Guitarist Avi Salloway and vocalist Celia Woodsmith began playing music together upon meeting during the first week of their freshman year at the University of Vermont in 2003. And they haven’t stopped since — until now. But, apparently, all good things must come to an end. This Thursday, the two will play their final Vermont show together — with their Boston-based band Hey Mama — at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge.
Salloway and Woodsmith initially made waves in Burlington as the acoustic folk duo Avi & Celia. Bright, talented and fun, they won over audiences with a smart blend of rootsy, bluesy Americana — undoubtedly aided by liberal sprinkles of irresistible, borderline cutesy, wholesome charm. Upon graduation, the pair moved to Boston, plugged in and formed Hey Mama. The electric roots band has earned significant regional acclaim on the strength of a yeoman’s touring schedule and two well-received albums.
Hey Mama’s energetic self-titled 2009 debut represented a clear departure from the sweet, folksy aesthetic that had long endeared Avi & Celia to local fans — though not so much as to alienate them. Their recently released final effort, The Dubl Handi Suite, fleshes out the sonic cues hinted at on the first album. This is a rousing, fiery romp. Artistically ambitious and roundly accessible, it highlights a group truly nearing the peak of its potential. Which makes it all the more frustrating to see them end now.
In advance of Hey Mama’s Vermont grand finale, Seven Days caught up with Salloway on the road by phone to find out what prompted the decision to walk away — and, of course, what lies ahead for Avi and Celia.
SEVEN DAYS: OK. So, what the hell?
AVI SALLOWAY: Ha. We find ourselves in a bittersweet stage of transition. Obviously we’re wrapping up our career as a band together. It’s been a long relationship. We’ve been together for seven and a half years, and it’s been a very special experience, but also a very consuming experience. We’re just in a place [where] we want to explore some other opportunities and dreams that we’ve had to put on the back burner for a while.
SD: Such as…
AS: Well, I’ll be heading to the Middle East after the New Year to start work on a peace project through music. And Celia will be exploring the health field, women’s health and empowerment.
SD: Wow. How did you come to be interested in the Middle East?
AS: It has to do with my heritage. I grew up in a Jewish household, listening to a lot of folk music from Israel and Persian music. I have had this feeling of really wanting to explore my roots. I had family who escaped the Holocaust and fled to Israel. So, I feel a responsibility to go there and become involved in a positive movement for peace through music, to work with the younger generation and try and plant some seeds.
SD: That’s quite an admirable goal, especially in a part of the world that has been ravaged by violence and hatred for so long. Do you really feel music can be a vehicle for that drastic a change?
AS: Music has been bringing people together for thousands of years. It’s a bond. When you play music with people, it’s such an intimate experience, much like it is when you play music for people. It’s a unique way to have a conversation. It’s almost like making a meal together. So, the idea is to highlight musical passion as a common thread. I think that can be a vehicle for change, and it has been throughout my life. Arabs and Israelis are cousins; they have a lot of shared history, especially musically. There are very similar roots, and that can create a strong bond.
SD: Does your mindset change, going from pursuing music as a career to using music for more altruistic pursuits?
AS: Well, everything Celia and I have done, whether as a duo or with Hey Mama, has been very grassroots. It is all based in community, and being able to draw strength from and give back to that community. We’ve always wanted to establish a connection with our audience, so we’ve always done things very DIY and focused on that kind of effort. We’ve grown with our fan base to the point that they’re like family. So, the idea is to take that energy, the things I’ve learned from this very special experience, and apply it to something way beyond myself.
SD: It’s always exciting to move on to new stages of life. But is it difficult to walk away from your musical partnership after so long?
AS: Absolutely. We’re on the road right now, and it’s been an emotional release. I can’t really even put it into words. These shows … it’s just been flowing out of us. It’s been an intense musical and emotional experience.
SD: But this isn’t really The End, right?
AS: This is definitely the grand finale of our full-time career together. I think Celia and I will always be playing music together in different settings. And we are getting offers to play festivals this summer, and we’re looking forward to uniting for some bigger shows down the line. But, yes, this is the conclusion of our full-time endeavor.