20 years of Orange Peel, helping put Asheville on the American music map
When tickets started selling out for The Orange Peel’s upcoming 20th anniversary celebration, it was obvious that both shows would be packed.
The venue, which opened its doors on October 25, 2002, had long established itself as one of the best spaces in the country to listen to music and the back-to-back parties of rapper and producer Big Boi (also known for his stint in OutKast), which performs at 8 p.m. on October 28, and the Old Crow String Band Medicine Show, which plays at 8 p.m. on October 29, are just another showcase of performances expected at the downtown club.
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“We wanted to do something special for Asheville and we didn’t want this very special moment to slip away from us and it just worked. A little magic, you know?” “The best of both worlds – one of the biggest stars in hip-hop and pop right now, then Old Crow, who just represents all that Americana-bluegrass vibe that WNC is so well known for.
“I was working in the club, when these went on sale, and there are a lot of people buying tickets for both. Asheville has a big general music fanbase, and they dig it all.
The list of artists who have performed at The Orange Peel since its opening is as varied as it is long. There are up and coming musicians on the downtrend of successful radio careers. There are Hall of Famers and regional acts only. There are tribute bands, comedians, benefits, toy exhibits, holiday shows and much more. There’s hip hop, bluegrass, rock, indie, rap, electronic, folk, jam and so many other genres that have been played on stage.
It’s a place where musicians want to perform, including Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor.
“Twenty years ago, after playing half a dozen Asheville-area music venues in the early 2000s, it was easy to tell there was something different about The Orange Peel,” Secor said. “I remember walking in for the first time, feeling the coolness of the place, the attention to decoration, the comfort of the green room, everywhere you looked the place was saying, ‘This is a venue for live music.” But more than that, for a picker/traveler like me who had already seen a continent full of excellent clubs, The Orange Peel felt like a sanctuary. Old Crow had some truly joyous times there and the next 20 years are sure to bring even more, but for now we’re just honored that The Orange Peel asked us to help blow out the candles.”
Prior to this iteration of a revered music club, the building at 101 Biltmore Ave., which sits at the corner of Biltmore and Hilliard Ave., passed through a variety of other businesses. It was a skating rink, a series of R&B and soul clubs, and an auto parts store. One of the previous clubs was also called The Orange Peel.
Since its return, the club has frequently appeared on “best of” lists that discuss live music, including in 2008 when Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the top five rock clubs in the country.
WNCW music director and host Martin Anderson attended a grand opening party for the venue in 2002, and he knew it would be something special.
He said he knew the venue “was definitely going to help put Asheville on the national map as a destination for live music.” Sure enough, within a few years, word had spread to cities and musical journals around the world about the venue.
Asheville would be a tourist destination without The Orange Peel. With a wide variety of spectacular outdoor experiences, the city has plenty to attract visitors.
But the Peel’s outdoor marquee show slates, spacious interior with its extra-large fan, and fun vibe make the downtown venue a draw for music lovers.
“I would say it’s a pretty reciprocal relationship in that I think there are a lot of people who come to Asheville for shows,” said Dana Roberson, another operating partner who has worked there for 16 years. “There are a lot of people who come to stay here because they make an event by coming to a concert, and then there are a lot of people who feel like they are just here because it is their city. and then they’ I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s check it out and see what’s going on’ any Friday or Saturday night.
The first show, as listed on The Orange Peel’s website, was Sonny Landreth with Tift Merritt on October 25, 2002. Those early months included shows by Junior Brown, Chris Robinson, Sam Bush and Gregg Allman.
Over the years, several big events have really put The Orange Peel on the national map as a place. Performances by Bob Dylan (April 9, 2014), Beastie Boys (June 10, 2009) and a nine-show residency by the Smashing Pumpkins (June 23-July 5, 2007) captured attention. Names like Lou Reed, Ice Cube, Indigo Girls, Dave Grohl, Lauren Hill, Jack White and Luke Combs have also been added to the ever growing list of artists who have performed on stage.
“I went to concerts at the Peel growing up and in college and it felt like a real destination. It was like the seed of culture at the WNC,” said Joseph Terrell of Mipso, who has performed in the room several times with his bandmates since their first appearance in 2016. “Getting on stage was a really big deal for we like to arrive. A lot of places are just rooms and it’s great to be there, but The Orange Peel is an amazing space with a great staff that keeps it running like clockwork. It’s so professional and clear that people love what they do. It’s clear that it’s not just a music space, it has that X-factor of love and community that makes it more than just a space.
Being a go-to venue for musicians is something many others have said in the past. Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jason Isbell noted this during an interview on Anderson’s May 13 episode of Weekday Music Mix on WNCW.
“It’s one of those places where when you finally graduate to play there, you think, ‘Well, I really made something out of myself,'” Isbell said.
Local artist Dan Shearin, who performs solo in the city and tours as part of River Whyless, agreed it was a big deal.
“The first time we headlined Orange Peel was definitely a rite of passage as an Asheville musician,” said Shearin, who opened two nights for Railroad Earth in 2013 with River Whyless, before booking a headlining concert on October 8, 2016. “It was a place where I had seen a lot of my favorite artists perform and I think we all thought that was a big deal.
Last year saw a flurry of shows at The Orange Peel, as artists who hadn’t toured due to COVID-19 restrictions hit the road. Around 180 dates have been filled on the site, with a mix of styles heard from fans.
“It’s important for us to have that diversity because we want to put on as many shows as possible. It’s not always going to line up with the fact that every night you’re going to have a great national artist coming through,” Santiago “He connecting with our local and regional music communities is also very important to us, so in 2007 or 2008 we started organizing local showcases where we presented different genres of music from around the city with bands from the It’s part of our overall formula of being in business and being open, but it also really connects us to the community, and that’s something that’s really important to us.
“In these days where you can find anything in your niche or special interest, we’re a place where everyone in town has come here for a couple of shows, whether you’re the head of metal or country pop “said Digital Marketing Director Robb McAdams, who has been with the club for 12 years. “Just being one of those rare community cornerstones that everyone gets a piece of The Orange Peel to enjoy all year round.”
Changes have been made over the years, such as a major expansion in 2009 that boosted capacity to 1,050 music fans and opened Pulp, the aptly named downstairs liquor bar.
The recent partnership with Asheville Brewing Company on the outdoor venue, Rabbit Rabbit, has given the venue a place to regularly host larger outdoor shows. In the past, there were several outdoor venues, like New Belgium or Highland Brewing, where shows were held and there would be 10-15 shows per season. Now that number has risen to almost 30.
Plans are in place to expand Rabbit Rabbit’s capacity with an additional seating area, build a permanent stage, and construct a sort of boardwalk to connect the existing rooftop seating area to Asheland Avenue. Capacity next season will be around 4,050, Roberson said.
The future of The Orange Peel looks ripe for more years of entertaining Asheville’s ever-growing music-loving population and those who visit to see their favorite artists.