in performance: town mountain

Town Mountain 2014 Standing photo by Amy Daniels

town mountain: phil barker, robert greer, bobby britt, rob parks and jesse langlais. photo by amy daniels.

The ingenuity of a bluegrass lot like Blue Mountain revealed itself in two distinct ways early into a sold out, two set show last night at Natasha’s.

The first came three songs into the set with the title tune to the band’s 2012 album Leave the Bottle. It began with the air of a waltz, which was one of several traditional preferences this Asheville, North Carolina quintet favored. It was a discreet turn, too, with banjoist Jesse Langlais and mandolinist Phil Barker (Town Mountain’s principal songwriters) setting down an assured grassy bluegrass stride accented by rich leads from Morehead/Hilda fiddler Jesse Wells (sitting in for band regular Bobby Britt). Then, during the chorus, the song detoured into rugged swing, giving guitarist/vocalist Robert Greer an extra palette of colors to work with.

The other attribute, which unfolded more gradually throughout the performance, dealt with Town Mountain’s ability to a maintain a strong traditional focus that possessed enough momentum and grit to match the spirit of a very chatty crowd that last night gave Natasha’s the air of an upscale honky tonk.

Sure, the light, soulful timbre of Greer’s singing regularly approximated bluegrass great Jimmy Martin while Barker’s lone turn at lead vocals on Lawdog revealed a potent mountain tenor. But the George Jones-inspired drive of Up the Ladder, the swing-savvy undercurrent to Whiskey With Tears and the potent instrumental flow of Tarheel Boys all recalled the feisty antique spirit of such modern string bands as Old Crow Medicine Show.

The band’s strong traditionalist profile also extended to the few cover tunes that were peppered in with its primarily original repertoire. Specifically, Town Mountain’s takes on Son Volt’s Windfall and Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire were, despite the songs’ contemporary origins, set to old school country frameworks that were, respectively, comforting and restless.

The evening’s only hiccup was an initially tentative sound mix that didn’t place enough fire under the band for it to be fully heard, especially toward the back of the venue, above the crowd noise. But that was a mountain Town Mountain quickly overcame. All you needed was a little extra electric juice under this masterful band to make its refreshingly traditional string sounds ignite.

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