Appalachian Voices at the Bearsville Theater

The corporations and the big scary Haliburtons . . . it’s really hard to fight against them but I think the best weapon is love, and music.”        – Simone Felice

Thursday night I drove to Woodstock, NY for an awe-inspiring performance at the Bearsville Theater. Playing were Yim Yames (aka Jim James of My Morning Jacket), Ben Sollee, Daniel Martin Moore, and Dan Dorff. I knew the concert was going to be good, I just didn’t know how good… The musicians were playing together on a limited tour — nine shows in total, wrapping things up at the Newport Folk Festival — and were doing so in support of awareness about Mountaintop Removal coal mining that takes place in the hills of Appalachia. Part of the money raised by the tour will be given to an organization fighting the practice of Mountaintop Removal, called Appalachian Voices. Although the band played a lot of Appalachian traditional-inspired music, the musicians cannot be bound to such a limited description. You can tell they have the roots of Appalachia and its rich musical heritage steeped in their bones, but they also bring a contemporary edge and vibrancy to the music.

Opening the show was Simone Felice — solo, just poet and guitar together on stage sharing stories with the audience. Simone has reinvented himself several times, and I’m sure he’ll continue to do so. From The Felice Brothers, to The Duke & The King, to his solo shtick, Simone continues to change as a performer. As of right now in his folk niche he’s returning to where he started, playing music not unlike that he created with his brother Ian in the band The Big Empty. Speaking of his brothers, one song Simone played at the show he dedicated to his brother James. The song was “O Gloria,” and it sounds like it could be either a gospel tune or a love song. Strange, I know, but it could go either way. Simone also dedicated another song, “Summer Morning Rain,” to someone else: his newborn daughter. Although Simone was, for all intensive purposes, performing solo, he did not in fact perform solo for his whole set. He called Simi, a band mate in The Duke & The King, onto the stage, as well as another friend named Akashia. The female backing vocals sounded great with Simone’s own sensitive vocals, and they were a nice addition to the sound. The two women didn’t stay on stage for more than one song, though, and Simone finished his set solo once more. Simone chose to close with James Taylor’s “Shower The People,” but the crowd demanded an encore. He asked the audience what they wanted to hear, and consented to the shouts of “Scarecrow! Don’t Wake The Scarecrow!” Simone delivered a beautiful performance of that song, and when he was finished the crowd seemed sad to see him go (which he did among hoots and hollers).

People yelled “Bravo!” when Yim Yames took the stage, and he hadn’t even started playing yet! I also heard a girl yell, “I love you!” Yames simply thanked the crowd for being there and they went wild shrieking in enthusiasm. I remained quiet before the musicians started to play, but by the time the band was into their first song I too was vocalizing my exuberance. The musicians sing amazingly sweet harmonies, rich vocals blending into a net of beatific sound (such as on “My Wealth Comes To Me,” a pleasing waltz with glorious cello). All of the songs the band performed were spellbinding, and I sat enthralled in the audience. There’s something infinitely pleasing about Yames’ voice and peaceful presence, and he has a splendor in his singing — not to mention great vocal range. His voice is tender and raspy at the same time, and shines forth with strength and conviction no matter what it is he’s singing, whether it be slow waltzes, country blues, funk, or other. The other musicians were equally talented, and each got solo performances (as in, everyone else left the stage) except for Dan Dorff. Nevertheless, Dorff got to showcase his extraordinary talent during a song the band played, sliding out from behind the drum set to create percussive sounds with his hands and body. Daniel Martin Moore was excellent as well, a lanky guy with a sweet voice full of warmth and energy. His and Ben’s vocals, along with Yim Yames’, create ghostly three-part harmonies. At one point the Bearsville Theater became a church service, when Yames and the gang sang what was a highlight of the night for me, “Sylvie,” wailing like 1950s gospel singers. As for the music, it’s earnest and fresh. Ben Sollee is unbelievable, and the sounds he produces from his cello often sound like a fiddle. To say Ben Sollee’s playing is inventive is an understatement. At any given moment he can also make his instrument sound like a theremin, mandolin, guitar, bass, banjo, or trumpet. Oh, and a jew harp. Go figure. Better yet, go listen! He really is innovative, and it’s hard to believe how much of a genius the guy is unless you witness him firsthand.

There was so much condensed into the performance at the Bearsville Theater that I felt like I was at several different shows. The musicians played a hearty set that was, to my delight (and exhaustion the next morning when my alarm went off to wake me up in time for work), much lengthier than I had anticipated. The quality of the music was so great that I would have seen satisfied even with less, but I was instead spurred into a state of elation. The music is traditional, but not old-fashioned. It’s contemporaneous, belonging to both then and now, and the band takes songs in the traditional way and twists them till they’re nice and gnarly. I’ve been to way too many concerts in my life to even keep track, and this was one of the best I’ve ever been to. This is edgy, avant-garde Appalachian music, a satisfying merging of old and new, and being at the Bearsville show was like seeing an Appalachian jam band. It was electrifying, nourishing, and spiritual. The band’s music and abilities are terrific but never showy — something I admire. They have nothing to prove and let their playing in its purity speak for itself, and speak it does… The band’s music is a comfort, and we need more like it in the world — and I mean that politically as well as musically. They sang the lyrics of “this is only a song, it can’t change the world” at the show, but I disagree. I think Simone’s quote at the beginning of this post is pretty accurate, and Appalachian Voices (both the band and the organization) are doing something really important and wonderful.

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