The Misty Mountain String Band at UU Coffeehouse (Columbia, SC – Jan. 10, 2015)
Bluegrass and old-time music are intermarried yet uneasy relations, like cousins who know enough about each other to be uncomfortable hanging out together. Knoxville quartet The Misty Mountain String Band has an old-time sounding name and a bluegrass-based repertoire that is expansive enough to include folk and country elements as well. Nowhere does this range express itself better than in live performance, as in their show at the Unitarian Coffeehouse series in Columbia, South Carolina this past Saturday night.
A folk-centric concert series, the UU was stretching a bit to include the uptempo, energetic styles of the Misty Mountain guys. A receptive audience was all ears, however, and apparently well acquainted with the choice of material for the night. Covers of John Hartford and Townes Van Zandt were applauded enthusiastically, with the latter’s “White Freightliner” offering some opportunity for solo instrumental spotlights by each band member.
The cornerstone of the evening, however, was a pairing of a band original with a well-known classic. Upright bassis Derek Harris related a story from his upbringing in Muehlenberg County, Kentucky via “Coal Dust Pockets,” a twist on the usual sad coal mining ballad that focuses on schoolchildren and their innocent point of view. A poignant counterpoint followed as the band obliged an audience request for John Prine’s “Paradise,” delivering perhaps the most inspired, four-part harmony rendition of that warhorse this writer has heard in a long, long time.
Other highlights of the freewheeling, two-set evening included a cover of New Grass Revival’s “This Heart of Mine,” a showcase for fiddler Neal Green on Bill Monroe’s spooky instrumental “Jerusalem Ridge,” and “Long Haul,” a romantic, sweet original tune they wrote for a Kickstarter supporter and his wife.
Perhaps it’s the members origination as a pickup band at a seminary that lends them some spiritual foundation, or maybe it’s just their unassuming, ecumenical approach to string band music. Harris and guitarist Brian Vickers acknowledged their unwillingness to pigeonhole themselves several times on stage, including during the introduction to “Caged Bird,” which channels Django Rheinhardt’s gypsy jazz more than anything from the Appalachians.
Despite the uncertainty of their musical classification, the members of Misty Mountain String Band don’t appear too worried about where they land in an audience’s assessment as long as the music’s good and the night is a fun one. Banjoist Paul Martin plays clawhammer style, disqualifying the band as pure bluegrass in some quarters, but then they rip off a perfect gospel bluegrass version of “Everlasting Arms” or a spot-on “Uncle Pen,” and doubts and designations seem to matter little, if at all.