Sometimes, it’s easy to become disenchanted with the industry of music, its lab-grown, polished and cut stones. Have you ever taken a melon-sized rock and thrown it to the ground, its hidden crystals shining on the pavement? Like a little cave of beauty, for a moment, a second in time.
Mountain Man is like that. They shimmer and shine, sure, but by and large, theirs is a surprising magic, the kind that sticks through the years.
Three women -– Amelia Meath, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, and Molly Erin Sarlé –- met at a college in Vermont, became friends, and sang together. From musical families or church choirs, they learned to sing together, sitting on a porch and harmonizing. Their first record, Made the Harbor, came out in 2010 after a rush of internet press and quiet stardom, a jarringly beautiful collection of orchard-sweet hymns that felt sacred and profane. Enchanting, ethereal. Spellbinding, spooky. Otherworldly, odd.
Stream Made the Harbor by Mountain Man on Spotify:
They took the world by a kind of storm, like rain and thunder over a meadow-fed pond in the mountains. And then they were basically gone, each their own separate ways. Amelia moved to North Carolina and created the quickly massive Sylvan Esso with Nick Sanborn. Alex moved to Minnesota, came to North Carolina to start a farm, and sang with Hiss Golden Messenger, Sylvan Esso, and a little with Phil Cook on his most recent album (as did Amelia). Molly sought Zen in California, eventually also coming to North Carolina, singing with Dzang, Sylvan Esso, Phil Cook, The Dead Tongues, and Fletcher Tucker. Both Alex (as Daughter of Swords) and Molly (her own name, last I checked) have solo records coming out in 2019, and the latter recently played a set before The Dead Tongues at Jammin’ Java that afforded an easy kind of joy.
Eight years passed by, and in the slow process of reconvening in North Carolina, they gathered at Molly’s house in the winter, huddled around a wood stove, and shared a handful of songs that eventually became a Mountain Man record. Magic Ship was born in the ashes of that stove, 14 tracks brimming with magnetism, 11 originals, three covers. Mountain Man maintains a kind of a cappella style on the album — though there are some slight additions — their harmonies the defining feature of the sound. There is something weirdly historical about the music, the songs, even though they don’t sing of history or tell stories in a traditional way. The songs themselves are observational, poetic, delivered playfully or meaningfully, though often with a sly crooking at the corners of their eyes.
Stream Magic Ship by Mountain Man on Spotify:
It’s that mischief that shines when Mountain Man sings their songs live, their eyes twinkling as they tell funny stories between songs. Or the glances at each other and the little eruptions of laughter. It felt like watching a family, gathered to share songs with friends to sing the spring blooms into being.
The ladies of Mountain Man began their first tour back together at Sixth & I last October and ended this tour at The Barns at Wolf Trap — a venue that deserves its own review — crowding around a single mic, an unplugged guitar behind them and initially untouched. Waves, smiles in the crowd’s direction, and then they sang, hymnal and beautiful.
Alex had to bring up the ancientness of the barn — built in 1729 in New York, reassembled in 1981 — and they endured the first moment of a man in the crowd heckling when he yelled about the venue burning down (my recollection was that the outdoor venue suffered a catastrophe), rightly shutting him down with comments about trusting the employees to tell the stories. Later, another man shouted to Amelia about a story she told, saying she referenced a Dead song. Amelia responded, “Do not tell me what I am referencing,” which was followed by Molly sharing a lengthy story and a justification for not playing Dead songs (or really liking them anymore): first, she’s done her time, and second, as the artists on stage, they can play what they want.
Other than these examples and a few others — including a man yelling about the band being Mountain Mama after Amelia’s hilarious and enlightening comments on having children — the audience maintained respectful silence and applause, even delaying their shouts of support at the ends of songs just to be careful not to interrupt. The silence so well-thickened that one could have heard the proverbial pin drop (or my camera shutter click, which I kept to a strict minimum at the beginning of the show).
It is not possible to truly capture the live experience of Mountain Man. Their music is a kind of quiet folk meets a cappella and their live show adds an element of improv comedy, as they riff off each other. As Alex grabbed the guitar the first time near the beginning of the show, Amelia showed off her dance moves and eventually explained that she and Molly had once been told to tone down their dancing as backup dancers. “We were too good,” she said, while Molly, Alex, and everyone else laughed. The tone shifted slightly when they sang, to a kind of interconnected experience to which we in the audience not only bear witness, but participate. Lips moved along to the lyrics soundlessly as they sang onstage. And throughout, Amelia, Alex, and Molly shared knowing glances, little smiles, quiet laughs.
They switched positions around the mic throughout the show, the only consistent configuration a requirement that the one with a guitar always stood at the center position. Most stunning of all is the way their voices meld together. They played a few covers throughout the night, with Alex at the lead for “Baby Where You Are” and Amelia helming the mind-blowing “Hot Knife” (Fiona Apple). They played favorites from both albums, including the buoyant “Rang Tang Ting Toon” — during which I heard an audience member say, “Yes!” under their breath (it was that quiet) — and “Slow Wake Up Sunday Morning Song” led by Molly. The audience also experienced the privilege of hearing one of Alex’s new songs from the upcoming record under her stage name, Daughter of Swords, as announced with pride by Amelia.
They closed the set with “Guilt,” a song Amelia introduced as “for all of you,” its last couplet, “That makes you who you are today / And it hurts but that’s alright” a wave of honesty and hope that felt like a call for acceptance of the self. It is a hard emotion to feel, a rarer one to evoke.
Mountain Man walked off the stage, but the trio returned for an encore to sing the hymn “Bright Morning Stars,” as perfect as any to end the night. But the night didn’t end.
The audience stayed standing, yelling and cheering loudly, and the lights never kicked on. After more than five minutes, they returned to the stage, appearing slightly bewildered and grateful, crowding together in front of the mic for a pow-wow, and sang through two more songs, including, “Honeybee,” a personal favorite. Then they walked off after another wave, the lights kicking on, and the audience left the barn a little lighter than they came.
Here are just a few more photos from the show at Wolf Trap on March 29, 2019, courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert. Not many, as it felt important to preserve the silence.