Rising Appalachia kicked off the West Coast leg of its “Groundswell” tour Oct. 28 to a packed house at the Crystal Bay Casino. Known for fusing traditional Appalachian music with elements of folk, R&B and soul – and a bevy of world music traditions – this spirited performance was no exception.
An opening act showcased the impressive talent of Arouna Diarra,accompanied by Rising Appalachia’s drummer Biko Casini and bassist David Brown, performing traditional music from Diarra’s home in Burkina Faso. Born into a griot family, Diarra played the balafon with alacrity, lightning speed and supreme skill, rippling notes like stones skipping over smooth water. Those who came early also were blessed to catch Diarra’s incredible performance on the stringed n’goni, an instrument similar to the West African kora.
Fronted by the infectious dynamism of sisters Chloe Smith and Leah Song, Rising Appalachia delivered its signature soulful harmonies amidst rich Afro-Cuban rhythms, and evocative string conversations, while sampling songs from its newest CD release, “Wider Circles.”
Self-christened “the dream team,” Rising Appalachia’s current foursome conjures a rich, multi-layered sound that ripples, rises and crescendos into a multivalent, often symphonic conversation between instruments and voices. In addition to the melodic prowess of their voices, Smith and Song play fiddle and banjo, respectively – while each trades off for guitar, percussion or the other’s instrument from time to time. The band also features a versatile Brown on stand-up bass and baritone guitar, and rhythm genie Casini on djembe, congas, percussion (including a mysterious, extremely large, gourd played upside down as a hand drum), and back-up vocals.
It’s palpable, the juju these four create, with their expertly delivered African polyrhythms, the grounding of the stand-up bass, and the stringed and soaring vocal duets of the sisters. Transitioning between styles, genres and melodies within the same song, the band blurs lines and charts new ones in their musical explorations of where they come from – Southern roots as source and inspiration – and where they’re leading the world in their wake. At once primal, experimental, part lullaby and part softly urgent spoken word, Rising Appalachia indeed unleashes a musical groundswell that bespeaks the wisdom of the earth, the power of the people, and always the political imperative of music as a vehicle for social change.
The sisters opened with an old, traditional tune, “Bright Morning Star,” sung a capela like an invocation. The song drew to a close in a mysterious language, as the drummer and bassist joined them on stage. Smith took up her fiddle, Song her banjo, and the band slipped into their beautiful new ballad, “Novels of Acquaintance,” with its soothing melody and equally poetic lyrics. The traditional Celtic tune “Tamlin” quickly morphed into a thick, electric stew of stringed caprice, with Song on lead vocals, her voice soft and wild at the same time.
On “Scale Down,” a song about lessening our footprint on the planet, drummer Casini ’s djembe rhythms rumbled beneath a turbulent beauty in the spoken-word chant that Song unleashed, with Smith singing scat- style in the background. Dedicating the next song to our drought-stricken rivers, lakes, and streams, Song picked up the bodhran (Irish frame drum) and Smith the guitar, as currents of the song “Rivermouth” flowed like a deep, underground aquifer through the crowd.
For their popular song “Medicine,” Diarra joined the band on stage, playing n’goni to the reggae beat alongside rich, baritone guitar notes, while the sisters intoned their faith in ancient medicine ways. The crowd was delighted to hear that a just-released music video for the song was filmed here at Lake Tahoe. (Check it out on the website, http://www.risingappalachia.com.)
The title track, “Wider Circles,” found Smith on guitar and Song back on banjo, honoring the circles of friends and family that hold us all in our travels. “Spirit’s Cradle,” about the “Prison-Industrial-Complex,” featured Smith on claves, holding a steady staccato beat for Song’s intense, spoken-word rap, while Casini coaxed insistent tones from a large gourd drum and his congas, and Diarra joined in on the talking drum. (The widest range of tones came out of that amazing gourd drum, everything from bass to treble and in between, as it was played with closed fists, an open palm, or hand slaps, like on a djembe.)
In a shout-out to hip-hop and R&B – Macklemore, in particular – the ladies offered a “mash up” of two new songs (theirs and his), both entitled, coincidentally “Downtown!” The crowd went nuts for the funky sound that ensued. Continuing in that vein with their interpretation of the classic Appalachian tune “Cripple Creek,” Song said, “This is what happens when Rising Appalachia gets a hold of a song – Sexy Cripple Creek!” And so it was, a slowed-down, psychedelic version, with the sisters’ voices harmonizing in haunting octaves of sinuous sound.
This band takes seriously its role as “troubadours, activists and catalysts of justice.” For instance, a portion of proceeds from this tour go to support the Prison Yoga Project’s work in restorative justice, as well as to local water organizations along the tour route. Continuing folk music’s rich legacy of speaking out, the band referred to the stage they occupied as a “platform for change,” a view echoed in the themes of the most of the songs they played, from revitalized spirituals to new anthems advocating for change in the world around them.
For their final number, Smith sat down at the gourd drum, with Casini on djembe, Diarra making another appearance on talking drum, and Song on tambourine and lead vocals: the pleasure of the quartet (plus one) was infectious, as they ripped through a multi-layered soundscape capped with a killer djembe solo. Offering up a quick encore, with Diarra on the traditional West African djun-djun drum, Brown on banjo, Song taking up the fiddle, and Smith again commanding the resonant gourd drum, we were left with one last soaring duet to carry us home. Earthy and cerebral, sensual and gutsy, Rising Appalachia offers the power of a righteous song to unite and right the world. Catch them, through the rest of November, on their tour up and down Northern California and Oregon.
Related story: Rusted Root at the Crystal Bay Casino LINK
For the full set of Larry Sabo’s Rising Appalachia photos, click LINK