The thing that Mipso has – in addition to great musicianship, downhome charm, and a growing stable of memorable songs – is range. You can hear it on their records, and in every live show. You can also hear it in their intros.
William Lewis, executive director of PineCone, a nonprofit that protects and promotes traditional music in North Carolina, gave a pretty standard, perfectly workable prelude to Mipso’s show Friday night at the classy Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, North Carolina. The night before, however, Mipso played a surprise benefit set at Pinhook, a live venue up the road a bit in Durham that’s in danger of closing under an unexpected tax debt. Doing the intro there, the band shared with Friday’s buttoned-up crowd, was a drag queen named Vivica C. Coxx.
It takes all kinds, as they say, and all kinds can find something to like in Mipso. They pull from bluegrass, country, pop, old-time, jazz, and other influences to concoct a sound that’s all their own, and getting stronger with every album. Last year’s Old Time Reverie showcased a band – now officially a four-piece, with fiddler Libby Rodenbough added to the original trio of Jacob Sharp on mandolin, Joseph Terrell on guitar, and Wood Robinson on bass – sure of itself and ready to make its mark well outside their home state of North Carolina.
The band’s last few appearances at home were at a rock club, packed to the gills and sweltering in late summer, and then several sets at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass event in Raleigh. This time, the band seemed a little extra relaxed, coming off a short break for the holidays and ready to plunge into three months of touring. They took advantage of a booking at a smallish, intimate theater that usually houses ballet and opera performances by playing a quieter set, making every note count and seeming to appreciate a crowd that held its breath a beat as the last note of each song rang out.
For a few songs, they stepped out in front of the stage to gather around a single mic, a nod to their old-fashioned roots even as they mixed in a thoroughly modern cover – David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” made haunting through a leisurely, wistful treatment. Other covers — a Mipso specialty – were sprinkled throughout the set, including “Norwegian Wood” and Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes.” A Mipso original, “Rocking Chair Blues,” almost sounded like a cover, like and old-time classic that was simply born a few generations too late.
Other Mipso tunes are decidedly more modern — perhaps a dark holler pop, to echo the title of a previous album — with a sense of adventure and fun that fans have come to love. “Carolina Calling” plays well to a hometown crowd, but is a great song to boot, and the audience was taken on an emotional ride with “Red Eye to Raleigh,” a number that describes a broken heart as achingly as any good heartbreak song should, but with the added touch of rhyming “ventricle” and “pitiful” (it just works, trust me — see video above if you wish to verify) and pining for “experimental laparoscopic cardiology.”
After all, these are a bunch of college kids, only recently graduated, entering the world with sharp minds, wide eyes, and their hearts on their sleeves. They’re open to all kinds of influences, not just the ones tradition tells them is “correct,” and that’s why every show, every audience, every intro, is different, and well worth seeing.