There is something wholly refreshing about the way Nederland acoustic folk quintet Elephant Revival approaches their art. In an industry full of cynicism and bloated egos, Elephant Revival is the wide-eyed idealist in a room full of cynics.
Folk music started as a communal celebration of the best that the human spirit has to offer. There were no heroes in early folk music, no stars and no separation between the performer and the audience. It was music created organically, where everyone contributed however their talent would allow them to — with a drumbeat or a dance or an off-key harmonization or just a pair of appreciative ears.
Elephant Revival has based their whole philosophy on that idea, embracing music not just as a display of individual talent, but as a communal event and the ultimate unifier.
“We are writing from our hearts and our experiences and hopefully creating an experience that is beyond ourselves,” says Dango Rose, who plays double bass, mandolin and banjo, and occasionally sings for the group. “Our music is an expression of our experience and our love, with qualities that hopefully go beyond the limited constructs of the self, where we can all join together.”
Given the feel-good humanism that drives Elephant Revival’s music, as well as their obvious respect for the history of folk music, it should come as no surprise that the group is continuing another longstanding tradition of the genre — social activism. The band is again teaming with the Boulder nonprofit Conscious Alliance to headline the second annual Buffalo Heart Concert on April 30, with all proceeds going towards keeping Conscious Alliance’s emergency food storage facility on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation stocked, as well as funding summer Lakota youth programs.
For Rose, the ability to help some of the nation’s most impoverished people is an occupational benefit.
“It just feels really good to give back,” Rose says.
“Humanism is a really good word for it, because I think our band has a lot of qualities that can bring people together and support those who maybe don’t have the resources we have.”
Elephant Revival clearly still believes in the power of music to bring people together for the force of good. It would all be a little wishy-washy if it didn’t feel so authentic. In addition to social causes like the Buffalo Heart Concert, Elephant Revival reinforces their commitment to communal music-making in the day-to-day operations of the band. Each of the five members takes turns writing songs, each of them sing and they all swap instruments. There is no frontman (or woman) in the group, no one member that dominates the limelight while the other four fade off into the background. This approach, says Rose, was present from the formation of the band.
“It was certainly an original vision of the band to have us all contribute,” Rose says. “It’s a really nice feeling to know that we all have our own artistic quality to add to the group.”
On their 2010 release Break in the Clouds, Elephant Revival proved that despite music writers’ quickness to label the group as the torchbearers of a new musical genre — “transcendental folk” — they still have an ear for the past. The album serves as a healthy primer on the last century of folk music, navigating from the plaintive sea dirges and foot-stomping Celtic instrumentals of the early 20th century to the contemporary sounds of world-weary singer-songwriter folk and coffeehouse pop. The 14 tracks on Break in the Clouds pull in 14 different directions, yet somehow snap back together to create an album as timeless and lovely as a group of friends sitting around a campfire swapping songs.
One of the highlights of the album, and a prime example of the band’s contribute-how-you-can mentality is fiddle player/vocalist Bridget Law’s track “Rhythm of the Road.” Law lacks the vocal range of singer-percussionist Bonnie Paine, but her singing is as charming and comforting as anything else on the record. When her voice wavers towards the end of the song, it doesn’t detract from the track, but rather underscores the beauty and humanity of the entire album. This is comfort music, played by excellent musicians who aren’t afraid to stray a little bit out of their range.
Last year’s Buffalo Heart Concert kicked off a banner year for the band. Break in the Clouds, released on Ruff Shod Records, debuted at No. 2 on the iTunes Singer-Songwriter chart and has been getting rave reviews from critics across the country. Rose says that the band’s growing exposure has led to a different vibe on their current tour.
“Everywhere we go, more people are coming out.
There is a real excitement in the air and a real positive vibe. It’s been a great year, and we think that it’s only going to get better.”
On the Bill
Elephant Revival plays the Boulder Theater on Saturday, April 30. Doors at 7 p.m. John Oates, Dovekins, Plenty Wolf Singers, and Nat Keefe (of Hot Buttered Rum) also play.
Tickets start at $19.50. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.