I was most excited about seeing Vagabond Opera, and they were fantastic! As expected, the kooky cabaret band put on a fun and dazzling set of songs from their new album, The Zeitgeist Beckons. Their colorful costumes and theatrics were fit for Vaudeville, and lead singer Eric Stern’s voice was astounding live. Their set was as entertaining for the eyes as it was the ears.
After the show, I introduced myself to saxophone player Robin Jackson and singer Ashia Grzesik. Ashia certainly is a multi-talented entertainer. She played the cello, sang a splendid rendition of “Ganef” (my favorite song from the album), and did a little Burlesque dancing during the other songs.
Considering the demented circus nature of their act, I was curious if they were fans of The Dresden Dolls. Jackson informed me that Vagabond Opera had performed with The Dresden Dolls and that Amanda Palmer was a big inspiration for them. No wonder I love them!
Scottish-Canadian duo Madison Violet followed with some melodic folk-country tunes from their new album No Fool for Trying. Their soft sound was a slight letdown after the sideshow act of Vagabond Opera, but their harmonies were even prettier live than on the album. The girls led the audience in a sing-a-long of “The Small of My Heart” and shared the tragic true story behind “The Woodshop.”
Eric Bibb was only recently added to the lineup before the show. I looked forward to seeing him perform live, since I loved his Get On Board album so much. Despite an audience member yelling a request for “Spirit I Am,” Bibb instead played songs from his upcoming album, Booker’s Guitar. The new songs were a mix of blues and soulful folk, and the highlight was his almost a capella (he was accompanied by a harmonica player) cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Bibb’s voice was beautifully rich in person, and his guitar work called to mind classic blues musicians. He earned the first standing ovation of the night.
Brett Dennen was another artist I was interested in seeing. He played songs from his latest release Hope for the Hopeless, as well as one tune from his previous release So Much More (I’d hoped for “The One Who Loves You The Most,” but it didn’t happen). Dennen’s set was a straightforward presentation of his signature pop-folk acoustics, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. He was such a hit with the crowd that he was granted an encore, during which he sang “Heaven.”
I was unimpressed by the country-pop direction of Sister Hazel’s new album Release, but I liked them a lot in the 1990s (particularly their song “Your Winter” from the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack). So I really hoped they’d win me over at Mountain Stage. They didn’t.
From the beginning, the band seemed out of place at the venue to me. For one thing, they wheeled in their own big amplifiers and the extra loud volume just didn’t seem to mesh well with the Mt. Stage sound system. Also, I couldn’t tell if the lead singer was sick or if he simply couldn’t compete with those amplifiers, but his voice cracked painfully when he attempted the high notes of “Your Winter” and “All For You.” That was particularly disappointing since I actually like those two songs.
I’ve seen and enjoyed plenty of other rock bands at Mountain Stage, so my dissatisfaction with Sister Hazel’s performance had nothing to do with the style of their music. And it was certainly an example of how subjective musical taste can be. The majority of the audience responded enthusiastically to the band, while other rows emptied out before the end of their set.
I will say that, despite the weaknesses of their performance, the members of Sister Hazel were very personable and self-deprecating between songs. And I heard several people raving about them after the show (though many said Vagabond Opera and Brett Dennen were the best of the night), so to each their own…
All of the artists returned to the stage for the group finale, a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi.”