Friday, April 17, 2015

Trading tobacco and textiles for live music and award-winning films

If you can point out Winston-Salem on a map, it's most likely as the home of the Wake Forest University Demon Deacons, R.J. Reynolds, Hanes and Sara Lee.

But this mid-size North Carolina city is taking a turn toward the eclectic.

Faced with similar economic struggles as its northern Rust Belt cousins, the brick fortresses that formerly housed tobacco and textile plants are being transformed into chic urban living spaces complete with farm-to-table cuisine, small-batch breweries, locally owned-and-operated bakeries, artisan boutiques and entrepreneurial corporate headquarters.

The Camel City has long wanted to be known as City of the Arts. In fact, it was the first city in the nation to establish an arts council in 1949. And this weekend welcomes back two major events -- Phuzz Phest and RiverRun International Film Festival - that should help it achieve just that.

Instead of the wafting tang of burley tobacco leaves drying, strains of metal guitars and folk fiddles will soar over Bailey Park in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. Using an industrial grid and smokestacks as it backdrop, Phuzz Phest is an up-and-coming music festival celebrating its fifth anniversary with more than 60 bands from as far away as Australia playing at a variety of venues throughout the city.

Named for Phuzz Records and Phuzz Sounds founder and musician Phillip Pledger, the festival is ready to establish itself as a serious contender to Raleigh's Hopscotch, which has been called "the premiere experimental and underground music festival in America," among others.

"We're trying to build something special for Winston-Salem and our state," Pledger says.

Phuzz Phest headliners include Foxygen, a California band with roots in classic rock and baroque pop, and the 20-plus-year synth metal veterans Trans Am and rockers Protomartyr and Cymbals Eat Guitars. As the festival has grown, so has its offerings of local talent. This year, 25 bands from the Triad will perform including Pledger's band, Estrangers, and his former bandmate now New Orleans-based artist Caleb Caudle.

At the same time, RiverRun will be showing more than 150 films at alternative venues around the city, including the North Carolina School of the Arts and the art house theatre Aperture, in addition to hosting myriad events including celebrity tributes, family programs, panel discussions and parties. Originally named for the French Broad River near Brevard, N.C., RiverRun was relocated by a former film producer and the dean of filmmaking at NCSA in 2003.

Touted as one of the premier film festivals in the Southeast, RiverRun was recently designated an Academy qualifying festival in two categories: animated and documentary short films.

"Being accepted as a qualifying festival by the Academy for our animation program is a huge honor - among the industry's highest distinctions," says Andrew Rodgers, RiverRun's executive director. "This new designation will not only bring an even greater level of industry prestige to RiverRun, though, it will also be a great thing for our community and the filmmakers we serve."

The ongoing transformation of Winston-Salem has coincided with the "dash," which famously and forever joined the previously separate communities of Winston and Salem, hitting its century mark.

I can hardly wait to hear and see what happens next.

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