Petaluma can be a sleepy town on a Sunday night, but not here on 12 November as music fans gather for a sold-out show with Rising Appalachia at the Mystic Theater. About an hour’s drive north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, the Mystic has long made a great additional tour stop for bands looking to add an extra gig on the way to or from the Bay Area. They already sold out two shows at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley earlier in the week, with this show adding one more opportunity for fans to catch the band’s West Coast Alchemist Tour.
The Americana and world-folk group is based around the talents of multi-instrumentalist sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith, who grew up steeped in the folk music traditions their musician mother loved and taught them. But the sisters would go on to merge that background with modern music influences from their youth in Atlanta, as well as time living the musician’s life on the streets of New Orleans to generate a unique sonic alchemy. Their affinity for blending their sonic art with grassroots activism for various social justice causes has made Rising Appalachia a leading musical voice for a better world.
The two sisters open the show as a duo on “Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”, a tune that spotlights their majestic harmony vocals. The rest of Rising Appalachia soon appear, with David Brown (upright bass, baritone guitar), Duncan Wickle (fiddle, cello), and Biko Casini (drums and world percussion) hitting the stage. Chloe relates that she almost didn’t make it to the gig due to energy issues seemingly related to motherhood after becoming a mother earlier this year.
“But this is always one of the best shows of the tour,” she says, adding that she knew the Mystic Theater crowd would provide a rowdy energy to help lift her up. With a crowd base that mixes some of San Francisco’s hip urban vibe with some of Sonoma’s more rustic demographic, the Mystic has indeed become known as a vibrant venue for music mavens. “Harmonize” taps into the concept Smith alluded to, as the sisters sing out, asking, “Tell me what makes you weary, Tell me what lights up your eyes, I’ll meet you there in the middle, We’ll lay down and harmonize…”
Leah mentions One Common Unity, a nonprofit based in Washington DC, with a credo of “Trust before suspicion” in their work to stop violence and build compassionate communities through the transformative power of music, arts, and peace education. She says the motto relates to their song “Synchronicity” from 2015’s Wider Circles album, and it’s a tune with a mystical vibe. “Planting sacred seeds of synchronicity, Throw down your guard and trust before you suspect, That there is nothing more, that this is all,” the sisters sing before going on to add, “We are all bright.” The song generates an uplifting vibe of personal empowerment as it encourages listeners to tap into the synchronistic forces of the multidimensional reality in which we live.
“Find Your Way” is a highlight with an upbeat vibe as Rising Appalachia rock with acoustic guitar, fiddle, and banjo for a vibrant jam that gets the Mystic grooving. Leah Song seems to really get her mojo working here, and it’s an empowering gem as the sisters sing, “Root yourself before you fly, Remember all them wise words true, And fake it til you make it, fall on through, Fake it ‘til you make it… Then you’ll find your way.” The encouraging message to “fake it ‘til you make it” feels like endearing universal advice here in the 2020s, an era where 60 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck as ever-rising inflation benefits only the one percent at the top.
Leah introduces “Indigo Dance” as a song influenced by the sisters’ time living in New Orleans, incorporating traditions they learned while busking on the streets in a city where music permeates the local culture like nowhere else. The song does indeed have a jazzy vibe with a strong bass line while also incorporating some hip-hop vocal cadences. The bluesy “Make Magic” is a winner from 2019’s Leylines album as the sisters sing in mesmerizing fashion over a percussive tribal sound – “What are we going to do with the wickeds of the world, Make magic, What are we going to do with the smoke and mirrors, Make magic…”
The idea of making personal magic out of the world’s smoke and mirrors brings the Mayan wisdom teaching of “the Great Smoking Mirror” to mind. Author/shaman Jamie Sams described this concept in her Sacred Path Cards with wisdom such as “You are what you decide you are. Remove the smoke screen that hides your natural talents or worth, and stand tall”, as well as “You are being asked to be a good reflection for others. Encourage others to be bold through Walking Your Talk.” Whether Leah Song and Chloe Smith are students of this wisdom teaching or it’s all manifested via mystical synchronicity, there’s no doubt that Rising Appalachia excel at standing tall and walking their talk in their songs to encourage their fans to be spiritually bold, too.
Another peak moment occurs when Lily Henley – who opened the show – is called back to the stage to jam with Rising Appalachia. Leah says they inherited a sister, describing Henley as both a fiddle sibling and as wife of the band’s fiddle player, Duncan Wickle. The group rocks out on “Love Her in the Mornin’”, one of Rising Appalachia’s top jam vehicles, to get a raucous dance party going with good vibes and smiles all around. After the extended jam concludes, Chloe says this has been her first tour back from maternity leave and credits the rest of Rising Appalachia for holding it down all year. This apparently includes Henley filling in for Smith while she was off the road, and her combo of vocal and instrumental talent on the preceding jam makes it clear she was just the person for the job.
Chloe brings up Rising Appalachia’s 2021 album, The Lost Mystique of Being in the Know, speaking to the album having a theme of who knows what’s going to happen. She introduces the album’s “Catalyst” as one of her favorites, a tune that feels like an instant classic. The song has a shamanic vibe as the sisters sing, “Come be a catalyst, Come be an alchemist, Come change the system…” There just aren’t many bands that sing about changing the system, even as this world gone mad descends into further climate chaos and wartorn mayhem. Rising Appalachia thus provides a much-needed service in the modern music world.
“We figured that would be a good one for the Mystic Theater,” Leah comments at the end of the tune, and indeed it has been. She describes the next song as a balm for the spirit, noting that it’s one Chloe wrote shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The ladies harmonize with a soul-soothing sound on “Stand Like an Oak”, yet Rising Appalachia could be described as a balm for the spirit too. The sisters project an aura of nymphs or sirens sent from the music gods on a noble mission to help soothe and inspire humanity’s collective soul in these 21st-century times of trouble.
The set has been one crowd-pleaser after another to provide one of Mystic Theater’s best shows of the year. The encore features one of Rising Appalachia’s most inspiring songs in “Resilient”, an anthemic call to arms with a zeitgeist that just keeps on growing. With lyrics that speak to resisting “pipelines through backyards” and manifesting “power to the peaceful” while keeping “All vessels open to give and receive, Let’s see the system brought down to its knees”, the song is like an anthropological survey of modern times for the Rebel Alliance.
Such tracks reveal Rising Appalachia that they speak truth to power in a way few other modern artists are bold enough to do. Such sentiments seemingly should be far more prevalent in the music world, considering the climate change crisis and increasingly dystopian state of society. Yet most musicians seem to feel that such songs are only for heavy metal bands like Rage Against the Machine or punk rockers like Anti-Flag. Leah Song and Chloe Smith show that folk music and feminine energy can be heavy, too, yet their unique sonic alchemy transmutes feelings of anger and angst to generate upliftment and empowerment. Such is the power of music in the hands of spiritually attuned practitioners like these.