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Rising Appalachia Brings a Magical Blend of Mountain Music to Ashland’s Historic Armory [Review + Photos]

November 7th at the Historic Ashland Armory was flush with the healing sounds of two meaningful acts. Local Alice Di Micele set the evening’s mood while headliner, Rising Appalachia, went on to perform a memorable and diverse set which included a number of notable originals and a few traditional bluegrass tunes. 

Photo by Aaron Stein @jamminonthegrass33

This show was part of their West Coast Alchemist tour and prior to the performance founding member, Leah Song and I spoke. She was gracious enough to engage my company as well as touch on the current tour as well as what to expect in 2024. “This tour that we’re doing is the biggest tour that we have done since before the pandemic. We are just fascinated to be out amongst the people again and making our craft. And that feels like that is the exciting part of 2023. For 2024, we’re working on a new festival production – we tried one this year called Catalyst, and we’ll be doing its second year rendition; we’re going to be leaning back a little bit on performing. We’ll be performing a good bit less and working in the studio a little bit more, getting some new material ready, working on the new album, and producing this festival. So that’s a really differently shaped year for us – we’ll be calling it the studio year and see what it gives us.”

 Lily Henley joined Rising Appalachia for this tour to help support the band while member Chloe Smith settled into her newly formed role as a mother. Lily Henley’s contributions and deep connections to the project are not to be overlooked. Her talents have earned her a number of accolades, and her solo work aims to bring light to numerous cultures and traditions. Respected by the larger community for her talent and dedication to roots music, Lily fluently weaves American and Celtic traditions with her Sephardic (Jewish) ancestral roots. She was a perfect match for the project. 

The show was sold out, and the house was packed with fans eager to witness the evening’s performances. The helpful staff and ambiance of the Historic Ashland Armory provided a potent synergy that matched the themes and sound of the evening. That synergy provided a springboard for both acts to more meaningfully express their messages. The venue itself evokes a feeling of rich history and the beautiful lobby beckons concert goers into the large dance hall, with ample space for movin’ and groovin’. The VIP lounge upstairs provides a great viewing area and offers options for people interested in an elevated (no pun intended) concert experience. Numerous options were available at the venue for those not interested in alcoholic beverages. These options catered to the more entheogenic savvy, and included a kava bar and mushroom elixirs. Both of these caterings were popular, as their fanbase, overall, is more interested in established herbal medicine, which offers a less intoxicating approach to concert enjoyment. 

Photo by Aaron Stein @jamminonthegrass33

Regional Artist, Lindy Kehoe, was finishing up one of her particularly large canvases during the show. She had a small display of her creations, all of which were exquisite. Her style is unique, blending different motifs with brief undercurrents of traditional forms; vibrant and spiritual in essence. It aligned perfectly with the evening’s festivities. 

The evening began with a local musician and activist, Alice Di Micele. Her forty-five minute set did well to bring life to her message. Alice is a strong advocate for a number of different causes and she expresses the change which she would like to see in the world through her music. Her songs were very articulate, spelling out ways in which we can improve our own lives along with a strong emphasis on our own wellbeing and that of our planet. Her songs varied from reflective to upbeat, consistently finished with a positive affirmation or a keen message. Beautiful and authentic, her folk sound was the perfect backdrop to her insightful messages. Her guitarist and dear friend, Andy Casad, featured a wonderful chemistry on stage. Alice’s vamping provided Andy space to contribute a number of exciting solos. Alice brought a few friends up during her set for vocal support as well.  

Rising Appalachia’s sound immediately reminds me of a stroll through an old growth forest. The canopy of towering sequoias whispering ancient wisdoms. The mycelial web, creating a symbiosis between tradition and sound. Their music is a reflection of our connection to something deeper and much greater than ourselves. Solemn and reverent, yet joyous and expressive. I could glean these parallels from their entire set. 

Photo by Aaron Stein @jamminonthegrass33

Supporting member Lily Henley, joined founding member and banjo plucker, Leah Song, front and center to begin the performance. Lily and Leah began with some beautiful harmonizing, kicking off the show with “Bright Morning”, off the 2021 album, Wider Circles. The quintet followed this number with “Pretty Lil Foot”, an old traditional tune. “Harmonize” came next. It is quite possibly the most articulate and graceful exploration of love that I’ve heard to date. The entire song features inspiring lyrics, and the hook is incredibly impactful. “I’m awake for you,” repeated amongst euphonious harmonizing reminds us to be present in our relationships. Songs like this showcase their ability to transpose the subtle nuances of life into beautiful musical arrangements. The next number was clearly a fan favorite. The crowd sang just about every word of the song, “Medicine”. It’s noteworthy to point out this song shows off their Hip Hop influences as well. Next, they rolled into “Caminando”seamlessly. Caminando’s lyrics were originally written by activist Francisco Herrera in protest of the School of America’s. The backstory to this song brings light to the project’s commitment to bringing injustices into the forefront of the conversation. In this tune, Rising Appalachia truly takes time to stand in solidarity against entities that inflict pain and suffering.

 “Wider Circles” appeared next, another catchy tune that had the entire venue singing along with them. Percussionist Biko Casini, held a driving beat during this number, showcasing his familiarity with a vast array of percussive world instruments. Once the song wrapped up, Leah took some time to acknowledge the crowd’s enthusiastic participation.

 She went on to emphasize one of their goals as a band: to bring old time music into the fold. Leah remarked on the upcoming number, “Alright, now we’re going to go to that Appalachian dance party… lullaby” attempting to describe the mash up of concepts and melodies that constitute the next number. Leah gave a shout out to her band’s home turf for this next arrangement, remarking, “Everyone up here is from Georgia to North Carolina, Tennessee. We claim the South with all of its imperfections as home. We all grew up with a lot of traditional music, folk music, those old fiddle tunes and beyond, in our homes”.  Leah elaborated, “so this project has always been about merging that traditional old music with some contemporary songs and traditions that feel important to us. So we’re going to play a little bit of both in this one, it’s a tune I learned from my mother, and we’ll start with the lullaby, so lean in and we’ll groove for a second”. 

Photo by Aaron Stein @jamminonthegrass33

“Love Her in the Morning”, began with Lily on the fiddle and David Brown on the upright bass. They both began the song gracefully. David, equipped with a bow, added a lower frequency and complimented the higher tones of lily’s fiddling. The song slowly built, adding in more elements as it progressed. Duncan Wickle, Fiddler and Cellist, added a third layer of bow action, which allowed the tune to ascend to a new height. 

Before the next arrangement, “Novels of Acquaintance”, Leah introduced the band and engaged with the audience by inquiring who had seen them before versus who was experiencing their first show. She continued by elaborating on her sister, Chloe Smith’s absence. She expressed gratitude for finding Lily Henley to fill the role while Chloe focused on motherhood. Leah again expressed gratitude toward this by acknowledging that Lily had helped make it possible to continue to live their dream: playing music for audiences everywhere. Leah then revealed that Duncan and Lily were married. Lily chimed in, reaffirming that “The family band” was still in full swing just in a different “Triangulation”, disclaiming that she had not married Duncan to get into the band. The crowd laughed approvingly. 

The next song is a well known traditional tune called “Raleigh and Spencer”. The iconic hook, “There ain’t no liquor in this town”, makes it distinguishable to even the novice bluegrass fan. “Catalyst” off of their album The Lost Mystique of Being in the Know, also made an appearance. This song is different. It has a spoken word feel to it overall, however a vocal call and response style leading into a beautiful harmonizing section makes this tune especially interesting. 

“Stand Like an Oak”, a single released to celebrate Earth Day in 2020, like most of their repertoire, speaks a strong message through natural metaphors. “Stand like an oak, ⁣an aspen, an alder, ⁣it’s in you, don’t falter⁣, and if so then I got you, Fake it, walk taller, Anything that makes you feel smaller, Leave it by the angels of the water”. 

Photo by Aaron Stein @jamminonthegrass33

“Speak out”, off their sixth studio release, Leylines, emerged next followed by the traditional tune “Cuckoo”. Cuckoo has a rich history and can be traced back to early Appalachian music traditions. A slower tune, “Resilient”, marked the end of their set. During this number, Leah wielded her Irish bodhran drum. 

The crowd roared and stomped, hoping to summon the band for one more tune. The band took their places on stage as Biko Casini exploded into a driving drum solo. While they prepared to roll into the encore, Leah warned the crowd she was sending them off on a “Rowdy” number. Indeed, this was a wild one. They proceeded into a whopping eight minute “Cumberland Gap”. They took this time to jam out, with all band members gathering near the center of the stage. Each member dished out exchanges, ultimately culminating with the entire venue bouncing wall to wall. 

Photo by Aaron Stein @jamminonthegrass33

The show spoke to my spirit, and the talent on display was top-notch. Each of them being multi-instrumentalists allowed them to soar to new heights. What really stood out is their subtle Hip-Hop influences interwoven with their deep love for Appalachian tunes. Although their traditional side took front and center, during certain sections, the vocals teetered on spoken word and the southern hip-hop influence could be felt. The percussion section was composed of a number of different world instruments, and between the upright bass and the drumming, the show exuded a more driving feeling than the average iterations of traditional projects. Leah and Lily’s harmonies were evocative, stirring deep emotions throughout the entire performance. The stage presence of the entire band made the experience fun. It was clear they love what they do.

 I love live music of almost any form. I generally encourage everyone to see the acts I write about, however Rising Appalachia stands out and manages to satisfy all facets of my musical tastes. These troubadours have made my list as performers I will consciously seek to experience in the future. Their music is fantastic and their live performances are truly a mindful boot stompin’ get down. 

Photo by Aaron Stein @jamminonthegrass33

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