The community values of Rise Up

The ‘Hamilton’ tribute band credits effortless chemistry and enthusiasm as key parts of its success.

In 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda read “Alexander Hamilton,” a 2004 biography by Ron Chernow, while vacationing in Mexico.

What if he hadn’t casually picked it up? Time off is characteristically supposed to be relaxing, but for Miranda — then taking a break from his mid-aughts musical venture “In the Heights” — beach-reading turned into a font of inspiration. For the next few years, Miranda’s music and performances were directly inflected by the founding father, if on a small scale.

Then, beginning in 2015, Miranda made epic his newfound obsession. His claim to fame was soon Broadway’s “Hamilton,” a genre-hopping play that revised and musicalized the founding father’s story and subversively populated it with people of color and celebrations of immigrants. It became a fully fledged cultural phenom nationwide — so much so that in June 2016, Miranda, dressed in blowsy 18th-century wear, appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, as if he were Broadway’s less tortured answer to Jim Morrison.

“Alexander Hamilton” led Miranda to an artistic epiphany. In turn, “Hamilton,” the musical, led Kirkland native and self-described “intermittent semi-professional musician” Jeremy Stone to one, too. When he was first introduced to “Hamilton” a few years ago, the play’s music and equal parts inclusive and emboldened messages lit up something within him.

“For me, it was something I turned to when I needed help making sense of the world,” Stone said. “It’s music that celebrates immigration at a time when maybe immigrants are not celebrated by all people. It’s music with a message that’s rooted in diversity and love. Just the material is for the right time.”

About as quickly as Stone fell for “Hamilton,” he also thought about how many people might not be able to directly see or hear what it had to offer. If you didn’t live in or close to New York City and/or didn’t have the means to attend a show, how would you be able to enjoy it? The stance for many a “Hamilton” fan to take would be to relish the show’s offerings while keeping that faint disappointment in the back of their mind.

But Stone took his fandom a step further. Some inquiries and cold calls around the Seattle area later (“Essentially, I found people on the Internet,” Stone said) and he’d formed what, in the spring of 2017, was for all intents and purposes a “Hamilton” cover band. It called itself Rise Up. It was made up of about 10 people who seemed to have the musical chops necessary to pull the project off. Stone was assiduous as he contacted people: it was important that he not only found capable artists in the greater Seattle Area but kept intact “Hamilton”’s diverse ensemble.

Jim Horne, Rise Up’s musical director and an old colleague of Stone’s, said that the latter is a bit modest about how much talent it takes to have both made the project a reality and get it to succeed in the long term. According to Horne, Stone has a strong musical instinct. But he also has notable business acumen, managing the band and getting gigs locked down, sometimes even pestering venues until he got an answer in the early days. At their initial breakfast meeting, during which Stone expanded on his recent idea, Horne voiced his concerns about getting the rights to the music — and Stone was already a step ahead of him.

“It’s tough for any band no matter how good you are to get noticed,” Horne said. “You have to keep chipping away… Jeremy has been absolutely ruthless in pursuing the success of the group.”

The pursuit appears to have paid off. Rise Up has been consistently touring since its formation, predominantly stopping by venues in the Pacific Northwest. On Nov. 14, the group is kicking off a two-day residency at the Kirkland Performance Center (KPC). The show on the 14th, as of mid-October, is almost sold out; the Nov. 15 performance is getting there. The ensemble will be joined, on the 14th, by the Finn Hill Middle School Choir. The Juanita High School Concert and Jazz Choirs will guest on the 15th. Rise Up has routinely involved community groups in past performances, and, for Kirkland, the group was cognizant of the venue’s community emphasis when it reached out.

“Because there’s such a community focus at KPC, we wanted to keep it local and get youths from the community to join us,” Stone said, adding that, when connecting with schools in the area, sometimes he’d at first receive a cocked eyebrow after stating his idea.

A typical Rise Up show lasts for about two hours. It focuses on just the music; the group does not indulge in the musical’s narrative. But that isn’t to say that performances are exclusively “Hamilton”-oriented. In addition to featuring in the setlist the majority of the play’s songs, the act incorporates tracks either adjacent or even unrelated to the musical. The group has recently added numbers from the stage musicals “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Waitress” and “Rent” to its repertoire. “You’re Welcome,” from Miranda’s “Moana” soundtrack, has also been included. Original music has become part of the shows, too. “Love Like a Yeti” — from a musical Stone, according to Horne, is ostensibly working on — has recently been stirred into the mix, for instance.

Rise Up hasn’t yet been noticed by anyone involved with the original incarnations of the play. But public reaction has been positive, and often physically evident during concerts. Last year, the act got runner up for Seattle Weekly’s Best Musical Act. This October, Rise Up received the 2019 Performance of the Year Award from the KPC.

Enthusiastic audience engagement has long been a fixture at the group’s shows. Singing and dancing along has come to be expected, particularly from youngsters (5 to 85, according to Stone, is “Hamilton”’s main demographic). This was first made clear at the group’s first show — at Luther’s Table in Renton — after Rise Up invited kids in the audience to come on the grandstand with them. The effect was overwhelming.

“Pretty soon, they all came up to the stage,” Horne remembers. “The stage was absolutely packed… I had no idea what kind of impact this music had on young people.”

Contributing to the success of Rise Up is the camaraderie between its members. Backgrounds do vary. While all the musicians involved have the necessary musical experience, their relationship to music, and which outlets they’ve explored it through, differs. Yet the ensemble, according to singer Po Leapi, who also performs solo under the stage name P.O. BOXX, has had “an effortless chemistry” since day one.

“There isn’t pride or egos floating around, like some other bands I’ve been with in the past,” Leapi said. “Everyone is on the same wavelength.”

Horne cherishes the unity the group has come to achieve.

“We all come from different backgrounds,” he said. “These are people I would not have come into contact with in my normal life largely. It’s been a joy working with them.”

There’s a level of awareness, on Stone’s part, that the buzz surrounding “Hamilton” won’t last forever — which means that Rise Up, if to continue on, will likely have to adjust accordingly to retain audience interest. The ultimate goal is that, even if Rise Up eventually isn’t emphasizing “Hamilton” as much in future shows, the ensemble remains together.

“I expect Rise Up to be this music collective bringing amazing music to diverse audiences and building community through music,” he said. “The music we play is going to evolve over the years.”

Though the group’s website shows that concerts are for now scheduled until next February, Stone clarified that there is more to come. As shows go on, a sense of pride, nearly three years later, remains instilled in those involved.

“I’m so proud to be part of this group,” Horne said. “It makes people happy — I like that.”

A typical stage setup at a Rise Up show. Photo courtesy Jeremy Stone

A typical stage setup at a Rise Up show. Photo courtesy Jeremy Stone

An average Rise Up performance is a high energy one. Photo courtesy Jeremy Stone

An average Rise Up performance is a high energy one. Photo courtesy Jeremy Stone

From left to right: Sam McKelvie, Jeff Brumley, Danny Le, Mikaela Romero, Bo Mendez, Jeremy Stone, Rebecca Garcia, Po “P.O. BOXX” Leapai, Alicia Rinehart and Jim Horne. Photo by Miriphoto

From left to right: Sam McKelvie, Jeff Brumley, Danny Le, Mikaela Romero, Bo Mendez, Jeremy Stone, Rebecca Garcia, Po “P.O. BOXX” Leapai, Alicia Rinehart and Jim Horne. Photo by Miriphoto