Photos are from the Orange Peel’s Facebook page.
The first surprise of the evening: Opener Yeshe. The surprise was not his presence on the bill, but his presence on the stage. Yeshe is German born, Australian-based, plays the African kora and sings an array of songs (from reggae standard “No Woman No Cry,” to “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, to a French-language folk number) in pleasantly gruff rasp. Yeshe would look menacing (the shaved head, the tattoos) did he not exude such sweetness. Like the song he wrote for his wife while traveling through Burkina Faso. Like when he finished his set by announcing to the spell-bound audience, “you guys are wicked!”
Headliner Xavier Rudd took the stage in a pink headband and smoke machine-induced cloud. Perched in his trademark setup, surrounded by drums and didgeridoos, he launched into a full-on rhythmic assault. His sound is so complex and the crowd was so large that it was difficult to say exactly how he was pulling it off. Effects pedals? Playing two didgeridoos at once? Some crazy sorcery?
Bird songs (recorded, not actual) led into “Lioness Eye” from Rudd’s new album, Spirit Bird, and then he moved to his second instrument set up: a really large didgeridoo and a lap steel guitar. He played the moody, blues-rock “Fortune Teller” and the reggae-infused “Come Let Go.” On that song, the audience was singing along while Rudd added harmonica parts.
“Food in the Belly,” funky and bluesy with slide guitar and a bassy drum beat from Rudd’s stomp box, incorporated a lot of non-lyric vocals. The audience quickly turned Rudd’s “Yeah yeah yeah”‘s into a call and response without even being asked to.
On “The Reason We Were Blessed,” Rudd sang a cappella with looped recordings of nature sounds — waves or wind. Fans of Rudd already know that natural elements are a part of his sound, as integral as the guitar or the heartfelt lyics. But, like Rudd’s heartfelt lyrics, his incorporation of nature sounds is neither cliched nor expected. Not new agey, not cloying. There’s a freshness to Rudd’s approach — the way he can turn a didgeridoo into a dance floor beat, he can, similarly turn birdsong into a poignant accent.
Working the crowd, Rudd threw mentions of Asheville into a couple of songs, bringing the mood up even more. He added harmonica on “Follow the Sun,” the rhythm complex but the performance simple. The song morphed into a reggae beat. The lyric to the song goes, “When you feel this crazy society adding to the strain / take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge, remember your place” — Rudd took that opportunity to speak about environmentalism.
But even that serious moment didn’t detract from the overall sense of fun and wonder of Rudd’s show. Parts performance artist, parts shaman, the best part of the Austalian singer-songwriter’s set was that he looked really, truly happy on the stage — and that happiness was completely contagious.