Much has been made of Mountain Man’s debut performance last weekend at the Newport Folk Festival. For the young vocal trio, whose recording and touring capabilities are somewhat limited by Molly Sarle’s remaining year at Bennington College, the gig was affirmation that, only two years into their career, the group are among this generation’s foremost musical traditionalists. It’s fitting, then, that Mountain Man’s Friday set at Club Helsinki both demonstrated their precocious composure as folk performers and offered an inkling of that “gone-electric” moment that artists who debut as traditionalists inevitably face.
That inkling came in opening act BOBBY. Another collection of Bennington grads, BOBBY may be the most musically gifted act the chillwave scene has yet birthed—if that banner retains any significance at this point. A seven-piece built mostly from keyboards and drums, the group dealt in subdued polyrhythmic grooves, interlocking arpeggios, floating synthesizers and gentle post-rock buildups, laced around Tom Greenberg’s understated but tuneful voice. Indeed, the genre’s synonym, “hypnagogic pop,” better suits the band’s dreamy, patient demeanor and conservatory precision. Most notably, the group gave Mountain Man’s Sarle and Amelia Meath an opportunity to step forward at turns, both literally and aesthetically, into lead-vocal duties, cutting free from precision harmonies and cutting loose through gauzy effects pedals.
It’s unlikely that a Fender Rhodes—or really any instrument other than a single acoustic guitar—will work its way onto Mountain Man’s palette anytime soon, as BOBBY felt thoroughly secondary to Sarle, Meath and Alex Sauser-Monnig’s pristine—indeed, flawless—vocal set, but to know the group has been thinking outside of the folk box sheds new light on the innovations they’ve been pursuing within it. Their repertoire has grown only a hair since the group’s two local stops last year (Solid Sound and the Sanctuary for Independent Media), largely drawing from their debut Made the Harbor, but, having held their own on some of the country’s biggest stages, there’s a new confidence and playfulness with which they approach the material.
Their New Orleans-tinged Mills Brothers cover “How’m I Doin’” scooped and swelled its way through tempo changes and nonsense lyrics, as did Meath and Sauser-Monnig’s duet on the DeZurik Sisters’ Appalachian “I Left Her Standing There.” Naked to their audience, as a cappella groups must be, the trio bantered lightheartedly with the crowd between songs, Meath admitting to a dream about spooning with Marilyn Manson before singing a solo version of Tom Waits’ “Green Grass,” and Sarle teasing Meath about her “bacon baby” before singing the maternal “Mouth Wings.” It was the group’s original tunes that kept the audience most rapt, though, Sauser-Monnig taking up the guitar for “Animal Tracks” and passing it to Sarle for her lovely, spare “Dog Song.”
The three voices of Mountain Man form such sanctified harmonies that it can feel profane to clap at the end of their tunes, which might be why Meath offered the audience the option to make “ocean sounds” (whales, seagulls and all) instead—to which the crowd eagerly acceded. Likely, it was just for fun, which might be said of the group’s approach to all they do at this, the whirlwind start of a truly promising career.