Show Review: Rising Appalachia Brought Worldly Rhythm To Albuquerque
Words and Photographs by Jake Sudek
Published May 25, 2016
The Dirty Bourbon is a country western bar located in the northeast heights of Albuquerque. Well known as a honky-tonk, offering line dancing and two step lessons, its walls are lined with American flags and domestic beer advertisements. As if that weren’t enough country for most, hanging in the center of the dance floor is not a disco ball, but a disco saddle, clad in mirrors from stirrup to horn and all spaces in between. Put all that together with a Tuesday night concert and one is left wondering what the outcome will be, especially with a group like Rising Appalachia.
As the venue began to fill, the environment continued to become more incongruous, as the patrons on this night filed in adorned in tie-dye, dreadlocks, and a myriad of earthy bouquets. For many, this was not the first time seeing Rising Appalachia, as conversations of exhilarated excitement of what was to come could be heard throughout the venue. The line of people waiting outside the venue an hour before the doors opened also reflected this anticipation.
The show began with a trip around the globe to the African continent. Arouna Diarra, a child of a traditional Griot family from Burkina Faso, was greeted by welcoming calls of elation, as he hoisted the Kora, a stringed African lute, onto his body. This instrument is composed of a rather large gourd, braced against the abdomen, and a protruding neck, roughly four feet in length, connected by a copious number of strings. Although loosely resembling a guitar, the instrument is played more like a thumb piano, utilizing finger plucking to produce its unique sound. It was obvious from Diarra’s proficiency that this was an instrument he had been playing most of his life.
He was accompanied by Biko Casini, the percussionist extraordinaire from the evening’s main event. Casini’s master level playing of the djembe, and other integrated percussion, generated the architecture for the melodies constructed by Diarra. Casini should not be restricted to being only a percussive force, as at certain points, he too supported the duties on his own Kora, while Diarra played in kind, or switched to, the Balafon, a xylophone-type instrument, adding even more dynamics to the worldly feel of their performance. Both gentlemen promptly locked in with each other and performed as if they had grown up together, playing solidly with their attention acutely focused on each other and the sound, rather than the crowd or the environment. This was displayed by the frequent smiles and long stares between both men, as the musical conversation developed. The sound produced, both by Casini’s turret of djembes and congas and the hand-crafted, traditional instruments built by Diarra, was full, colorful, and needed no other accompaniment.
Although no assistance was needed to hold the attention of the crowd, the spectrum of auditory delights was expanded by the invitation of the low end anchor of Rising Appalachia, David Brown, to the stage, taking his roles on stand up bass and acoustic guitar. His addition only continued to increase the level of participation of Diarra, Casini, and the audience, each new song receiving added revelry as the set progressed.
If one is to go online and search out concert reviews for Rising Appalachia, surprisingly, the virtual landscape is barren. The diversity of lyrics and music, and the exchanges between the performers on stage, are only the tip of the iceberg. Their sets, unique each night, also incorporate unhurried, detailed storytelling and public statements that address local issues specific to the geographic location they are visiting. If James Brown is regarded as “the hardest working man in show business,” these ladies, and this band, have assumed the reigns of this moniker. From their creation of the Slow Music Movement, a dictate that focuses on musical touring while insuring the reduction of their carbon footprint across the planet, to sponsoring and recognizing local, community-based outreach programs, this group of motivated, conscious-minded people pays tribute outwardly to what is being done, and to what can be accomplished, through unified vision. This is also reflected by the genuine appearance of love, not only of what they are doing, but also for each other, as demonstrated by a chemistry on stage that is more than apparent.
The main set began with a local Native American woman in her twenties, adorned in traditional pueblo dress and silver jewelry, who, alone, presented a story passed down to her by her grandmother, concerning the drive and strength of the medicine people to overcome adversity of invasion, both past and present, and the hardships of walking the spiritual path, while relying on the gods for courage and direction. The emotional connection was both powerful and attention inspiring, as her presentation was filled with ardent body language and passion. This paramount beginning was a perfect continuance from the global aspect of the opener into the genre sweeping character of Rising Appalachia.
At last, it was time for the band to take the stage. The increased energy in the room was palpable and was reflected back over the crowd by ear-to-ear grins supported by each of the band members as they took their respective positions. The first gem presented was a combination piece called “Bright Morning Stars/Botowak,” a tune that moved the soul from the first notes of the bass, travelling towards the tear inducing vocal aptitude of these ladies. It spoke of loss and redemption and would touch the hardest of hearts. This selection for an opener seemed to pull the audience in from the onset, preparing the ears and opening emotion, cornerstone practices for fully appreciating the creations of this group.
Next up was a dirge titled “All Fences and No Doors,” a number written about post-Katrina New Orleans, alluding to loss of home and simple sustenance. Anguish could be felt in the circular, swirling patterns presented by the bass and banjo playing, while angular elements of the fiddle conjured a sense of unrest, as though there were no return to normalcy in sight. In perfect juxtaposition, “Novels of Acquaintance” told the personal tale of comforting notions of chaos and offered the perspective that the mystery of life could be more rewarding than frightful if one strolled from the heart, living within appreciation.
At this point the band welcomed Arouna Diarra back to the stage to help out on “Closer To The Edge.” This gritty apparatus, driven by Cassini’s djembe and Brown’s bass, was the first song of the night that contained elements of hard-edged spoken word. It professed impending doom on the horizon, the uncertainty that accompanies that realization, and reinforced the idea that no matter where one stands, we are all part of the same potential ending.
Another of the latest tracks,”Rivermouth,” initiated feelings of floating lazily down a Bayou waterway late on a summer day. Brown’s accompaniment on acoustic guitar was a highlight, exhibiting his ability to shift gears entirely. Picking up the pace again, “Find Your Way” came out of the gates and returned the audience to the comfort of dancing without pretense. Chloe’s violin playing was uninhibited and contributed to the childlike feelings of joy and exuberance, seen on the faces of those giving themselves over to this hopeful tune.
The energy continued to roll out with another New Orleans inspired venture, “St. James Infirmary.” This bass heavy, tambourine-ringing piece contained the soulful echoes of a gospel spiritual. This opportunity gave Chloe and Leah the chance to exhibit their guttural side. “Spirit’s Cradle” brought about more lilting harmonies to an upbeat Latin-styled musicality, with a midsection that transitioned into a staunch spoken word against complacency. “An Invitation” brought the audience to another turn at the enchanting voices of these sisters. Leaving their equipment behind, the only instrumentation heard, and felt, was from the bass and djembe. This track contained elements of Appalachia vocal intonations, African tempos, and welcomed the audience to participate in a band-led clapping assembly.
“Sail Away Ladies” led patrons through a lyrical jaunt of mountain music, infused with a focus on African rhythm. Again, the vocal crescendos built skyward continued the feel good staple of the performance. “Wider Circles,” the title track of their latest release, laid down a straightforward musical pattern that got the crowd moving again with its upbeat tempo. Lyrically, visions of unity through simplicity reinvigorated listeners to smile as a group, while the melody reminded of that joy that comes to children so easily.
“Swoon” spoke of timeless moments of indulgence between lovers. The elementary, resounding guitar riff supported by Brown’s consistent bass line produced a haunting refrain for this sultry number. Diarra was again called to the stage for the next collaboration, “Take Me Downtown.” The vibe was one of a smoky jazz bar setting, the Mingus-like bass line full of bent notes repeating itself while the perpetual title echoed. Midway through contained a spoken word section, all the while Diarra added accents on talking drum.
“Mississippi Song,” an acapella number, found the songstresses singing in rounds, leading the band and audience in a snap along, while calling out to the land they now call home. As this was performed towards the end of the show, it was refreshing to see the audience still committed, as often a softer number this late in the game would promote talking and aimless attention. To end the set, Leah announced the closer as “Cripple Creek.” For most, the name would conjure a more traditional bluegrass or mountain song, with the potential of being upbeat and fast, but again, this group is full of surprises. The lyrics spoke of a meeting between lovers and the sound was heavy with banjo, guitar, and violin, but the product was certainly unique to the Rising Appalachia canon, again performed with an unhurried pace and a quiet dynamic, focused on quality not quantity.
With the final vestige produced, the crowd filled with joyous expressions from the evening, retorted with deep and loud appreciation, and deafened the environment before the band had fully left the stage. This appreciation resulted in no more than a two-minute vacancy. The creative force returned and noted to the crowd that this audience was the rowdiest one they had experienced on the tour thus far, which of course, resulted in ecstatic shouts and ever widening smiles. The band then performed a two-song encore of “Sunu” and “Medicine,” taking yet another page from their global diary, both influenced by regions of Africa and India respectively.
Rising Appalachia is at its roots folk music. Its appendages consist of everything from jazz, bluegrass, world music, and by their own admission, hip-hop. Each song is crafted in the moment and makes space and time for improvisation, while maintaining the element of structure, and audibly, seems unhurried. Each member is a multi-instrumentalist in their own right and each strike out with confidence and competence. The feeling and communication between each member is clearly noticeable and can be defined as genuine adoration for each other. From the audience, it is clear to see that their message and presentation are very real for them and throughout a two hour single set, there was never a sign of weariness or boredom. Even post show, the performers were more than willing to talk to anyone who wanted to share their experience and joy. In summation, if anyone is looking for something fresh, consistent, outstanding, and therapeutic, Rising Appalachia is the mountain calling out to be climbed.
Rising Appalachia, The Dirty Bourbon, Albuquerque, NM, May 17, 2016
Full Set: Bright Morning Stars/Botowak, All Fence and No Doors, Novels of Acquaintance, Closer To the Edge*, River Mouth, Find Your Way, St. James Infirmary, Spirit’s Cradle, An Invitation, Sail Away Ladies, Wider Circles, Swoon, Take Me Downtown*, Mississippi Song, Cripple Creek
Encore: Sunu, Medicine
* With Arouna Diarra