Simmering beneath the lush, musical melancholia of hip folk/Americana duo Mandolin Orange (Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin) is a bluegrass jam or Appalachian stomp ready to jump out and take over the stage. But, just before things get hootin’ and hoedown-like, Frantz and Marlin reel it back in and regain everyone’s contemplative moods with well-composed and softer songs of loving, living and loss, history and even climate change, even if you don’t buy all that science hokum.
Mandolin Orange was the guest Thursday night at South on Main in a show sold-out long before this week. Being North Carolinians, the programming fit right in with the Oxford American’s promotion of its newest music issue focusing on the vast treasure of talent emanating from that state. Some standing-room seats were available, which can be kind of dicey for these OA-presented shows (to wit, it was a crazy scene within the tiny quarters a couple of years back for shows from Patterson Hood and the Indigo Girls, as you can imagine). On an evening that had turned misty and cold, every seat was still occupied, but we managed to sidle up to one of those wooden half-wall-dividers still lingering from the old Juanita’s days, giving us a good view of Mandolin Orange and a place to set our bourbon, as we could have hoped.
Formed basically in 2009 and recording (now on the Yep Roc label) prolifically with much critical acclaim since 2013, the pair was making its first visit to Little Rock, via a couple of stopovers earlier in the week in Northwest Arkansas. They’ve been to Colorado often lately, including Red Rocks Amphitheatre with the Avett Brothers; it’s amazing they haven’t stopped in sooner traveling the I-40 circuit to and from Carolina. Their shows now are expanded to include three other instrumentalists, and friend Eli West from Seattle also joined in to open the show for some singer-songwriter work with guitar and banjo. His best moments would come later, stepping in during the mid-portion of the main act, when things started to heat up.
Emily Frantz is an exceptional fiddler but spent more time Thursday on acoustic guitar, when Marlin handed her acoustic and strapped on the mandolin. She sometimes had the lead vocal but mostly supplied perfect harmonies over Marlin’s solid singing. They paired very well together.
Frantz, a waif, blends girl-next-door charm with a look that might favor Rachel McAdams. The lanky Marlin, hairline beginning to recede and with a tight cut after once letting the locks flow in their early days, seems like the guy who would pine over this girl-next-door. Turns out, he landed her long ago starting with some country guitar strumming when they first met back in the Chapel Hill, N.C., area. They seem to go out of their way NOT to stress their off-stage relationship, focusing instead on the music. But, the musical-and-more chemistry is undeniable, and works so well. As a friend said on the way out, when we were still trying to figure out if they were actually a couple, and why he wore a ring and she didn’t, “You can listen to that and know, those two are definitely ****ing.” Well, OK. That Marlin mentioned a two-month old baby seemed to make it certain.
Every single song, whether it was a waltz or the rare 4-4 upbeat country number, seemed to strike some kind of emotional chord with the audience. While this is music to chill by, there were no sleepers. All had sweet harmonies and no wasted notes, all were purposefully structured. Marlin’s mandolin work naturally was high-caliber with exquisite melodies. Frantz’s fiddle seemed to cry out throughout some of the more somber tunes. Josh Oliver added some harmonies, some timely Telecaster backing and softer leads and some acoustic accompaniment, never overpowering the duo; Clint Mullican provided a solid bass line. When drummer Joe Westerlund took a mid-set break, West joined the foursome for a stand-around-the-midstage-mic bluegrass-style arrangement. One traditional fiddle tune – Marlin mentioned Arkansas’s great history of fiddle tunes afterward – got the crowd toe- and finger-tapping like we might all just get on the floor and two-step.
Mandolin Orange doused that flicker, though, with a retreat into nostalgic musing over a North Carolina Revolutionary hero, and took that storyline through a historical trip through what might have been if we didn’t instead kill each other in war. Marlin at one point bantered with a highly enthusiastic fan at a front table, “That’s my dad, everyone,” he said as everyone laughed. The song that hit most with me was one with a catchy bass-run-up in the chorus, “Gospel Shoes.” Other standouts that stuck with us through the night were “Wildfire” and “Take This Heart of Gold,” but nothing missed.
At the end of a 78-minute set, the crowd finally got that chance to fully get out of their seats, clapping enthusiastically for an encore, and Frantz and Marlin obliged with one more that seemed perfect for listening to on a wet evening, which we were all greeted with on the way out.
They promised to come back, but who doesn’t? Mandolin Orange, though, will be back near us in early April in Memphis and after that they head to Europe for 13 dates. But it’s probably time for Andrew and Emily to get home to that baby. You can find their registry online, if you’re inclined to look hard enough.