MusicMusic Features

Whitewater’s Confluence Fest Mixes Musical Currents

The Main Stage at U.S. National Whitewater Center (Photo courtesy of USNWC)

By definition, a confluence is the place where two mighty rivers meet, where rushing currents entwine. However, if you’re interested in seeing Charlotte’s closest confluence — the spot where the Catawba and South Fork Catawba rivers converge, you’re shit out of luck; it’s been submerged by Lake Wylie.

But on Aug. 3 and 4, a different kind of convergence can be both seen and heard on the banks of the Catawba when the U.S. National Whitewater Center hosts Confluence, Charlotte’s newest music festival.

Billed as a meeting of artists, audiences and industry professionals, Confluence will be an event like few others in Charlotte. Not only does it sport a moniker that eschews high-impact single syllables like BOOM and Shout, it’s also an attempt to mix both musical genres and festival purposes.

In addition to boasting an eclectic bill of performers and bands, Confluence hosts an educational component comprised of 16 panel discussions featuring music industry insiders. All performances and panels are free, but reservations are encouraged for the discussions.

Charlotte band Chócala will perform at Confluence. (Photo by Daniel Coston)

The goal of Confluence is to celebrate, highlight and develop Charlotte’s musical footprint while aiding in the scene’s discovery and education, says USNWC marketing associate Lex Ballard. The idea for the festival started percolating last fall, she continues, when facility strategic director Jesse Hyde spearheaded brainstorming sessions with the staff.

The goal was to come up with a festival concept that would engage the Charlotte community. Early in the process, Hyde advocated for a music festival, but one that would be different from the Americana-, roots- and jam band-heavy bills that have characterized prior Whitewater events like Tuck Fest or River Jam.

“Typically with a festival you see national headliners,” Ballard says, “but we wanted to do something that fosters Charlotte’s own music industry.”

To that end, Confluence features performances on three stages spread across the nearly 700-acre facility: The Main Stage on Belmont Abbey Island usually hosts the center’s River Jam concert series, which runs May through September. The River’s Edge Stage sits across Whitewater’s Competition Channel near the River Center, while the South Ridge Stage, set back into the woods, is where Whitewater typically holds yoga classes.

The woodsy South Ridge stage (Photo courtesy of USNWC)

“It’s surrounded by the pines,” Ballard says. “There’s a little more of an intimate vibe there.”

To help recruit the acts taking to these stages, Hyde and his crew sought assistance from Midwood Entertainment and its founder Micah Davidson, plus MAXX Music and its president Gregg McCraw, both booking experts in the Charlotte music scene. The collaboration has paid off in the most eclectic bill that has ever played Whitewater, Ballard maintains.

“There is a lot more variety of genres,” she continues. “It’s more of a survey of what’s going on in Charlotte’s music scene right now.”

While a folk, roots and indie rock component is still present with acts like Sinners & Saints, Jim Avett & David Childers, Emily Sage and Junior Astronomers; the musical palette has expanded to include the funk, neo-soul and R&B of DownTown Abby & The Echoes, Akita, Dexter Jordan, Jason Jet and Cyanca. Most surprising perhaps is the inclusion of Latin-flavored acts like Orquesta Mayor and Chócala.

Those last two acts were booked on the recommendation of Tony Arreaza, local musician and founder of the Latin entertainment agency Carlotan Talents. The Venezuelan-born promoter will take part in one of Confluence’s educational discussions, an industry panel on booking and buying shows.

Tony Arreaza (Photo courtesy of Tony Arreaza)

“It’s a wonderful thing to be the only Latino to participate on these panels,” Arreaza says.

As a pioneer of Charlotte’s Latin music scene since he moved to the Queen City in 1991, Arreaza sees the inclusion of Latin acts in festivals like Confluence as the culmination of his and others’ decades-long effort to make Latin music and American music simpatico.

“I want to see Latin bands in the mainstream festivals,” Arreaza says. “I want to see American rock playing for Latino audiences.”

He believes an event like Confluence can be a step forward for his dream of music shorn of language barriers. “The language is music,” he concludes.

Liza Ortiz, Michael Anderson, Davey Blackburn and Liza’s brother Claudio have been transcending genre and language barriers since 2017, when the quartet launched the alternative Latin quartet Chócala. When Hyde approached Chócala to play the River’s Edge stage, Liza readily accepted on behalf of the band. Like Arreaza, she’s excited about the eclectic bill assembled for Confluence.

Terrence Richard (Photo by Kevin Condon)

“We appreciate that [Whitewater is] trying to diversify their sound,” Liza says. “I hope they’re also trying to attract a more diverse group of people to come out as well.”

She points out that many of her friends playing on the program are, like Chócala, first-time performers at the facility and not the typical Whitewater acts. One of those performers is the indie rock combo Junior Astronomers, fronted by vocalist Terrence Richard.

When asked to perform, Richard was also intrigued by the diverse bill.

“I think it’s dope,” Richard says. “[There are] a few artists we’ve wanted to check out. We were stoked when they asked because we’ve always wanted to play there.”

Cyanca (Photo by Aaron Kasey)

Though soulful R&B artist Cyanca has been to Whitewater previously for recreational purposes, her sets at Confluence will be the first time she’s performed at the facility. Like her fellow performers, she was sold on the festival because of the musical bill’s variety.

“I think it’s awesome,” Cyanca says. “It’s important that we showcase all different types of genres flourishing in Charlotte and bring [them] all together.”

Chris Garges (Photo by Chris Edwards)

Showcasing and encouraging Charlotte’s musical diversity may be one of the biggest contributions the festival can make to the city’s music scene, Chris Garges says.

Garges, owner and chief recording engineer at Charlotte’s Old House Studio, is also a drummer and veteran of the city’s music scene. He thinks the scene is far too segregated, and he’s not talking about racial segregation.

“A lot of the people who go see punk bands don’t always go out to see folk or bluegrass bands, and a lot of people supporting hip-hop don’t go out to see metal shows,” Garges says.

He hopes that can change with events like Confluence, for which more professional musicians from different backgrounds can come together. Garges — who has played with Mitch Easter, Don Dixon, The Spongetones and others — isn’t performing at the festival but will be on a songwriting and recording panel.

It’s possible that the panels may be just as effective as the various performances in breaking down barriers between artists, audiences and genres, he continues.

Interestingly, insight from industry insiders was not part of the plan when the idea of Confluence was first floated, Ballard says.

“The educational component came later in February after we had batted around the idea for quite some time,” she says.

But once the notion was raised, education became an integral part of the festival’s mission. The Confluence staff felt there were too few opportunities for local artists to learn how to navigate the industry, Ballard continues. Hyde and his team realized that Whitewater had the infrastructure and resources to bring together industry professionals so artists could learn from them.

For his part, Garges welcomes the educational aspect of the festival.

“One thing Charlotte has been lacking is infrastructure and support outside of the world of performing music,” he says.

The 16 panel discussions will all be held at the facility’s conference center, where fans of Charlotte-area roots music will be treated to a special conversation on songwriting and producing with local heroes and inspirations David Childers and Jim Avett, father of Avett Brothers Seth and Scott. Childers and Avett will also perform on The River’s Edge Stage.

With typical self-deprecating modesty, Childers previews the topics he’ll cover on the panel.

“If I remember anything about why I wrote a particular song, I’ll talk about that,” Childers says with a chuckle. “I’ll try to be as accessible as possible, and not be a smart aleck.”

The bulk of the panels are directed at performers, producers and promoters interested in developing artists, booking shows, building their brands and getting their music on YouTube.

Panel members are drawn from a pool of regional and nationwide industry experts including Gregg McCraw, Ramseur Records founder Dolph Ramseur, Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios manager Jessica Tomasin, EastCoast Entertainment’s Ellie Schwarz and plenty others.

Mike Kitchen (Photo by Amy Carleton)

For Mike Kitchen, founder of Charlotte-based promotion and production business the Sol Kitchen, the focus on the business end of the music industry is a much-needed breath of fresh air for Charlotte.

“Some people don’t understand that many people do make a living at this,” Kitchen says. “There’s a lot to be learned.”

Kitchen, who will sit on a panel discussing the economics of putting on live shows, thinks there’s always room in the city’s music scene for more wisdom. “Everybody doesn’t know everything,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and there are still a lot of things I don’t know.”

Ballard feels Confluence will fill some of the gaps in people’s knowledge, while exposing them to a rich palette of rhythms, melodies and sounds (also known as music).

“We hope people will approach [the festival] with an open mind and a taste to explore,” she says. “We want people to feel excited about the city and their community, [and to] go outside of their comfort zone and get inspired.”

Ballard’s optimism is reflected in the opinions of the artists taking part is this mingling of people, music and minds.

“They’re trying to nurture something,” Childers says. “I respect that and I think it needs to be done.”

“This is an amazing opportunity not only to play but to get connected with people and learn something,” Ortiz says.

“It’ll help bring some more shine to local artists as well as connect some people that generally wouldn’t be in the same spaces,” Richard says.

“I’m ready to enjoy some of the panels and take home some things that will help me in marketing myself,” Cyanca says. “I feel like I’m seeing a great start.”

Confluence festival will occur on Aug. 3 from 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. and Aug. 4 from 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. at U.S. National Whitewater Center, 5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy.; Admission is free.

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