Note: Authored by David Menconi, this piece has been produced in partnership with Raleigh Arts. Menconi's next book, "Oh, Didn't They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music," was published in the fall of 2023 by University of North Carolina Press. His podcast, Carolina Calling, explores the history of the Tar Heel State through music.



Downtown Raleigh’s long-running annual street festival Artsplosure is set for May 18-19, shortly after the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival wraps up down in Louisiana. And this year, these two events bear more resemblance to each other than usual, because Artsplosure 2024 has some genuine Louisiana all-stars in the performers’ lineup.

Playing at different times over the course of the weekend will be Grammy-winning Creole legend Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience; Cha Wa, a Grammy-nominated funk band from New Orleans that performs in traditional Mardi Gras Indian garb; and Sun Ra Arkestra, which is not a New Orleans ensemble but has nevertheless been a frequent and regular part of the New Orleans festival over the years.

“We’ve got some New Orleans this year for sure,” says Cameron Laws, Artsplosure’s creative director. “Our audiences have always enjoyed that, and Terrance Simien especially is a real legend.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Artsplosure (@artsplosure)

 

Outside of the Covid years, Artsplosure has been happening on the streets of downtown Raleigh every year since 1980, when it debuted as an “explosion” and “exposure” of art. It was set in and around Moore Square for many years, but downtown’s Fayetteville St. strip has been the center of the action in recent years.

Fayetteville St. will be the spot again for Artsplosure 2024, with a festival grid extending from the State Capitol at the north end down to City Plaza at the south. The main stage for music performances is at the Morgan St. end, where there are more trees for shade. City Plaza is where most of the large-scale art installations will be, with arts, craft and food vendors in between (festival map here).

The art market is open on Sat., 11am-7pm, and Sun., 10am-6pm. This year's signature art installation is "Hand to Hand," two giant puppet hands that put forth a progressive rock melee (Sat., 1:30 and 4:30pm; Sun., 1 and 3:30pm).

“Almost 200 juried visual artists are coming, and there’s also a whole block of Kidsplosure with a full lineup of youth performers,” says Laws. “There’s something for everyone. A lot to see and only two days to see it.”

One developing Artsplosure tradition is “Song Confessional,” which will be back for the fourth time this year. Equal parts art installation, recording project and podcast, “Song Confessional” brings in a trailer set up as a recording booth to receive anonymous confessions—some of which are given to local musicians as songwriting prompts. Past years have yielded songs by Blue Cactus, Babe Club and Mipso’s Libby Rodenbough.

 

“It’s a very cool thing with an interactive presence at the festival, but then it lives a lot longer than the two days it’s here,” says Laws. “The musical collaborations go on for months afterward.”

Also of note is Sunday’s headlining performance, Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, in which latter-day improvisational jazz/funk ensemble Burnt Sugar acknowledges the influence of Saturday headliners Sun Ra Arkestra (the space-jazz band led by the late underground icon Sun Ra).

“This is our 45th anniversary, so we’re reflecting on what we’ve done in the past and what Artsplosure means to the community,” says laws. “Sun Ra was so iconic, and Burnt Sugar drew so much from him. For celebrating milestones, it’s cool for us to have these two bands beside each other.”

For full festival details, see raleighartsfestival.com.

 

Sat., May 18 music

  • 11am-noon, Club Cardio 
  • 12:30-1:30pm, The River Otters
  • 2-3pm, Terrence Simien & The Zydeco Experience 
  • 3:30-4:30pm, Sabrosura
  • 5-6pm, Charly Lowry 
  • 6:30-7:30pm, Sun Ra Arkestra

 

Sun., May 19 music

  • 11-11:45am, Vinyasa Core Focused Flow with Doug Watson 
  • 12:15-1pm, Paradise Motel Lounge 
  • 1:30-2:10pm, Zach Person
  • 2:35-3:40pm, Yasmin Williams 
  • 4:00-4:45pm, Cha Wa
  • 5-6pm, Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber

 

Header photo by Brett Villena

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