in performance: mountain stage

robbie fulks. photo by andy goodwin.

robbie fulks. photo by andy Goodwin.

After nearly 33 years of broadcast history, the Mountain came to Lexington last night. The longrunning public radio live music radio show Mountain Stage, packed its bags, jumped over the state line from its West Virginia home and set up shop at the Singletary Center for the Arts with a five act bill that played out like a mini festival.

A typical Mountain Stage broadcast runs two hours. Last night’s presentation ran just shy of three with minimal downtime between acts and no intermission. Since host Larry Groce served strictly as an emcee, eschewing interview segments, the program focused almost exclusively on performances with each artist playing five tunes. Sarah Jarosz, the show’s de facto headliner, was allowed six.

Excluding between-set songs by Mountain Stage band singer Julie Adams and pianist Bob Thompson, here was what transpired, in order of appearance.

+ Robbie Fulks: After giving quick acknowledgements his numerous Lexington appearances at Lynagh’s Music Club and The Dame over the past 20 years, the Chicago song stylist juggled tales of despair, humor and delirious points in between, highlighted by the whimsical yet heartwarming Aunt Peg’s New Old Man. Backed by an authoritative band that leaned to traditional country, Fulks topped off his set with vocalwork that has never sounded clearer or more commanding.

+ Over the Rhine: Rounded out to a trio with the addition of guitarist Brad Meinerding, the Ohio husband-and-wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist offered a typically moving set of moody folk atmospherics. The songs were fine, especially wary narratives like Suitcase, I’d Want You and a delicate makeover of The Band’s It Makes No Difference. But the distinction this time was the group’s spot-on three-part harmonies. While Meinerding was an engaging instrumentalist, he also stands as one of the finer vocal foils to join the Over the Rhine ranks in many years.

+ Steve Forbert: After nearly four decades of making records, Forbert remains the disheveled but definitive folkie. Performing solo, he sang twisted reveries like Compromsied, Drink Red Wine and especially Complications like he was arguing with a friend and welcoming all ensuing conflicts. The resulting music, unrefined as it purposely was, still sounded soulful and solemn.

+ The Black Lillies: The only disappointment of the bunch. The Knoxville band had ample instrumental prowess, especially in the guitar department. But mainstay singers Cruz Contreras and Trisha Gene Brady, together the generally unremarkable Americana/pop tradeoffs within songs like Hard to Please and Desire, never fully caught fire.

+ Sarah Jarosz: The highlight of the night, Jarosz devoted her entire six-song solo set to new music from her forthcoming Undercurrents album (due out in June). After reflecting on her afternoon brunch at The Local Taco (“any day that includes tacos is a good day”), she settled into the often unsettled waters of her new songs. Within works like Early Morning Light and House of Mercy were largely emancipating sagas sung with an unsentimental exactness. Songs like the more vulnerable Everything You Hide and the more distantly endearing Jacqueline weren’t as stormy but reflected just as much emotive grace and detail. A simple, direct and often spellbinding set.

In what has long been a tradition for Mountain Stage, the program concluded with Groce leading everyone through an ensemble finale number – in this case, a cover of Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine. Owing more to the Kentucky Headhunters hit version from the late ‘80s rather than the Bill Monroe original, it was impressive more for Groce’s traffic cop conduction of the nearly 20 players assembled onstage than as actual cohesive performance.



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