Review by Kirby Farineau
Friday, June 19th in Charlottesville, Virginia, the ornate walls of The Jefferson Theater resonated with the brilliant and exotic sounds of Rising Appalachia’s distinct blend of folk, soul, and world music. The last classification is not nearly fitting enough to describe how diverse and intricate the music that sisters Chloe Smith and Leah Song produce. Musical stylings from as far as Western Africa and Bulgaria and as close as the American south made for a show that had not a single repetitious moment.
Before the main act, Arouna Diarra took the stage with Rising Appalachia member Biko Casini to deliver a sweet opening set of African music. Using a series of strange and beautiful instruments such as the N’goni and the Balafon, they played a set of music inspired by the culture of Diarra’s home country: Burkina Faso. Diarra and Casini’s performance had a curious enchantment to it. The presence and atmosphere presented through Diarra’s strange balafon melodies was effective in capturing the attention of the entire Jefferson theater. By the end of the set, the crowd had quickly transformed from a small band of curious onlookers near the front, to an entire sea of enamoured listeners.
With such a fantastic opening set, the crowd was buzzing in anticipation of what was to come, and were soon sated with the appearance of headliners Rising Appalachia. Immediately, the band extended a very laid back vibe. Leah Song, who did most of the talking to the audience, had a speaking voice that sort of lulled audience into a daze as they launched into their haunting first song “Caminando”. From this point on, the sisters of Rising Appalachia began giving context behind and devotions to every song they played, either using their art for delivering a social message, or simply offering an interesting story behind how they came to play the song. Whether it was an old bluesy love song they picked up on the streets of New Orleans, or a song devoted to the corrupt prison system, every tune got its own little intriguing preface.
Just as Arouna Diarra brought a series of instruments to play, so too Rising Appalachia displayed brilliant multi-instrumentalism. The band members constantly switched between banjos, violins, guitars, and even Celtic hand drums. There was one song where none of these were used, which was possibly the most gripping of the night. The sister’s told the tale of a Bulgarian a capella tune that they had learned in their travels abroad, and kindly requested silence as they launched into the beautiful chant. The band played their share of fun tunes as well, including the title track from their most recent album Wider Circles . The upbeat tunes elicited a bigger physical reaction from an audience than many mainstream artists. Standing on the higher level of the theater, one could see the entire joyous crowd bouncing and dancing to the infectious rhythms.
Rising Appalachia is an experience that Jefferson goers are not likely soon to forget. Their style, stories, and influence all make for a fantastic show, which is only likely to get better as they continue their travels around the world!