Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer Alive in Eugene
It was the first gig after a three-month layoff and Dave and Mandy were— not nervous— let us say, a mite apprehensive. The past months had been spent ferrying supplies from one island to another in the San Juans where they had been, uh, house-sitting and where they recorded an album on what they called lo-fi equipment. Just the two of them. Live. Little did the crowd of twenty-to-thirty die-hard fans (the few who weren’t were by the end of the show) know they (we) were going to be test waters for tracks from that album, but we (they) were.
The show started a few minutes late, the warm vibes among friends and acquaintances and a few who just wanted to meet Dave and Mandy demanding it. After handshakes and hugs all around, musicians moved to the stage and the audience to their seats. A few words and good thoughts later, “Waking the Dreamer” broke out, a smooth and perfect opener from the duo’s 2012 Seed of a Pine album and precursor of what was to come: songs of substance and quality and voices and instruments to support them. While it was only Mandy on acoustic guitar instrumentally, the two voices blended so well it felt fully orchestrated and arranged.
After a slight adjustment in volume, spurred by a local DJ from radio station KLCC, everything slipped into second gear, “Tide Moon Ship Horn,” “So Comes the Day,” and a tune which sounds like it is straight out of a fifties TV version of the Old West, “Serotiny (May Our Music.”
What came next was pure surprise. As well as I knew their music, especially a tune titled “Carillon,” I had never heard the story behind it. While I have forgotten whether it was Amsterdam or a town in Spain, Dave and Mandy happened upon a musician who played the carillon and was invited into the belfry to watch and listen (you should research the instrument as it has a fascinating history which I only knew through a visit to Victoria B.C., which has regularly scheduled carillon concerts). Mandy made reference to looking out the window into a bay on which floated a little man in a little boat with— was it a trumpet? He was evidently there for every concert during which the carillon and trumpet would engage in call-and-response, the little boat circling frantically as the music played. They were captivated, as was the audience during the telling, and ended up writing a song about it.
The version that night was every bit as engaging as the video above and the crowd hesitated to applaud, not wanting to encroach upon the song, possibly afraid it was not yet over. When the applause came, it was enthusiastic to say the least, as it should have been. They finished the set with “Magnolia Trees” which they introduced as being from the new album.
Ah, yes. Idiot that I am, I forgot to write down the title, but that album I mentioned earlier? It does have one. The second set was to be comprised mostly of that and, whereas Mandy referred to their playing songs from it as chancy, they handled it like pros. Good songs all, most featuring the banjo. Banjo, you say? Indeed, and not the plucky plunker you probably identify as such. Mandy has developed a style of fingerpicking for the electric guitar which takes the banjo into guitar realm and becomes more pleasant than much of the brash plucking you usually hear. Through a series of songs, she played what would have been mostly rhythm guitar parts had it been guitar. And, on occasion, a lead.
During the set, Dave introduced a song which came very early in his relationship with Mandy in which Mandy challenged him to write a song which included five words. He did, though the words were worlds apart in definition and meaning. It made me laugh, this strange way of communicating, but they probably do it as a matter of course. They are a force, together and alone, and they have chosen to face the world alone together.
By the end, most of the audience felt they now knew them personally, as did I. I loved watching the way Mandy squeezed and moved the guitar not to make sounds as much to dance with them. And I loved watching Dave stand to the side, enjoying the show as much as anyone. They ended with a song Mandy referred to as “Train Wreck,” or maybe it was a comment on the song. She would have been correct either way, the acoustic guitar amplifying both musical and ambient sounds as Dave thrumbed the djembe into submission. It was enlightening, to say the least. The envelope got pushed way beyond its constraints.
When the song was over and Dave and Mandy said good night, few moved. One lady with an incredulous look on her face said, outright, “That’s it? It’s over?” which I was thinking myself until I looked at my watch and realized that they had created over an hour and a half of McGraw/Fer magic. That is way more than we deserved.
As for me, I can hardly wait for that live album. The San Juans have a way of making people do things, you know?