A half-hour before Appalachian Voices strolled on the stage, The Bijou Theater is virtually empty. A crowd slowly fills in, little by little, each character a color in this strange tapestry of an event. The vibe in the audience (and the audience itself) is unlike any I’ve ever encountered at a rock concert—like that of a school play or a matinee at the local movie theater. Scanning the crowd, I see elderly couples, parents with children (young children at that), some down on their luck middle-aged men, and some standard indie rock slackers.
But even outside of the crowd’s unusual collective appearance, there seems to be something especially different about this group of individuals: They all seem politely happy.
There is little to no concert shouting as everyone files into seats (Thank God for actual seats at a venue). There are no joints being passed around the crowd. The only pre-show chatter I can make out seems to be in the spirit of the evening, which is all about the music and the message.
Appalachian Voices is a group comprised of three singer/songwriters from Kentucky who recorded an album in protest of the practice known as mountain top removal, a controversial coal mining technique which strips away the tops of Appalachian mountains and consequently devastates the environment as well as the lives of surrounding natives. You may have not heard of two of the three performers: Ben Sollee, a cello virtuoso/solo artist, or Daniel Martin Moore, a folk songwriter currently signed to Sub Pop, but you’ve probably heard of the third: My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames (or Jim James, depending on which day of the week it is). Moore and Sollee struck up the idea and collaboration, asking Yames to produce and collaborate on the album, which led to a nine date tour of the US—the first performances to feature all three contributors.
The majority of the crowd at the Bijou were probably hungry My Morning Jacket fans hoping for a peak at new material or simply a chance to view the greatness of Yim Yames in such an intimate setting, but there I go making assumptions. A few, particularly the elderly (and one man with a hat made out of recycled Miller Lite boxes), were likely there for Appalachian purposes. But whatever gathered the audience together this night, it scarcely mattered once the performance started. We were all mesmerized.
The set-up was great. Tracks were taken from Dear Companion as well as solo material from each individual artist (yes, there were My Morning Jacket songs). The full band line-up (including drummer/percussionist/vocalist Dan Dorff) played small groups of tracks, followed by solo showcases for each artist. The setlist was wild and unpredictable, and it was a thrill to hear the rootsy Americana of the group material rub elbows with Sollee’s virtuosic cello showcases (including the absolutely mesmerizing “Everything is Electrified”), Moore’s stripped (way) back folk, and Yames’ small-scale recreations of MMJ epics like “Smokin’ from Shootin’” and the rarely played, absolutely mesmerizing “Wonderful”, which brought myself and most of the crowd to tears. As if the shifting performers weren’t enough to keep the crowd’s attention, “a couple of Kentucky’s finest” writers, Jason Howard and Silas House, were invited onstage to read appropriately themed portions of their works.
Their selections were haunting, painting vivid portraits of quintessential Appalachian people and experiences—the same kind of people devastated every day by Mountaintop Removal. On this night, the power of the written word was no match for the power of the collective voice, and Appalachian Voices constantly stole their own show from each other, one highlight out highlighting the one preceding it.
I’ve never been so happy at a concert. I’ve never laughed so much, either. This was a crowd clearly in love with Yim Yames, and at every turn he made (including his trademark headbanging), the audience was either in stitches or concentrating with their eyes peeled. The vibe was so loose that when Yames flubbed the opening of cover song “Save the Last Dance for Me”, forgetting to take off his guitar capo and placing the song in the wrong key, no one grimaced at the awkward, out-of-tune transition, or even Yames’ slur of grinning obscenities during his apology. Instead, everyone cackled and applauded.
The band really gelled. Album title track “Dear Companion” sounds great on the studio version, but the live version upped the intensity and thunder, sounding like prime Zeppelin. My Morning Jacket track “Gideon” was transported into something entirely different yet with the exact same urgency, with Sollee’s sawing cello replacing the classic lead guitar line.
After Yames’ solo set, Sollee remarked that the performance was “like going to church.” Indeed, there was something almost spiritual about both the event and the night itself: The sense of a varied, united community. The sense of a bigger message. The smiles and tears, and most importantly, the awe-inspiring music.
On July 23rd, The Bijou Theater was church, and Moore, Sollee, and Yames were preachers, spreading the word of their particular gospel. Still, calling this is a “church service” isn’t accurate.
This is what a church service should be.