There’s no way to truly describe the strangely sophisticated yet completely relaxed atmosphere of a Mt. Stage show. I believe it’s the best and most unique venue in the world. All of the performers kept remarking on how nice the audience was, and it’s been like that at every performance I’ve attended at the venue.
Each Mountain Stage show usually features five or six musical acts from various genres, and the concerts are broadcast on NPR in the U.S., Voice of America in Europe, and XM Satellite Radio. Selected performances are also videotaped for the television version of Mountain Stage that airs weekly on PBS in the U.S. In the 20 years since Mountain Stage began, many famous artists have played there and at times their performances on the show have served as a catapult to fame. Before artists can be booked on the show, they or their representatives must submit material to the producers of Mountain Stage. Artists and booking agents should check out this page for more information.
Mountain Stage has general seating, so my hubby & I arrived early last night and managed to nab front row seats. While the technicians set up the stage, they played the Women Live From Mountain Stage CD featuring Ani Difranco, Dar Williams, Joan Baez, and Jill Sobule.
Every time I’ve attended the show in the past, it has been introduced by producer Andy Ridenour. So it was a shock to see a new and much younger guy – an assistant producer – walk out and go through Andy’s routine. I expected they would have to hire new staff eventually, but it was still a sad surprise. Fortunately, Andy is still a part of the show and nothing else seems to have changed. They announced that Jesse Harris, who was scheduled to perform first, would be unable to attend due to a family emergency. Then host Larry Groce sang the show’s theme song with singer Julie Adams, backed by the Mountain Stage band featuring Ron Sowell and Bob Thompson. In between sets, Thompson played a Django Reinhardt piano ballad and Adams sang a Colleen Anderson song with the rest of the house band.
Sylvie Lewis was the first act to perform, and it was obvious that the audience fell in love with her. She was a pretty, petite blonde with a soft British accent and a plum polka dot dress. Her voice was even lovelier live than on her album. The simple beauty of her vocals and her angelic stage presence remind me of what I imagine Joni Mitchell was like in the early days of her career. Mountain Stage singer Julie Adams joined Lewis on “If It Don’t Come Easy”, then Sylvie sang “Starsong”, “Just You”, “Happy Like That”, and “Death By Beauty”.
Then The Lucky Tomblin Band shook the stage harder than any rock band I’ve ever seen there. Lead guitarist Redd Volkaert provided some comic relief bounding across the stage before grabbing his bright yellow guitar. Their upbeat and infectious set included “Honky Tonk Song”, “End Of The Road”, “Good Lookin’ No Good”, “Red Hot”, and “Party Doll”.
Eleni Mandell then stepped into the spotlight arrayed in a tomato red sundress, which she kindly described for the radio audience after a curtsy. Eleni’s only accompaniment was her little guitar. I suppose that I had expected a glitzy jazz chanteuse, so I was surprised by her understated style. Like Sylvie, her voice is even better live. I was wishing for “Moonglow, Lamp Low” and “Miracle Of Five”, but she didn’t play either. She did sing “Make-Out King”, “Salt Truck”, “My Twin”, and “Girls”. Her performance of “My Twin” was especially good, with the stripped down acoustics emphasising the eerie drama of the song over its sultriness.
Next Anaïs Mitchell cast her spell on the audience. I think I was one of the few people there who knew who she was before the performance, but I think everyone in attendance was a fan of hers by the end of the set. First of all, she was an adorable little redhead with a cute dimpled smile and scuffed tan calf boots worn over top of her faded blue jeans. More than anyone else, Anaïs sounded a thousand times better live than on record. Though I liked her album before, I couldn’t help comparing her quirky singing style to Joanna Newsom. But the live performance transformed my opinion of her songs entirely. The lovely lilt and charming nuances of her voice were much more apparent, adding even more depth to her poetic lyrics. The way the songs seem to explode out of her body reminded of similar epiphanies when I saw Ani Difranco, Dayna Kurtz, Amy Correia, and Vic Chesnut perform at the same venue. These are more than simply good performers, these are artists that seem to be vessels that must unleash the music within before it rips them apart. Anaïs sang “Of A Friday Night”, “Before the Eyes of Storytelling Girls” (from Hymns For The Exiled), the beautiful ballad “Shenandoah”, a song from her spellbinding epic “Hadestown”, and “Your Fonder Heart”.
Suzy Bogguss – decked out in the blue velvet shawl worn on her album cover – was the last to take the stage, and I’m being kind in saying that it was anticlimactic. It would have been difficult for anyone to follow the stunning performance that preceded her, and Bogguss wasn’t that bad. But the blandness of her material was glaringly evident in the shadow of the transcendent Anaïs Mitchell. She chose to start with that horridly tepid cover of Peter Cetera’s horridly tepid song “If You Leave Me Now”, and also sang the cringeworthy singer-songwriter rap “No Good Way To Go”. And the live performance of the schmaltz-fest “In Heaven” lacked the cheesy chick flick charm of the album version. Her saving graces were her grand vocals on “The Bus Ride” and a trip down memory lane with her bluesy “Eat At Joe’s”, which she wrote back in her sassier country days. Suzy has an undeniably good voice and her vocals were solid throughout the set, it was just the music that was lackluster.
The best part of Mountain Stage is always the grand finale, when all of the performers are brought back out for a group sing. This time they did a rousing rendition of “Blue Light Boogie”. It wasn’t the most superior group vocal I’ve heard at the venue, and Eleni and Sylvie opted not to sing any verses. But the audience was none the less entertained by the back-up dancing of Suzy Bogguss, Eleni Mandell, Sylvie Lewis, and Anaïs Mitchell.
Another perk of attending a Mountain Stage show is that the performers often come out into the lobby to chat and sign autographs for the audience. In the past, I met Fisher, Luka Bloom, Amy Correia, Laura Love, Peter Mulvey, Cathie Ryan, and Robinella. This time I had the pleasure of meeting and having my CDs signed by Anaïs Mitchell, Sylvie Lewis, and Eleni Mandell. Anaïs shared the story of finding her boots on the side of a road, Sylvie discussed the differences between living in Europe and America as well as the perils of her former job as a teacher, and Eleni asked about the other artists that I’d seen perform at the venue. All three women were very friendly, down to earth, and extremely generous with their time. I only wish I had been cool and collected enough to ask more interesting questions, but I’m definitely better at writing than talking. Suzy Bogguss and Lucky Tomblin were also mingling with the fans, but I opted to avoid the crowds gathered around them.
I hope I’ve conveyed enough details to encourage everyone to see these artists – especially Anaïs Mitchell, Sylvie Lewis, and Eleni Mandell – perform in concert if ever the opportunity arises. I’m still kicking myself for forgetting to take pictures. I guess it’s a sign of a great concert when you’re too caught up in the music to remember your camera.
Many of the songs – including the covers of Mel Tillis’ “Honky Tonk Song” and Hank Williams’ “Howlin At The Moon” – are upbeat, twangy, and fun. But it’s the classic covers of Floyd Tillman’s “I’ll Keep On Loving You”, Elvis’ “A Fool Such As I”, and Buddy Knox’ “Party Doll” that I enjoyed the most.
The set also includes a DVD of the making of the album, with band interviews and in-studio performances.