Thursday, March 24, 2016 found me at the Troubadour for a lovely night of music featuring Mandolin Orange and Elephant Revival presented by The Bluegrass Situation. Mandolin Orange I have not seen before and had only been able to check out a few of their songs earlier that day. I first saw Elephant Revival in January when they left a strong impression on me when they opened for Josh Ritter (see my post “Let’s See Where the Night Takes Us“). I’ve been listening to their album These Changing Skies since then and earlier in the week had received my pre-ordered copy of their brand new album Petals, which will be officially released on April 1.
Last year Mandolin Orange released their album, Such Jubilee, from which they played several songs at the Troubadour, including the first one of the set. Andrew Marlin alternates between playing mandolin and guitar and Emily Frantz between guitar and fiddle. The duo takes turns singing lead and harmony. They played a set of thoughtful songs, weaving tales and painting images with words and music as vivid as any masterful storyteller could. Their set list was as follows:
- “Old Ties and Companions” from Such Jubilee
- “One More Down” from Quiet Little Room
- “That Wrecking Ball” from Such Jubilee
- “There Was a Time” from This Side of Jordan
- “Innocent Road” — they covered this song by Caleb Klauder (link to his version)
- “Daylight” from Such Jubilee
- “Cavalry” from This Side of Jordan
- “Turtle Dove & The Crow” from This Side of Jordan
- “Rounder” from Such Jubilee
- “Blue Ruin” from Such Jubilee
- “Little Worlds” from Such Jubilee
- “New Five Cent Piece” — traditional tune (link to recording by Murphy & Marckx)
- “Amsterdam” — cover of song by Gregory Alan Isakov
- “Waltz About Whiskey” from This Side of Jordan
- “Train Song” from Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger
- “Rocky Island” — traditional tune (link to Joe Newberry & Mike Compton version)
- Brief Instrumental
- “Boots of Spanish Leather” — cover of song by Bob Dylan
Some highlights from the set included Andrew’s stellar mandolin playing throughout, Emily’s gorgeous vocals on “There Was a Time,” and the gut-wrenching, heartbreaking lyrics of “Blue Ruin” — a song written in the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Andrew introduced “Cavalry” and noted, “This one is about a horse,” telling how he was inspired to write it after watching Lord of the Rings. That context helps in understanding the lyrics of the song.
To close the set, they brought out their sound guy, Josh, to play guitar with them, while Emily was on fiddle and Andrew on mandolin for the folk tune, “Rocky Island.” The audience was fully engaged and enlivened by the performance and urged the duo back on stage for one more song, a sweet cover of Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” of which Emily and Andrew effectively took turns singing different verses.
Elephant Revival is unlike any other band I have seen and their sound defies pigeonholing into any one genre. Their music is rhythmic, poetic, beautiful, soulful, earnest, encompassing and embracing nature, and life-affirming. Watching the band live is to see five talented musicians, four of whom swap instruments during the show, performing so fluidly together as if they are five parts of the same organism. The group is comprised of Bonnie Paine on washboard, percussion — including djembe, musical saw, and cello; Daniel Rodriguez on guitar and percussion, Bridget Law on fiddle; Dango Rose on bass and mandolin; and Charlie Rose on banjo, pedal steel, guitar, percussion, and bass. Bonnie and Daniel alternate turns for most of the lead vocals and the others provide harmony.
Their set drew heavily from the forthcoming album and their most recently released one. If anyone reading this knows the titles of the songs I’m not familiar with, please share the titles with me! The set list included:
- “Will Carry On” from Sands of Now
- “Home in Your Heart” from Petals
- “Stolen” from Sands of Now
- “Birds and Stars” from These Changing Skies
- “The Pasture from These Changing Skies
- “Remembering a Beginning” from These Changing Skies
- “Sea Monster” from Petals
- “Raven Song” from It’s Alive (EP)
- “Season Song” from Petals
- “Hello You Who” from Petals
- “On and On” from Petals
- “Petals” from Petals
- “When I Fall” from Petals
- “You were the thunder” — another lyric, I don’t know this one
- “Single Beds Are Made For One” from Elephant Revival
- “Rogue River“from These Changing Skies
- “The song my mother sang to me, deeper than the sea” — one more lyric to one I don’t know
- “Grace of a Woman” from These Changing Skies
There were some moments I would number among my favorite of the night. The first was hearing”Sea Monster” live, because that song really grabbed my attention the first time I listened to the new album. It seemed like a different direction musically for this group and I appreciated the musically distinct sections of the song. Charlie, who sings the lead vocal, introduced the song by noting that it was first named “Sea Monster” because it was in the key of C, but then the lyrics ended up being about the sea.
Another new song I’m digging is “Season Song,” because it is a superb bit of lyric writing and I love to hear the musical saw on it. Daniel does a good job on the vocals for this one. I like the lyrics so much, I borrowed a line from this song for the title of my blog post. I also liked hearing the new song “On and On,” and was particularly intrigued by Charlie playing the banjo in the style of an electric guitar solo — it sounded cool! They also gave a strong performance of the percussive new song “When I Fall,” penned by Dango, which had the audience clapping along in rhythm and singing the refrain. I don’t want to neglect mentioning Dango and Bridget, both of whom provided rock solid support all evening, with Bridget getting a nice spotlight for her succinctly-titled fiddle tune, “Single Beds are Made for One.”
The band members only addressed the audience briefly in between songs during the set, but when introducing one new tune after playing a few in a row from Petals, Daniel said, “We’re courting you with our new songs. We’ll hope you become companions.” Then he paused, chuckling, “I don’t know what I just said!” Later, Daniel introduced the final song of the night, “Grace of a Woman,” by noting, “This song came out of women giving birth.” What a way to win the support of the women in the audience! Mandolin Orange came on stage to play this one with Elephant Revival. Everyone in the audience was singing along on the “Whoa-oh-oh” part and generally enjoying and living in the moment.
Dare I say — this group would not be Elephant Revival without Bonnie Paine. It was fantastic hearing her enchanting, ethereal voice and song interpretation throughout the evening. She is an incredible vocalist, absolutely spot on in pitch at all times and with an appealing natural timbre. She is also an astute percussionist; the rhythm of the music seems to flow right out of her and she confidently lays it down on the djembe or washboard. While beautifully dressed and hair nicely coiffed, she performs in an almost understated way, yet humbly shines like a star the whole time.
Elephant Revival is touring all around the U.S.A. behind Petals through the end of June. Mandolin Orange is on the road with them until April 9th. Go see them — and if you can see the two together — that’s even better!