Southern charms win over a Midwest audience
Hailing from North Carolina, Mandolin Orange consists of musicians Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz—a singer-songwriting duo whose music evokes intimacy and warmth that instantly transports a listener to a welcome comfort zone.
Spanning the space between folk and bluegrass, Marlin and Frantz sing about the range of personal experiences one can encounter—loss, heartbreak and grief, but also joy, playfulness and the tenderness of memories of those who are with us and those who have come before.
Mandolin Orange performed at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater on Wednesday, January 29, 2020 before a packed house filled with devoted followers and new fans.
Mandolin Orange was created in 2009, following the meeting of Frantz and Marlin in the Chapel Hill area and the joining of their musical talents. Mandolin Orange has published 6 albums since 2010, with their most recent, Tides of a Teardrop, coming out last February to rave reviews.
This was the band’s first performance in Milwaukee. At the beginning of the show, Frantz described getting off the tour bus that morning. After she walked to the Milwaukee River running through downtown and breathed in the cold air, she said “This is the Milwaukee I’ve always dreamed of!” It was perhaps a bit of a shock for someone more used to temperate North Carolina weather.
On-stage, they described The Pabst Theater, Milwaukee’s landmark theater built in 1895 and styled after European opera houses, as their favorite theater. Naturally, the crowd welcomed the tribute.
Given that this was the band’s initial appearance in Milwaukee, Frantz said their set list represented a broad selection of songs from all their albums.
Mandolin Orange began the set with three songs from their Tides of a Teardrop release. The band led off with “Golden Embers,” one of many of the songs on the album evoking loss, heartbreak and grief—dedicated to the memory of Marlin’s mother, who passed away during his teen years.
Although much of the band’s music is calm, comfortable and nostalgic, they did amp up the performance at times in true bluegrass/fiddle style. Leading into their fiddle-ripping tune, “Hawk as a Mule,” Andrew Marlin relayed how easy it was to write great fiddle songs when properly inspired. After seeing a hawk on a fence while traveling, he thought that would be great inspiration. This morphed into ‘hawk on a stump.’ Then, their experience with legal marijuana in Seattle and fears of carrying it over the border to a performance in Vancouver, Canada, led Marlin to think “what if you could train a hawk to carry weed over the border?” The result—“Hawk as a Mule”—a wild frenzy of fiddling punctuated with Emily’s shouts of “there’s a hawk!”
Few performers draw in their audience like Mandolin Orange. Between each song, Andrew and Emily interacted with the crowd by passing on stories of the road, their lives and experiences. At one point, Andrew complimented the dancing of the lone guy on his feet in the third row.
The band has evolved over time. Early on in their music career, Marlin and Frantz played almost exclusively as a duo. For Mandolin Orange’s last two albums, Blindfaller and Tides of a Teardrop, they have incorporated a more complete band approach with their touring band. Joining Marlin and Frantz on stage, as well as on their latest album, were Josh Oliver on guitar, Clint Mullican on the upright bass, and Joe Westerlund on drums.
Andrew Marlin leads the songwriting efforts of the group, although Frantz contributes to the direction and feeling of the songs, as well as the lyrics and usually “tries to wait until she’s asked.”
Marlin also sang lead vocals on many of the songs. A few times, his voice struck a chord sounding like Willie Nelson—especially evident during “When She’s Feeling Blue.”
Emily Frantz took over lead vocals on a couple of songs during the set. In “Like You Used To,” she sings a tribute to the stability of a relationship and the reasons to stay, despite the ill-reasoned arguments and “all the dirt we’ve piled upon our layers of decay.”
Continuing their tribute to the audience and the theater, between one of the songs, Marlin quipped “We’ve played plenty of shows with Pabst inside of us—this is the first time we’ve played inside of Pabst!” Emily Frantz retorted: “How long have you been holding that in?”
Mandolin Orange returned to the stage for their encore, “Hey Stranger.” In recognition of the Pabst’s acoustics, they unplugged, came to the front of the stage, and played and sung without amplification. The crowd hushed to hear, and then rose to its feet at the end of the song in appreciation of the band’s performance.
Maybe there is something unique about folks from North Carolina or the South, or maybe it’s just this group of amazing artists. Whatever it is, Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz have a way of drawing you in and having you walk away realizing you just made a couple new friends.
Kate Rhudy – Singing with Humor and Pathos
Raleigh-based songwriter Kate Rhudy opened for Mandolin Orange. Her professional music career has been closely intertwined with Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz. Marlin was co-collaborator and producer on Rhudy’s 2017 debut Rock N’ Roll Ain’t For Me. Marlin and Frantz both back Rhudy on the album.
To this reviewer, Rhudy’s music falls squarely within Americana—a classification conveniently broad enough to easily embrace the elements of country and folk worked into her music. She’s been lauded as bringing a welcome change from the male perspective of Americana.
Rhudy opened her set with the song “Crazy,” which she said was her mother’s favorite. She continued with many of the songs from Rock N’ Roll Ain’t For Me, which reflect her early life experiences and college years.
Rhudy sings about past relationships in a humorous and sardonic way. Witness her song, “Boy From Charlevoix,” dedicated to a former boyfriend from that town in Michigan to whom she loaned a bolo tie so he could look like Alan Jackson. He ended up losing the tie when skinny dipping in Florida—something Rhudy appears not to have forgiven.
Up next in her set was “I Don’t Like You or Your Band” – an acknowledgement of what she calls the duality of humans. A remembrance of a former boyfriend: “I was in love with a good, good man, . . .And a cheater and a liar, don’t forget drunk driver.” The ability to be a good person and yet do stupid things.
Rhudy has a warm persona and comes across on stage as strong and self-assured. Yet, you only need to scratch the surface of her music and her wittiness to find her vulnerability and a persistent thread of heartache, resentment and profound disappointment. Definitely disappointment in others with perhaps a bit focused on herself.
These traits contribute to the honesty of her music. Rhudy sings with the heart of an old soul—someone who’s seen and experienced much more than might be expected at her age of 24 years.
Kate Rhudy wants to be taken seriously. This comes through loud and clear in her song, “The Only Pretty Thing in Texas,” written about a tour with a band she joined after dropping out of Appalachian State University. After declaring that the only pretty thing in Texas was her dress, Rhudy then goes on to sing how sick she is of all guitar playing men and being told she’s not good enough.
From the minute she walked on stage, Kate bonded closely with the audience. Many will remember her set as the ‘Saga of the Missing Button.’ Showing off a jacket she bought for $5 at a Milwaukee-area vintage clothing store, she stopped mid-song when it appeared a button had fallen off. She continued to look for it between songs and, with the help of a couple stagehands at the end of her set, triumphantly raised the lost button to wild cheers as she walked off stage.
Kate Rhudy rejoined Mandolin Orange for a few songs towards the end of the evening, first playing her fiddle and then providing accompanying vocals.
Kate Rhudy is definitely someone to keep an eye on!
Mandolin Orange set list
When She’s Feeling Blue
There Was A Time
Big Men In the Sky
Time We Made Time
Like You Used To – duo
Echo – duo
Old Ties & Companions
Hawk Is A Mule
Into the Sun
Waltz About Whiskey
Hey Stranger (full acoustic)