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In a collaboration between the Yadkin Arts Council and the Blue Ridge Music Center, the Willingham Theater played host to Violet Bell and the Becky Buller Band to kick off the Sounds of the Mountains concert series. Violet Bell started the night, with the bulk of their set containing songs from their latest album, Shapeshifter. The album hearkens back to the storytelling element of American roots music, telling the story of a fisherman and a selkie, a Celtic mythological being capable of changing from a seal to a human by shedding their skin. The duo, comprised of Lizzy Ross (vocals, guitar, banjo) and Omar Ruiz-Lopez (fiddle, guitar, vocals), had a breathy tone in their music while still retaining a full sound. Ross' wide vocal range and Ruiz-Lopez's unique tone and playing style created an atmosphere that swallowed me whole. Ross would lower her voice to a near whisper and Ruiz-Lopez would play harmonics on the fiddle and provide background vocals on only one or two words at a time, creating the most ethereal sound. The next moment, they would both rise to a climax and show off their ability to make two people sound like a full band.
Later in the set, Ruiz-Lopez picked up the guitar for their song, "Elephant Heart," and the bluesy sound allowed him to shine. I was equally impressed by the duo's ability to complement each other with two guitars, a texture that often becomes a contest between two performers to see who can play faster and louder. Ross and Ruiz-Lopez had a clear understanding of each other onstage, speaking the same musical language and filling out each other's sounds. This idea of balance is the core of Violet Bell's ideology: allowing the music – and ourselves – to breathe.
Following intermission, the Becky Buller Band took the stage and immediately presented a stark contrast from Violet Bell. The five-piece band was high-energy out of the gate and I was amazed at how they maintained this energy level for their entire set. The band featured Buller on fiddle, Ned Luberecki on banjo, Daniel "The Hulk" Hardin on bass, Wes Lee on mandolin, and Justin Alexander on guitar. Each member played with virtuosic ability on their instrument and each had their own distinct voice in their solos when they weren't filling in their niche in the ensemble. Like Violet Bell, the Becky Buller Band's sound was surprisingly full, even bombastic at times. They also showed great range, playing songs by the Eagles, some gospel, and some Joni Mitchell, among others.
My favorite, though, was when the band went full bluegrass in "Kiss of the Acoustic Eel," a blazing-fast jam written by Lee after an "unfortunate" incident involving seafood. This was the song where everyone let it all hang out, making the audience hold on for dear life as they brought us along for the ride. Songs like this, while being immensely impressive, also show that the band doesn't want to take everything too seriously. They wanted to have fun performing, and they clearly wanted the audience to have fun listening. Whether it be the blistering "Kiss of the Acoustic Eel," a theatrical song about Buller's "technicolor" dreams, quoting the Inspector Gadget theme in a mandolin solo, an old-fashioned t-shirt toss, or a jazz bass solo (in bluegrass!), there was not a moment wasted. The band's joviality was just as admirable as their skill.
The Sounds of the Mountains Concert Series will continue through January 28th.