Last night’s concert was even better than I hoped. I had a front row center seat, all of the performances were excellent, the entire lineup was friendly and enthusiastic, the audience was excited, and host Larry Groce was in a very humorous mood – from threatening the sarcastic crowd warmer with a giant hook to jokingly responding to The Rescues’ good natured jibes at the local hillbilly culture. It all made for a fun night.
Carrie Rodriguez impressed me straight away by coming out to tune up her instruments long before the show was scheduled to begin. One of the usual prices to pay to enjoy a Mountain Stage show is enduring the switching out of instruments between bands and the continual tuning of guitars during each set. So I appreciated Carrie’s proactive approach to the show. It not only saved her time at the beginning of her performance, but resulted in an almost seamless set.
It must be said that Carrie Rodriguez is strikingly beautiful. With a voice like that, she pretty much has to be a singer. But she has the looks to be a model or actress. She had a large white flower in her curly hair, and a pink blouse and black skirt ensemble that could’ve been plucked from the 1920s. But it would still have been a stunning performance even if she’d been dressed in a burlap sack with a paper bag over her head. Not only is Carrie’s voice much stronger live than it sounds on her studio recordings, but it was truly a marvel to witness her “multi-instrumentalist” talents. That girl sure can play the life out of a fiddle.
Rodriguez opened with “Infinite Night” before Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan joined her on stage for a rousing duet of “Absence” – featuring a barnburning fiddle solo by Carrie. She then played the title track from She Ain’t Me and “El Salvador” (co-written by Gary Louris), then finished off with a blistering rendition of “Never Gonna Be Your Bride” from her debut Seven Angels on a Bicycle. Whether you like Carrie’s albums or not, I recommend seeing her in concert if you ever have the opportunity.
Vienna Teng was probably the artist that I was most looking forward to seeing at the show. She was accompanied only by her producer and friend Alex Wong, but he had enough instruments to make up two bands. I was a little disappointed that she didn’t play any songs from her most recent release Dreaming Through The Noise, as my love of the album grows with each listen. But she played a nice selection of older songs from her two previous albums as well as some new tunes that will be on her forthcoming collaboration with Wong – tentatively set for release in February, 2009.
Vienna began with a sparse “re-imagining” of “Gravity” from Waking Hour before introducing a new song called “In Another Life”, which mentions West Virginia in its opening verse. Though I recognized most of the instruments that Alex played – including the glockenspiel – and have heard a melodica on many recordings, I had never seen one in person until last night and had to ask Vienna (more on that later) what it was.
Vienna’s voice was particularly flawless when singing “Harbour” from Warm Strangers. Most singers would need a heavy dose of Auto-Tune to reach that kind of vocal perfection. She was then generous enough to allow Wong to play a song from his own band The Paper Raincoat. “Brooklyn Blurs” is featured on the Safe In the Sound EP. They closed with an almost a capella and very bluesy version of “Grandmother Song” from Teng’s upcoming album. Vienna clapped the beat on her thighs and wailed like Bessie Smith. Though I always enjoy her signature serene piano style, I would love for her to record a blues album after that jawdropping performance.
The Rescues followed and more than held their own in the daunting shadows cast by Carrie Rodriguez and Vienna Teng. The singer-songwriter trio seemed even more thrilled to be at Mountain Stage than those of us in the audience were. Gabriel Mann took pictures from the stage and joked about encountering some local Appalachian folk who introduced themselves by what county they were from and said they were visiting Charleston just to shop at the mall. And people wonder why I hid my location for the first seven years of this blog…
They launched into a soaring unified vocal on “Lost Along The Way”, then Kyler England sang a beautiful rendition of “Matter of Time”. Gabriel took lead on “California Rain”, and Adrianne finally got the more prominent vocal on their cover of The Outfield’s “I Don’t Want To Lose Your Love Tonight” – in which they incorporated part of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”. Their mesmeric finale was the a cappella “vampire pirate ballad” “My Heart With You”. The Rescues proved without a doubt that the beautiful harmony heard on their Crazy Ever After album is no mere studio creation.
I think I would have liked Crooked Still’s set even more if they had gone first. Their genteel bluegrass sound initially seemed a little pale in comparison to the three powerhouse performers that preceded them. However, their instrumentation is absolutely brilliant and Aoife O’Donovan’s voice is timelessly angelic…albeit difficult to hear at times. I was very pleased that they played my two favorite tracks from their new album Still Crooked: the haunting “Undone in Sorrow” and “Captain, Captain”, during which Carrie Rodriguez returned to the stage to lend backing vocals. They also covered “When First Unto This Country”, then played “Did You Sleep Well”, “Little Sadie” from Shaken By A Low Sound, and “The Absentee”.
The saxophonist from Carrie Rodriguez’ band joined Mountain Stage piano player Bob Thompson for a Thelonious Monk interlude. Though Thompson’s piano playing is always impeccable during his solos, the saxophone accompaniment greatly complimented and enhanced his sound.
Former Phish bassist Mike Gordon was the last to perform, and I really hadn’t intended to say much about his set. Other than my undying affection for Grateful Dead’s American Beauty album, I tend to intensely dislike jam bands. Also contributing to my dread was the fact that I neither liked nor hated Gordon’s The Green Sparrow CD enough to bother reviewing it. So I thought that Gordon’s set would be long and tedious. It was long and the first song was boring for a non-jammy fan like me. But I have to give Gordon due credit, as he is definitely great at what he does. He was so warm and friendly with the audience, obviously enjoyed playing, and his band was so good that they even had my feet tappin’ by the last song. That is the mark of a truly good performer, to even engage people who normally dislike their genre of choice.
All of the acts returned to the stage for the group finale of “Everything’s Broken”. It was a rare finale in which every performer either sang a verse or played an instrument. I was reminded of the very first Mountain Stage show I ever attended in 1997 when Joan Baez, Laura Love, Dar Williams, and Sinead Lohan amicably played together during each other’s sets and joined in for the finale. That kind of eager, synergetic participation adds so much to the atmosphere of the entire concert.
After the show, I didn’t recognize Aoife O’Donovan until after she had breezed past me in the lobby. Even after all of these years, it still seems odd to so easily mingle with the performers at Mountain Stage. After a failed attempt to talk to Alex Wong (I don’t like to interrupt the conversations of other fans, which usually results in me being pushed back by less polite enthusiasts), I did get a chance to talk briefly with Vienna Teng. She was very friendly, so I asked what instrument Alex had been playing during “In Another Life”. She said it was a melodica and seemed as fascinated by the strange looking instrument as I was.
Then I approached The Rescues, and for once introduced myself as the author of this blog. All three singers were so nice and thanked me for my review of their album. They signed my CD and sang a small ode to Kyler’s silver pen to the tune of “Silver Bells”. I hope they can hold on to that gracious humor when they achieve the big mainstream fame I think they’re headed toward.
As I was leaving the venue, I noticed that Mike Gordon was swarmed by a crowd of tye dye clad Phish fans in the lobby. I will gladly give away my copy of Mike’s CD if one of his true fans who attended the Mountain Stage show can comment with their email address and the color of the jeans Gordon was wearing last night.