Musings on folk, Americana, country, bluegrass and newgrass

Mandolin Orange kicks off festival season with returns to MerleFest, Rooster Walk 9

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Ever wondered where the funny, punny name Mandolin Orange — one of today’s premiere American roots bands — has its origins?

“We were driving back from our first gig opening for Kickin Grass, a band from Raleigh, and we thought what a cool name and that we needed a name,” remembers Emily Frantz (violin/guitar/vocals), who makes up half of this uber talented duo who still call Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home.

Andrew Marlin (mandolin/guitar/vocals), who loves puns and word play, had this little round and orange mandolin at the time, said half-joking how about Mandolin Orange? And it stuck.”

Mandolin Orange’s connection with Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival — where you can hear them play on the main stage Saturday afternoon — goes way back, says Frantz. “We knew (co-founder and executive director) Johnny Buck though Big Fat Gap. We played Rooster Walk several years ago when it first started out. It seems like they have done an amazing job and I’m really excited to come and see its new location.”

I first had the pleasure of stumbling across the unique and haunting musical stylings of Frantz and Marlin at MerleFest in 2014 when I was walking past the Americana stage. They had me at “There Was A Time” and “House of Stone.”

Fast forward to the duo’s Rives Theatre performance in winter 2015 when they were supporting the release of “This Jubilee.” I immediately bought the album in the lobby after the show and listened to it all the way home. I couldn’t stop listening to it and still haven’t except on the occasions I slip their latest album, “Blindfaller,” in the CD player instead.

While staying true to their Americana sound, “Blindfaller” tackles modern day themes seen in our daily headlines. The duo, which got together in 2009, recorded the album in a one week break from touring at Rubber Room Studio in Chapel Hill. “We wanted different vibes and different intuitions on these tracks,” Marlin said in a release, “and I feel like we really captured that.” To bolster their message and sound on the new album, the duo added a full band, which features Clint Mullican on bass, Kyle Keegan on drums, Allyn Love on pedal steel, and previous collaborator, Josh Oliver, on guitar, keys, and vocals.

In April, Mandolin Orange returned to Merlefest in its 30th year to perform on the Watson Stage, the same stage that Frantz stood in the back of the main stage grounds and watched one her of her musical idols perform on when Frantz was only 14.

“It was such an honor to perform on the Watson Stage. Us being from North Carolina, it feels like an even bigger deal. It’s a little more meaningful. There’s a little more history having grown up here.  The first time I went to MerleFest Dolly Parton headlined that year and it was just the biggest production I had ever seen on the biggest stage and in front of the biggest crowd of people that I had ever seen. Playing the main stage this year it’s definitely cool to think about. I think what I remember most is that she was just so comfortable you felt like you were hanging out with her and I want to channel some of her incredibly confident energy.”

And channel Frantz did. From the opening notes of “Hey Stranger,” which she sings lead on, to the bluegrass standard “My Long Journey Home,” she and Marlin, accompanied now by a full band, blew the appreciative crowd — not diminished by the storm clouds and rain — away.

“It feels good to realize you’ve reached that many people,” Frantz adds. “It gives me a sense that we’re not stuck in a genre. It’s definitely a sense of accomplishment.”

Speaking of genre, how do you define Mandolin Orange? Bluegrass? Country? Folk? It doesn’t matter what you call the melodies that Mandolin Orange is dishing out. It’s insightful and soulful songwriting paired with hauntingly gorgeous melodies. Everyone I have introduced this duo to have immediately fallen in love and wondered why they have never heard of these two.  

I predict that is about to change and soon in part “Blindfaller” has received nominations from the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) for Album of the Year and Country/Americana/Folk Album of the Year. “We’re honored to be nominated by such an awesome organization and can’t wait for the Libera Awards in June,” the duo wrote in the e-newsletter.

If you can’t make it to Rooster Walk 9 this Memorial Day weekend, you can find Mandolin Orange performing at a number of other festivals this summer including returns to Pickathon, Newport Folk Fest and Red Wing Roots and making debuts at many others including Bonnaroo, Forecastle, Red Ants Pants, and Fayetteville Roots.

And tickets are on sale now for the group’s fall tour dates.

This also appeared on my Huffington Post Blog.



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