Not all solo endeavors are created equal. When an artist can be so prolific as to release two full-length albums in short time, each strong enough stand on its own as an instrumental work of beauty born out of pandemic desolation, it’s a clear sign of a human harvesting a trove of musical possibilities.
Andrew Marlin, the world-class mandolinist who co-leads the folk outfit Watchhouse with his wife and partner — guitarist and singer Emily Frantz — has already earned the respect of fans and fellow musicians far and wide for his achievements over the course of a decade with the band that earlier this year changed its name from Mandolin Orange.
Andrew did anything but let go of the mandolin — though he and Emily did have their hands full at times raising a toddler — but it was a determined shift, a reset following deep reflection in 2020 and into 2021 to better portray the band’s music and spirit and to invite more listeners without any preconceived notion of the sound.
Yet before that change was announced and followed with first Watchhouse album release in August, Marlin introduced not one but two of his own albums in early ‘21 — Witching Hour on Feb. 5 and Fable & Fire on Feb. 19, his second and third solo recordings, respectively.
Aligned even if unintentionally with Andrew’s and Emily’s hope to celebrate the breadth and variety within Watch House’s sound, these two albums see Marlin orchestrating extraordinary, manifold compositions that don’t simply showcase the mandolin as a centerpiece, but rather as a thoroughfare on which other stringed instruments can tangle and reciprocate to magnificently emotive effect.
Stream the first of Andrew Marlin’s 2021 studio albums, Witching Hour, via Spotify.
His first chance to promote these two records — written in the darkest times of 2020 by “gathering various parts” of himself and “putting them to melody” — Andrew made a stop at City Winery in Washington DC last Friday night, his first appearance on a tour that’s sending him up through New England and back to finish with gigs in Philly and Brooklyn.
Accompanied by a majority of the musicians who joined him in the recording of Fable & Fire, who also appeared on Witching Hour, Andrew would lead a magical, placating set on Dec. 10 that pulled from all three of his solo albums and paid respects to his wide range of influences.
“Haven’t played an intimate show in a long time,” were the first words from the ever-gracious, contagiously good-natured Marlin, who was joined on the City Winery main stage by guitarist Josh Oliver and upright bassist Clint Mullican, both of whom record and travel with Watchhouse, as well as violinist Christian Sedelmyer, a decorated fiddler who’s played with the likes of Jerry Douglas and many more.
Opening up with the pristine excursion “Snowblind on Snoopy Hill” from Witching Hour, Marlin was not only visibly elated to be performing music, but to relish in sounds he’s perfected with some of his closest friends.
“The only place we ever play this music is in my living room. So we can pretend to have a baller living room right here,” Marlin joked, referring to the posh décor of the dimly lit dining room.
Admitting to the crowd the band was operating sans setlist, Andrew invited requests. One came immediately as a call for “Under the Mulberry Tree” from Buried in a Cape, which he put out in 2018. Enthusiastic and willing, Marlin nodded in approval. His astute humor finding its way to air, he added: “you’ll never guess where I was when I wrote this one.”
Given the green light to ask for their favorite songs, the audience was additionally given pleasing insight to the genesis and thought process behind some of Marlin’s compositions, as he opened up through the set with commentary and quips about just about every song performed.
Watch a live performance of “The Jaybird” from Andrew Marlin’s Fable & Fire via his official YouTube channel:
“Jenny and the Dulac,” an unforgettable track recorded on Witching Hour, began as a pensive meander, gradually morphing more deliberate and more engrossing, casting an aura that put the listener right next to Andrew as he crafted songs by a bonfire, missing departed family and friends. This song, as he explained, tributes one of his favorite writers, T.H. White the creator of one of his most beloved stories, The Sword in the Stone.
After a magnificently radiant solo by Josh on guitar and then an intricate, lush motif from Andrew on his mando, Sedelmyer carefully churned a blissful escalation with rapid, precise movement of his bow, leading to a heartening swell of strings that became infinitely sweet as it faded out. Though his pair of recent albums has specific differences, both seem at times to depict the notion of life as an endless voyage.
“That song is a lot like the pandemic,” said Andrew, who earlier this year penned a candid open letter about the two recordings and how these isolated times yielded new melodies within him.
“It starts on a major key, but it ends on a minor key. So it’s like, sweet things are ok. But we keep getting all these variants and we’re trying to end (the pandemic) on a minor key. But hopefully …”
Before the band moved into “Leeward Shore/Crooked Road to Bracy” from Fable & Fire, an album with a distinct Irish roots music tinge, Andrew talked about the importance of traditional Irish music and the influence it’s had on him, citing specific musicians and recordings.
Though he would eventually become inspired by and even meet some of his idles in the traditional and folk music dimensions, Andrew grew up a fan of up a fan of classic rock, alternative rock, and even heavy metal. At City Winery, he was asked which of his influences might surprise his fans the most.
“Pantera,” he responded without hesitation. “I learned every Dimebag Darrell riff I could growing up. We’ll do some headbanging as we get comfortable.”
Deserted, sullen in the most breathtaking way, “Arthela’s Waltz,” from Buried in a Cape and taking from Doc Watson’s birth name “Arthel,” manifested the most agonized, longing mandolin sequence one could imagine, and the tone was drenched in solitude through Christian’s ability to elongate and hold notes in eerie suspension. Through the paralyzing sorrow of this song, and its wonderous use of space, Andrew himself was visibly moved by the music he was helping create.
Watch the official video for “Upside Down,” the a recent release from Andrew Marlin’s acclaimed band Watchhouse:
Marlin was selfless and unguarded standing among three of his dear companions, and he applauded each of them as wildly talented multi-instrumentalists and masters of their craft.
“A lot of these songs were originally cut for six pieces,” Andrew said in reference to celloist Nat Smith and guitarist Jordan Tice, who was raised in Annapolis, both of whom contributed to Witching Hour and performed on each track for Fable & Fire, but couldn’t make this tour due to other commitments.
“It’s harder without two more guys in the band. They’re incredible at what they do, and I appreciate them being here. We don’t get to play these out much.”
Marlin continued educating the audience, introducing his acoustic guitar named “Curtis,” sharing his love for the great Norman Blake (including a cover of “Billy Gray”), Tim O’Brien, and John Reischman, for whom he wrote the track “The Jaybird,” which appears on and Fable & Fire and, performed at City Winery, was refreshing, inspirative, and sincere.
Explaining why he chose the name Watchhouse, Andrew told of a sacred place in his life — a spot near Cape Charles where, during challenging times, he was taken, and it became known to him and those close to him as “The Watch House.” That entire island, he pointed out, was recently for sale.
“The people who used to take me there passed away in the last couple years and I miss them dearly. This song is dedicated to Mary and Carl Hill. … This is called ‘Farewell to Holly Bluff and The Watch House.’”
Stream Andrew Marlin’s second studio album of 2021, Fable & Fire, via Spotify.
The rewarding night at City Winery included a charming take on The Carter Family’s “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room,” a mystical rendition of “Fireflies and Fairydust” off of Witching Hour and a requested version of the Watchhouse track “The Wolves.” At the completion of songs, Andrew and his crew would pat each other on the shoulder or give one another pronounced looks of approval.
The set would round out with “The Girl I Left Behind Me” (meeting a request for an “old-time song”), an untitled forthcoming release, and a brisk, healthy version of “Cody Road” — “let’s do a fast one,” Andrew said.
Returning to the stage to meet boisterous applause with an encore, Andrew saved his most touching words for the person who has motivated his musical efforts more than anyone else — his mother, who passed away when he was 18 years old.
“She was a pianist with the church, that’s how I came to be around music,” Marlin said, taking a look down at his mandolin.
“I’ve since moved away from the church but really held on to music. … I can’t listen to old hymns without thinking about her. So, I wanted to write something like that.”
As Andrew led the title track to the second of his 2021 releases, “Fable & Fire,” it was impossible not again think of him sitting before flames in the dark, where last fall he wrote this and other songs while, as he put it, his mother’s hands guided him along. In “Fable & Fire,” Clint’s bass — the broad backbone of the group’s sound — augmented this track’s necessary, somber release, while Christian sowed stark, deep nostalgia above it all.
Paying tribute to another human whom he obviously treasures to no end, Andrew described his tremendous respect for his wife, Emily, praising her with near dismay for giving up coffee when she was carrying their child a couple years back.
“You do so much for your kids,” he cracked a smiled. “But to give up coffee … is one thing.”
A grooving composition that gave time and room for all four men to step to the mic for a final singular submission, “Life Without Coffee” let Andrew and his posse finish in full stride by way of a track that aptly embodies caffeine-addition and the associated stress by weaving hectic and distressed melodies in repeated, surging fashion.
“This has been nice,” Andrew said. “A good excuse to just get these guys together and play some music.”
Unquestionably one of the brightest lights in all of folk and traditional roots music today, Andrew Marlin possesses not just the skills of one of the most impressive and competent mandolin players around, but a passion to lift spirits and grant hope through his songs.
By so admirably sharing his love for his family, his friends and the musicians who continue to spark him through thoughtful, sophisticated compositions, Andrew Marlin is revering those he’s lost and making proud anyone lucky enough to know him.
Snowblind on Snoopy Hill
Under the Mulberry Tree
Jenny and the Dulac
Leeward Shore / Crooked Road to Bracey
Billy Gray (Norman Blake)
Farewell to Holly Bluff / The Watch House
Fifty Miles of Elbow Room
Fireflies and Fairydust
The Wolves (Watch House)
The Girl I Left Behind Me
Untitled New Song
Fable and Fire (encore)
Life Without Coffee (encore)
Here are images of Andrew Marlin, Clint Mullican, Josh Oliver, and Christian Sedelmyer, along with the evening’s opener, Kate Rhudy, performing at City Winery DC on Dec. 10, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.