Rising Appalachia brings ‘slow music’ movement to Colorado
If You Go …
What: Rising Appalachia
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, May 20, 9 p.m.
How much: $18
Tickets: Belly Up box office; www.bellyupaspen.com
Over the past 11 years, Rising Appalachia has rolled around the U.S. picking up bits and pieces and influences from regional folk music and from global traditions. So their eclectic roots music sound, on a given night, might include African drumming, classic blues covers, mountain music fiddle and banjo, hip-hop styled rhymes and slam poetry-inflected spoken words — all of it grounded by the counterpoint harmonies of sisters Leah and Chloe Smith’s timeless vocals.
With each album, you can hear the band stretching itself a little further creatively, incorporating new sounds and ideas. Rising Appalachia’s latest album is “Wider Circles,” which brings the band back to Belly Up today.
“It’s the culmination of so many years of traveling and touring and collecting music,” Leah Smith said of the album from a tour stop in New Mexico.
The musical blend is also grounded in the old-school Woody Guthrie folk tradition of activism and protest music. The sisters aren’t shy about their hopes for a better world and injustices of institutions like the American prison industry, which is the focus of the stand-out song “Spirit’s Cradle.”
On Saturday, Rising Appalachia has partnered with the Permaculture Action Network to organize a volunteer day at an urban farm near Denver (they play Red Rocks Ampitheatre with Elephant Revival and Railroad Earth on Sunday).
“We have this idea that we want to turn concerts into orchards,” Smith said.
The Colorado event is one of three full-day permaculture events on the current tour and is part of the environmentally conscious, activist mission of Rising Appalachia that extends out of its music. The band calls the idea “slow music,” and hopes it will build into a movement of touring musicians treading more lightly on the Earth.
“I think you can speak power to something by giving it a name,” Smith said.
They began with small things, like only bringing farm-to-table, local food into green rooms at concerts, touring regionally without flying, choosing not to stay in hotels, and organizing local volunteer events to give back. They’re also partnering with a handful of local nonprofits to set up booths at the Belly Up show.
“We just try to create spaces for people to plug in locally, since we’re only ever in town for a few days,” Smith said.
To lower their carbon footprint, they’ve traveled to shows via boat and on horseback. Recently they did a whole tour traveling by train. So don’t look for a Rising Appalachia private jet on the tarmac anytime soon (“If we’re lucky we’ll get a train car one of these days,” Smith chuckled.)
“It’s a blueprint that we hope will grow and change as we incorporate new ideas to slow down that industry,” Smith explained. “We look for ways to try and reverse the fast-paced glitz and glam of the music industry and do anything we can to slow it down.”
That drive to service and activism influenced the band creatively, as well, and formed the bedrock of its creative foundation. Soon after forming Rising Appalachia, Leah and Chloe went to New Orleans to volunteer in the post-Katrina recovery efforts. They ended up staying for seven years, soaking up the diverse musical influences from the creative gumbo in the city that invented jazz. They busked on streets around the French Quarter, played at alternative puppet theaters and with activist groups that proliferated after the storm. In time, the city shaped Rising Appalachia.
“It was an unmistakable turning point for us,” Leah Smith said. “We grew up in a musical family. We always knew music would be in our lives, but we were given a taste of what it would be like for music to be valued by a culture, and for it to be an honorable thing to do for a living. No one in New Orleans says, ‘Oh, you’re a musician? What’s your real job?’ That turned us on our heads.”
Now based in Atlanta, the band has a growing cult following and has drawn attention from tastemakers like NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” while making their way — slowly as they can — around the U.S. The approach has led them to make some connections along the way, including in Aspen. After playing Belly Up last summer, the Smith sisters returned over the ski season for an extended stay with friends they’ve made here.
“We’ve very much fallen in love with the town,” Leah said. “Its reputation, I think, is very different than its reality. You think of Aspen as an inaccessible place, but really its this very well-organized, functioning small town with trailheads everywhere and a bustling little town center. … I’m looking forward to seeing it in its spring season.”
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