Turning darkness into light: Americana standouts Mandolin Orange shine at Northampton show

  • The Americana duo Mandolin Orange — Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz — joined members of their touring band in a well-received show at Northampton’s Academy of Music last week, one of a number of gigs the North Carolina group has played in the region in the last few years. Photo by Kendall Bailey

  • Frantz and Marlin have won widespread acclaim in the last several years for mixing traditional bluegrass, country and folk music with modern sensibilities. Image from Facebook

  • Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange, though playing many gigs as a duo, are joined on some tours by their musician friends, including at last week’s Northampton concert. Image from facebook

  • On “Tides of a Teardrop,” Mandolin Orange’s most recent album, songwriter and lead singer Andrew Marlin confronts lingering grief and anger over his mother’s untimely death when he was a teenager.

Staff Writer
Published: 11/27/2019 4:42:08 PM

Mandolin Orange, the folk/country/bluegrass duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, has come a long way from the time they met in North Carolina 10 years ago in their early twenties. Their first (and appropriately named) album, “Quiet Little Room,” reflected the duo’s “less is more” approach to music, with hushed moments and pauses speaking as eloquently as their acoustic guitars and voices, along with Marlin’s mandolin and Frantz’s fiddle.

But in the past decade, Mandolin Orange has won much acclaim, touring across the country and in Europe. Along the way, they’ve steadily broadened their Americana sound, adding smart and judicious touches of electric guitar, bass, percussion and occasional keyboards and strings while still highlighting the Southern traditions of their music. Marlin, the duo’s songwriter and chief vocalist, has also moved from penning mostly introspective songs to tackling a number of topical subjects.

Late last week, Marlin and Frantz put all that on display at a show at Northampton’s Academy of Music, where they were joined by four other members of their touring band. Jim Olsen, president of Northampton’s Signature Sounds, which produced the concert, spoke to the band’s stature in introducing them after singer-songwriter Sunny War played an opening set.

“It’s a pleasure to see them grow,” said Olsen. “A few years ago they were playing The Parlor Room, and here they are selling out the Academy of Music.”

This year Marlin and Frantz have been playing many of the cuts from their most recent album, “Tides of a Teardrop,” on which Marlin looks back on the death of his mother when he was 18 and tries to reckon with lingering grief and anger from that loss. Their show inNorthampton included several of those songs, but the group also offered some choice tunes from their 2016 album, “Blindfaller,” as well as selected songs from earlier in their career.

The married couple, partially bathed in light on an otherwise darkened stage, opened the Academy show themselves, Marlin on mandolin and Frantz on acoustic guitar, with the quiet ballad “Mother Deer,” on which Marlin imagines his mother’s spirit embodied in nature.

Marlin added some tasty mandolin licks on that tune and especially on the following one, “Echo,” earning a round of applause after his second solo. He prompted laughs from the audience after the song by inviting people to clap after any band member’s solo: “Jump right in … we’re kind of an informal band.”

Those other band members — on guitar, bass, percussion and a second fiddle — joined Marlin and Frantz for most of the following songs, including two standouts from the new album, “Golden Embers” and “The Wolves.” Though “haunting” may be an overused term for describing a song, it’s an apt description of the lyrics and melody of “Golden Embers,” a tune built around minor chords, Frantz’s fiddle and the theme of buried grief from loss.

As Marlin sings in the opening stanza, “Just like an old friend / Kinder than expected / That Cadillac came and gave our girl a ride / Loss has no end / It binds to our connection / And we don’t speak of it, we don’t even try.”

In an interview with the Gazette a few years ago, Marlin joked that “The default mode for me is melancholy.” But the Academy show, despite some of the more somber songs, had plenty of upbeat moments. Marlin traded bright leads at times with lead guitarist Josh Oliver, who was adept on both electric and acoustic. Marlin also introduced Oliver by saying “Say hello to the birthday boy.”

That prompted Franz to remember that bass player Clint Mullican had celebrated a birthday a couple years ago when Mandolin Orange played at the Green River Festival in Greenfield. “I’m thinking I should plan our future dates up here accordingly” so that the other band members can also celebrate their birthdays in western Massachusetts, she said.

Though many of the group’s songs tend more to the folky side of Americana, Mandolin Orange can air it out on a more traditional bluegrass number. They did that on Marlin’s instrumental “Bats in the Belfry,” which he jokingly said he composed after watching the film “La La Land.”

“It had everything — beautiful people, great music, wonderful story, and then it just kind of got wrecked,” he said as the crowd laughed along. “So if you’ve had trouble processing the end of the film like I did, maybe this will help.”

“Bats in the Belfry” is a wonderful tune that begins with a stately, almost classical tempo, with Marlin playing short arpeggios on his mandolin, before the song briefly pauses and the band launches into foot-stomping hoedown mode. (Marlin in fact released a solo album earlier this year of original mandolin-based instrumentals, with backing from some other musicians.)

At the Academy show, Frantz, who excels at harmony on Marlin’s lead vocals, also got her chance to shine as a lead vocalist on cuts like “Hey Stranger” and “Like You Used To.” The latter song, off the new album, is a plea by the singer for a couple grappling with problems to overcome them and rediscover the love that first brought them together.

The concert also revealed a more theatrical side to Mandolin Orange (at least to this reviewer), as the band used a fog machine and inventive lighting to set the mood for many of the songs. Perhaps the most dramatic moment came as they began one of their signature songs, “Wildfire,” shrouded in darkness on the stage.

As the lights slowly came on, Marlin launched into the slow, anthemic number, from the “Blindfaller” album, on which he looks back on the fractured history of the South — from slavery, to the Civil War, to a legacy of anger and resentment that seems to have become a central part of the country’s current polarization.

“I was born a southern son,” he sang, “In a small southern town where the rebels run wild / They beat their chests and swear we’re gonna rise again.… Pride has a way of holding firm to history and then it burns / like wildfire.”

And then Marlin, who has also written songs affirming gay marriage and condemning gun violence, led the band through one final number, “Gospel Shoes,” which marries a toe-tapping, old-timey beat to lyrics offering a plea for acceptance and an end to using religion as a wedge issue.

“Freedom was a simple word so reverent and true / A long time ago, it meant the right to choose / Who you love and how to live, now it’s so misused /Twisted by the politics of men in gospel shoes.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Mandolin Orange’s website is mandolinorange.com.


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