Dulci Ellenberger remembers the first time she performed at The Altamont Theatre: Sweet Claudette was having a release show for its first EP, For the Birds. Tina and her Pony opened, and watching the indie folk group play revealed to Ellenberger the power of the space.
“There’s nowhere to hide in a black box theater — meaning every note, every lyric, clear as a bell, rings through the dark and still and quiet room,” she says. “It’s like a different world once those doors are closed.”
On Sunday, Dec. 17, the Asheville singer-songwriter and her rock band Big Sound Harbor play their final show at the venue, which will close at the end of the year and be converted into short-term rental condominiums. Ellenberger views the change as a notable loss to the local music scene, especially considering its rare convergence of artist-friendly qualities.
“The atmosphere at Altamont provides an all-inclusive experience, one where the audience member can be fully immersed in the art being created around them with no distracting bar sounds or underlying murmurs,” she says. “Church Street is also one of my favorites in Asheville. It feels so romantic. It makes me sad to think of this space being anything other than a listening room housing intimate shows.”
Though the evening can’t help but be somewhat bittersweet, Ellenberger will strive to make the farewell gig a celebratory event. She’ll play essentially an inverse of her support role in the Asheville rock/horn ensemble Holy Ghost Tent Revival, with its players backing her up and taking the occasional lead. Ryan Lassiter will sit in on a second drum kit.
Big Sound Harbor started as a way to showcase Ellenberger’s 2015 solo album, I Can Feel It. Shortly thereafter, she joined Holy Ghost Tent Revival full time, and over the past few years, the two entities have blurred as the musicians grew closer creatively and learned how to showcase one another’s strengths.
“Big Sound Harbor has become a real passion project for me,” Ellenberger says. “I love letting it simmer under the surface as I try to figure out what our shows will entail. I like to use Big Sound Harbor as an opportunity to showcase the full range of the musicians present at each show and to provide the audience with an experience that will vary greatly from a Holy Ghost show.”
For Big Sound Harbor performances, Ellenberger writes the set list — incorporating new Holy Ghost Tent Revival originals with which they’re just starting to become comfortable, as well as the majority of I Can Feel It — and makes requests for what she calls “the weird ones.” Those oddities translate to cover songs, which she feels best allow the band to stretch its boundaries. Past selections include arias, Kevin Williams singing lead on Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and show tunes — expect a few West Side Story numbers at the Altamont show.
“It’s so awesome to have the excuse to sing and hear the guys sing this material,” Ellenberger says. “Steve [Murray] sang ‘Maria’ last year at Isis [Music Hall], and you could have heard a pin drop in that place. All of us were teary-eyed. It’s just one of the musicals we love, and a couple of us have a background in theater. We performed West Side Story my senior year of college, and I was obviously never going to be cast as Maria, but always wanted to sing her songs.”
Recording a Big Sound Harbor album has lately been at the forefront of Ellenberger’s thoughts, if for no other reason than to capture the group’s current high level of musicianship. She says the project may even be composed entirely of covers and, barring any sudden changes, will be the last of her bands to keep its name. Sweet Claudette recently became Cowboy Judy and Holy Ghost Tent Revival will release an album — featuring a couple of Ellenberger’s original songs — in 2018 under a new moniker. Ellenberger isn’t about to disclose what it will be, but is willing to provide a few clues.
“It was originally thought of by our lead guitarist, Matt Martin, inspired by a novel, and it’s one we all feel really good about. The band has been together for 10 years now, and, like any good thing, it’s evolved in that time. The music we’re creating now, though by the same core group of musicians, is just too different than the music coming from the Holy Ghost Tent Revival people have heard for the past 10 years,” she says.
“There are lots of other ‘revivals’ out there, and there’s an association that comes with having both ‘Holy Ghost’ and ‘Revival’ in one’s name that makes it confusing for those who haven’t heard of the band, so we just want to clear that up.”
She muses, “Admittedly, adding my voice and original songs to the mix definitely changed the overall sound pretty drastically.”
WHO: Big Sound Harbor
WHERE: The Altamont Theatre, 18 Church St., thealtamonttheatre.com
WHEN: Sunday, Dec. 17, 7 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show/$15 VIP seating in first three rows