Mandolin Orange first hopped onto our radar at Eau Claire’s Blue Ox Music Festival in 2018. The Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz played sweet-but-transfixing American roots music on a day filled with uptempo bluegrass, and they stood out in a big way. Since then, we’ve kept our finger on the Mandolin Orange pulse, hoping they’d eventually swing through the Cream City. On Wednesday night, did they ever.
We arrived at the Pabst Theater about 30 minutes early, wondering what kind of crowd the show would attract. A very broad age range was represented. Interestingly, the folks at the older end of the age spectrum were the ones showing up late with beers and crawling over people to find their seats. Wouldn’t have expected that—way to party, retirees. Also, we somehow lost our house keys.
Opener Kate Rhudy was someone we’d heard just a little bit recently, but we ran into a friend with insider knowledge of the situation and she informed us that Rhudy’s set was not one to miss. She was right. Rhudy played soft and smirky Americana—mostly from her album Rock & Roll Ain’t For Me—to the delight of everyone in the crowd. Between great songs like the somber “I Don’t Think You’re An Angel (Anymore)” and the teenage angsty “I Don’t Like You Or Your Band,” she told stories about make-outs and North Carolina and losing a button from the shirt she bought at Bay View’s Alive & Fine. It was a terrific set and she eventually found her button.
After buying Rhudy’s CD in the lobby, we headed back to our seat for the main event. The full five-piece Mandolin Orange band took over the stage and dove right in with “Golden Embers.” Audience members shouted their approval of what was happening (a little too much, probably) and both Frantz and Marlin remarked on how excited they were to play the Pabst. This was nice.
The band wandered through tour standards like gravy making its way through the cracks and crevices of mashed potatoes. Songs like “When She’s Feeling Blue” and “There Was A Time” were compelling evidence that this is not a band to miss when they return to Milwaukee soon and often (we hope). Marlin’s funny theories about sound check and Frantz’s chatter about “the Milwaukee I always dreamed of” kept the show light and fun. Their show was perfect for a date, and I was just a little embarrassed that I brought my brother.
When the band stripped down to its core duo for a few songs, our assumption was that this would make for some more intimate songs. Not so. Marlin’s mandolin playing picked up steam during “Big Men In The Sky,” and the crowd’s energy grew, as well. Marlin also joked that it was fun to play a show inside the Pabst after playing so many shows with Pabst inside of them. Everyone groaned in appreciation.
The full band rejoined the duo for the remaining numbers, and they were joined by Rhudy for fiddle song “The Hawk Is A Mule.” Marlin explained that the song was about the idea of using a hawk to smuggle legal marijuana into Canada, where marijuana is also legal. It’s not a great idea, but it’s a terrific tune. Rhudy stuck around to lend backing vocals for “Into The Sun,” before leaving the band to close their set with “Wildfire” (which began in complete theater darkness) and “Waltz About Whiskey” (with a modified lyric to shout-out Milwaukee).
Just as they did when we saw them at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville this past September, the full band returned to the stage for one more song, but with a twist. All five members headed for the very front of the stage and sent the happy audience off with an acoustic and un-mic’d “Lonesome Whistle.” Standing ovation, lots of smiles, and we lost our keys. It was a terrific show by some very talented people, and just like Kate Rhudy with her button, we eventually found our house keys.
When She’s Feeling Blue
There Was A Time
Big Men In The Sky
Time We Made Time
Like You Used To
Old Ties & Companions
The Hawk Is A Mule
Into The Sun
Waltz About Whiskey
Lonesome Whistle (encore)