rattle the walls. The Cave's reserved for rockers on Sunday, with sinewy riot grrrls Pistil and Above Gravity, an all-girl pop-punk outfit that won this year's Orange Country High School Battle of the Bands.
In keeping with the West End Wine Bar's generally more sedate atmosphere, the space comes primarily occupied by singer/ songwriters like Ashley Atkins and her gentle Tori Amos-style pop on Saturday. But on Friday night, the carnival-esque, Dresden-Dolls-ish music of Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands provides the excitement—or, at this wide-ranging, renewed festival, a taste of it, anyway.