Last night I attended Mountain Stage
‘s 25th Anniversary show featuring Joan Osborne, Rachael Yamagata, The Low Anthem, Todd Burge, and Johnny Staats & Robert Shafer. It was a remarkable show, though more for the occasion than the concert itself.
The event sold out before I could get tickets, so I have to thank Joan Osborne’s representatives for putting me on the guest list. I also think that the people who work the ticket and merchandise tables at Mountain Stage deserve a round of applause, because the crowd was huge and some ladies were being unnecessarily rude to the very nice man watching the “will call” table when I arrived.
In celebration of Mountain Stage’s 25th anniversary, The Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes” created a special black, white, and grey five-tiered cake featuring the show’s logo that was put on display in the lobby before the show. I’m not familiar with the show, but apparently one of the chefs is from WV and is related to one of the Mt. Stage band members. The audience did not get to taste the cake, but the crew were nice enough to provide punch and cookies for us to celebrate after the show.
It was quite a nostalgic evening for everyone involved. Compared to the show’s 25 years, my own experience as an audience member seems limited. But I couldn’t help but think back over my own history with the program. The first time I attended Mountain Stage was in August, 1997, when I was still in high school. Like many locals, I was introduced to the show through a good friend and wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before. The performers that night were Joan Baez, Sinead Lohan, Laura Love, Duke Robillard, and Dar Williams. I fell in love with the show then and don’t have the time or room here to recount all of the amazing performances I have seen there since then.
Some of the most memorable sets I witnessed were by Sinead Lohan, Holly Cole, Cowboy Junkies, Vic Chesnutt, Dayna Kurtz, Natalie Merchant, Kami Lyle, Saw Doctors, Fisher, a then unknown Norah Jones, Odetta, Martina McBride, Bell X1, Samoa Wilson, Zap Mama, Ani Difranco, Anaïs Mitchell, Eleni Mandell, and Sylvie Lewis, Amy Correia (twice), Peter Mulvey and Cathie Ryan (twice), Laura Love (twice), Joan Osborne (twice), and Joan Baez (twice). The second time I saw Baez perform was for Mountain Stage’s 20th anniversary show five years ago. Joan was excellent as always, but I recall that the night was plagued with techinical difficulties. I’m happy to say that last night’s 25th anniversary concert went much more smoothly.
The show is always general admission, so I was fortunate to nab a seat just a few rows back from the stage. Host Larry Groce began by thanking several people and organizations who had helped Mountain Stage over the years, and brought a few of them out on stage. Among them were local singer George “The Earl of Elkview” Daugherty (an old friend of my husband’s), local artist Charlie Hamilton – who painted the huge, colorful painting that always adorns the stage – and the elusive broadcast engineer Francis Fisher (whose disembodied voice is heard at every Mountain Stage). Also present was Deni Bonet, former singing partner of Mountain Stage vocalist Julie Adams and one of performers at the very first Mountain Stage concert in 1983. Bonet sang with the band and performed a song of her own in the first hour of the concert. Groce also acknowledged the recent passing of Odetta, and later house pianist Bob Thompson played a special instrumental tribute to her.
Thanks to the Mountain Stage Blog, I knew before the show that local singer-songwriter Todd Burge had been called in to replace Kathy Mattea. Mattea, who was apparently one of the most frequently schedule guests on the show, had to cancel her scheduled performance due to an illness in her family. The extremely amiable Johnny Staats & Robert Shaffer went first and were a crowd pleaser. Their hyperspeed mandolin and guitar playing was impressive, though they sounded much prettier when they slowed it down. I especially enjoyed their rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”.
I hadn’t heard of The Low Anthem before last night, but I really like them! The trio are multi-instrumental wonders who ran around the stage exchanging instruments in between songs. Their sound is mostly very pretty, soft indie-folk, though they did play one stage rocker. I’ll have to track down their album. They’re cute as buttons, too. Next up was Todd Burge. I really hate to say anything negative about him, because he seems like the nicest guy, but this was the second time I’ve been bored by him at Mountain Stage. I did like his song “I Believe This I Believe”, but other than that….just not my thing. Overall, I found the first hour of the show lackluster and had trouble staying awake. But the second hour more than made up for it.
After some house band performances, Rachael Yamagata took the stage. I expected her smokey alto to be a highlight of the night, but I had no idea just how good she would be live. After the show, every single person I encountered was raving about Rachael’s set. She began hidden behind the piano while she sang the somber “Elephants” from her new album Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart (which I can tell you now will be on my best of ’08 list) and belted out the emotional older tune “Be Be Your Love”. Then she moved to the center of the stage and blew everyone away with an astounding, chill-producing performance of “Sunday Afternoon”, during which she wailed until I thought her throat would fall out. The song was so long (I didn’t notice since her performance was so riveting) that apparently it was to be her last, but the crowd was so responsive that Groce asked her to play one more. She ended with a thunderous take of “Faster”. If there was a star of Mountain Stage’s 25th anniversary show, it was Rachael Yamagata.
Though I loved Yamagata’s music before and certainly after the show, I was mostly excited to see Joan Osborne. I’ve been a fan of Osborne since her debut Relish was first released, and I saw her perform at Mountain Stage years ago when she was promoting her How Sweet It Is album. I remembered Joan’s appearance and performance then as being funky, sexy, and vocally powerful. So it was a bit of a shock when she stepped on stage last night dressed as a school marm – high lace color, long floral print skirt. I only mention it because it was apparently symptomatic of her entire persona mellowing out over the years. Granted, she began with my least favorite song on Little Wild One (“Rodeo”) followed by an even lower key version of the album’s title track. So it may have merely been a matter of song choice or at least my own preconceptions of those particular songs. It just seemed like the spark had gone out of her or something. That is, until she hit the chorus of “Halllelujah In The City” and finally unleashed her voice. Then I finally heard and saw the Joan I knew and loved.
By the time she covered Jump Little Children‘s “Cathedrals”, all was right with the Osborne world. In my review of Joan’s album, I said “I hope I get to hear Joan sing this one live someday, because I can only imagine how much more powerful her voice will be without so much production smoothing it down.” I was absolutely right. When singing “Cathedrals” in person, Joan’s voice was gorgeous, emotive, and supernaturally strong. It was by far the best performance of the night, and what I’ll remember most about the concert. She ended with a rousing rendition of “Bury Me On The Battery”, followed by an encore of “To The One I Love”.
Everyone returned to the stage for one of the show’s better group finales, a cover of Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down”. In the post-show lobby, I met a very gracious and humble Rachael Yamagata. She seemed surprised that we all liked her performance so much, and said she would come back to Mountain Stage (I hope so!). I introduced her to the wonder of the silver sharpie (her album cover is black), a wonderful little trick I first learned of from The Rescues. I passed several members of the Mountain Stage family on my way out, but I always feel weird introducing myself as “the blog girl” so I merely waved at them.
I think the concert would’ve been better with a more significant booking like Joan Baez or Mavis Staples, and I was obviously disappointed by the first half of the show. However, in the end I was very happy with the night and it was nice to relive so many great memories I have of the venue. Here’s to another 25 (or 100) years of Mountain Stage.
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