Music Notes: Keeping Up the Revolution

by Steve Houk

The phenomenon that is Rising Appalachia sets its sights on the future. 


Rising Appalachia (L-R, Biko Casini, David Brown, Leah Song, Chloe Smith) play the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville on New Year’s Eve (Photo courtesy Honk Honk Beep Beep Photography)

It’s hard to believe, but the soaring caravan of righteously cool troubadours that comprises a Rising Appalachia tour has finally pulled into the driveway, and turned off the engine. Home again home again, jiggety jig. Deep breaths and catching up on sleep await.

Aside from what’s sure to be their very special first-ever New Year’s Eve show at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, the exceptional folkrootsworldmusicactivism experience that is Rising Appalachia is taking a much-needed respite after unquestionably the most profound period in their collective lives. After ringing in the new year, they will rest, rejuvenate and reboot as they continue their incredible ride.

So what has 2015 meant to the world of Rising Appalachia?

“It’s been a big year,” a weary but still sparkling Leah Song — who along with sister Chloe Smith, percussionist Biko Casini and guitarist David Brown comprise the multi-instrumentalist inhabitants of this astounding ten-year old ensemble — told me from the road. “We’ve definitely taken lots of risks, and done a bunch of experimenting. So there’s been a kind of growing curve. But we’re tired, and we’re ready for some time off. After New Years Eve, we’re done until spring. We take the winters off. But everybody’s good.”

This is not your average band, not by a long shot. If you’ve ever heard their breathtaking music or seen their mesmerizing show live, you know that the swirling, whirling, earthy, musically rich sounds that come out of the myriad of instruments they play, paired with the sisters’ stunning vocals, is an unforgettable fusion of world, folk, roots and soul that sticks with you long after your first listen. And along with a socially active, ever-growing fan base and rising popularity, another change the band experienced is the exciting discovery of a unique new collaborator during this past tour.

“The most obvious shift that we’ve taken recently is we’ve brought on a new opening act, Arouna Diarra, and we’ve integrated him, his musicianship, into our set,” Song said glowingly. “Really we thought he’d be an opening act, but it’s really become such a beautiful, integrated part of our sound. We’ve had a wonderful time with him, he plays all of the music from Burkina Faso, he plays the n’goni and kora and xylophone and talking drums, so it’s been really really cool to have his sound, and we kind of keep bringing him into more and more of our songs. He’s an amazing, hundred generation musician from all different walks of his family life.”

But Rising Appalachia does more than just play moving, enthralling music. They also have what Song calls “an incredibly bad-ass community of activists, educators and artists” that wrap themselves around their shows and are a critical part of their mission to foster awareness about social, economic and environmental justice and injustice. This community is part of their voice, part of what makes them the special entity they are. So has their burgeoning fame affected what they are trying to do out there, as in make a tangible impact when they come to town and be more than just a pop-in-and-pop-out touring band?

“I would say it hasn’t affected the mission yet,” Song said. “Fame can be a really derailing thing, it can be very, very unstabilizing. But I would say we’re still quite a far mark away from the kind of fame that starts deteriorating people’s sanity. Now, if we start getting our music played at the Mall of Georgia or something, then that could all change (laughs). But it’s all currently still in these powerful underground enclaves. We also all have really good families at home that continue to remind us that we are not actually famous in their eyes, at all. And that we better do the dishes.”

So after New Years Eve and a long-awaited winter’s rest, what does 2016 hold for Rising Appalachia? Leah and her bandmates have, and will continue to, set some clear goals to strive for, which includes trying to adhere even more to the concept of their Slow Music Movement, which promotes sustainable touring practices and immerses them more in the communities they visit.

“We’re definitely hoping to kind of scale down our tour schedule and create a model where we’re playing less shows but in the higher calibers. So really to take that Slow Music Movement model to action, and see if we can sculpt our travels in a way that feels a little bit more organized towards being in the communities that want to see and touch in on. And also to reach broader as well–there’s talk of a European tour, and we’re very very much hoping to get into Alaska, also up into a little more of the Canadian folk festival community.”

Chloe Smith and Leah Song of Rising Appalachia (photo courtesy Envision)

Chloe Smith and Leah Song of Rising Appalachia (Photo courtesy Envision)

So why Charlottesville for their first-ever New Years Eve gig and not a bit closer to home? “They kinda picked us. I think they wanted to do a show, and we’ve never done a show on New Year’s Eve, we’ve always kind of kept to ourselves. But it’s a beautiful theater and it is kind of central to so many of our friends and family. Close to D.C., close to North Carolina, in the mountains, but still kind of a small town, so it won’t get too wild and crazy. We thought it’d be a good place to try it out.”

The beautiful sunset-filled technicolor sky seems like the limit for the multifaceted organism that is Rising Appalachia. And Leah is keenly aware of how special the people who come see them and become part of their world really are.

“As far as who shows up, it’s pretty awesome. We’d like to but will never mathematically be able to connect with everybody that shows up at a show, but it all continues to be really inspiring. Filled up with such a rich diversity of people. It’s all good. ”

Rising Appalachia with special guests Birds of Chicago, Elby Brass and host Theresa Davis perform at 8:30pm on December 31st at Jefferson Theater, 110 E Main St, Charlottesville, VA 22902. For tickets, click here

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