by Jordan Green
It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth song, a cover of the 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up,” that a handful of fans rose from their seats at the bar tables and ventured haltingly towards the stage during Dark Water Rising’s Jan. 2 set at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro.
A man in his fifties, muscular with a tight, military-style haircut, raised a fist as Charly Lowry’s voice hit a crescendo of ache and melodrama: “And I pray, omigod do I pray, I pray every single day for rev-o-lu-tion.” A woman standing beside him snapped a couple photos on her phone and then raises both hands in a halo of supplication and release.
A blast of early ’90s nostalgia had them on their feet. But a righteous dose of indigenous pride kept them dancing and cheering.
“I was born in Robeson County as a Lumbee,” Lowry said, introducing the next number.
“We know,” someone shouted from the audience, and whooping could be heard in the gallery.
“Most of us are from there,” she continued. “It’s a predominantly indigenous community. At each show we like to share bits and pieces of our culture.”
With the guitar player and bassist resting, Lowry led the band through a rendition of “Mahk Jchi,” a stirring spiritual accompanied by percussion that was written by North Carolina Tuscarora singer-songwriter Pura Fé.
“Our hearts are full and our minds are good,” Lowry translated. “Our ancestors come and give us strength. Stand tall, sing, dance and never forget who you are, or where you come from.”
Lowry’s piercing wail, with her own accompaniment on hand drum, along with Pam McCarthy on djembe and Aaron Locklear on percussion, commanded the room.
Lowry broke from singing and exhorted: “In 2016, we need to learn to live in peace and harmony and uplift each other, and support each other. The world needs it. We need it.”
Then, following a song dedicated to women called “Brown Skin” that projects a similarly empowering message, guitar player Corey Locklear and bassist Tony Murnahan rejoined the mix, and they shifted back to the more conventional instrumentation that girds the unique sound they call “rocky soul.”
After the set, relaxing in the green room with his fellow bandmates, Aaron Locklear said that Dark Water Rising didn’t set out to create an indigenous sound.
“When we first started out, all the members were Lumbee or Native American,” he said. “We didn’t try to infuse that into our music. We were six individuals trying to play music together. We embraced it on certain songs. Charly will do fancy dancing sometimes. We don’t want to be known as a Native American band.”
Lowry, Aaron Locklear and Corey Locklear — the two are not related — were new to their instruments when they started playing together about eight years ago. Consequently, they influenced each other as their musicianship improved, and the band developed a singular style that doesn’t reveal obvious precedents. After recording two albums, their 2010 self-titled debut and Grace & Grit: Chapter 1 in 2013, Dark Water Rising relocated from Fayetteville to Chapel Hill. Emily Musolino, a guitarist and vocalist trained at Berklee School of Music, joined later and is mixing the group’s forthcoming third album.
Musolino wasn’t present at the Jan. 2 Blind Tiger show — she had a gig with another band — but her brother, John, sat in on percussion for a song called “Trees.” With Corey Locklear handling guitar duties alone, the band’s melodic DNA coalesced around the soulful restraint of his playing with a spare and lovely sound that doesn’t quite capture the band’s power. Typically, Emily Musolino’s bluesy bravado complements Locklear’s more introspective textures.
The band opened their Jan. 2 show with “Medicate,” a song from the forthcoming album that exemplifies the band’s growing harmonic complexity. It’s also an excellent snapshot of Lowry’s inestimable talent as a vocalist working in the breach between alt-rock and soul. Her gutsy instrument is able to capture despair, tenderness and determination within a single measure. If any comparisons come to mind, it would be Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde.
Lowry’s impressive vocal range and stylistic breadth places a signpost for her bandmates to take the music in wildly variant directions. Behold the double helix of McCarthy and Aaron Locklear’s percussion work, or Corey Locklear’s soulful lead guitar, flitting with birdlike dexterity at one moment and then dispatching a trenchant, Latin-inspired chord run the next. Or the classic beach-music groove, languorous and sensual, laid down by bassist Murnahan on “Sweet Carolina.”
As the set drew to a close, Lowry asked if there was time for one more song before Dark Water Rising turned over the stage to the show closer, Asheville’s funky Get Right Band.
“I can’t leave the stage without doing ‘Backbone,’” Lowry said.
Dark Water Rising has been performing the song — slated to be the first single on the new album — for at least a year but it already sounds like the band’s credo. A YouTube video submitted for the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest that showcases Musolino’s blues-inspired shredding has raised the song’s profile considerably with more than 4,000 views to date. The heavy guitar and take-no-prisoners vocal suggests a holy alliance between the Alabama Shakes and Rage Against the Machine.
But with Musolino in absentia and Corey Locklear the sole keeper of guitar responsibilities on Jan. 2, the song roused the audience at the Blind Tiger with a sound that was closer to a primitive gospel number or Mississippi hill country stomp.
“When things don’t go your way, you can’t tuck your tail and hide,” Lowry sang. “Gotta have a backbone, backbone.”
During a break, the band members chant in unison: “What about Martin? What about Franklin? What about Henry Bear?” The lyrics refer to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin and Henry Berry Lowry. The latter is a Tuscarora free man of color who was a Robin Hood-type figure in Robeson County after the Civil War, and who is possibly a distant cousin of Charly Lowry.
It might be the new anthem of the Moral Monday movement, or at least a potent antidote to North Carolina’s deepening conservative malaise.