Music in Muscatine: True appreciation for husband-and-wife team Mandolin Orange

By Rod Peck
A good while ago, I heard that a few of my music-nerd buddies were planning to attend a show on Tuesday, January 28th at Iowa City’s Englert Theatre featuring a husband-and-wife Americana duo known as Mandolin Orange. They had been on my radar for a while, but I admit I committed to going based on recommendations without having heard a note of their music. About a week before the show, we decided to start a crash course and dialed them up on Spotify. As we listened, Terri and I were in different rooms, and the first time we spoke about our impressions, I said, “Wow, these guys sure are mellow,” to which she replied, “Wow, they sure are!” I began to fret that they would be boring, but I also had faith in my friends’ belief that I would like ’em if I gave ’em a chance, and I’m happy to report that they were right.

Downtown Iowa City has a great diversity of eating options, but on this night Terri and I chose to keep it simple and close to the Englert. Just a few doors down, in fact. The Heirloom Salad Company and The Java House are literally two complementary houses under one roof at 211 and 211 ½ Washington Ave. (The Englert is at 221 Washington), with an open doorway in the wall between them. For dinner, we had tasty craft sandwiches with soup at Heirloom’s, then eased over to The Java House for some dessert and a cup of coffee. The Java House is a favorite hangout of college students, but there’s always plenty of room for sitting around and having a pleasant conversation before going over to enjoy the show.

Mandolin Orange is one of several husband-and-wife duos in the Americana field of music, among them Gillian Welch and David Rawlings as well as Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, whom we’ve seen a few times before. Andrew Marlin plays guitar and mandolin and is the main singer and songwriter, while Emily Frantz plays both guitar and fiddle. They are supported by a trio of backing musicians, consisting of Josh Oliver, who contributes perfectly understated coloration on both acoustic and electric guitar, while upright bassist Clint Mullican and drummer Joe Westerlund provide a subtle-yet-effective rhythm section underneath. Mr. Marlin, who likes to poke fun at himself for the somewhat melancholy nature that characterizes much of his writing and the group’s music, singled out Mr. Oliver for some insightful praise by saying, “He knows how to sprinkle tears on the songs.”

It was quite interesting to observe how Mr. Marlin and Ms. Frantz work together during their stage show. Having listened to them and watched some online video, I was somewhat surprised at how Mr. Marlin is featured more as vocalist onstage than Ms. Frantz. This is presumably because he is the main songwriter, while Ms. Frantz’s voice is top-quality. Another effective aspect of their show was the use of a fog machine and soft lighting that framed the musicians in a pleasing way that served as a complementary enhancement to the sounds emanating from the stage, rather than a distractions, as such things sometimes are. Knowing ahead that Mandolin Orange’s music is on the quiet side, I was prepared to settle into a laid-back state of mind in order to best tune in to what they had to offer, and once I was on their level, I was able to reach a true appreciation for their art.

Regardless of the genre, I’m always turned off by musicians who go over the top in their presentation, in the physical sense, beyond what their particular music demands. In this regard, to say that Mr. Marlin is understated is a major understatement in itself, and as the show went along, I came to appreciate him as a truly unique performer. He is neither physically impressive nor charismatic in any conventional way. You must watch carefully to make sure that he is moving at all during a song, and then you see only his mouth singing and fingers playing the instrument. However, it is positively uncanny that, instead of being boring, Mr. Marlin somehow commands your attention and draws you in. Soon I found myself hanging on his every word sung and note played. And then, when Ms. Frantz joins in on the chorus for their gorgeous harmonies, Mandolin Orange is at their peak, both in the auditory and emotional senses.

Near the end of their 90-minute set, Mr. Marlin told a humorous and self-deprecating story about how the instrumental tune they were about to play came to be titled “The Hawk Is A Mule.” On this one, they were joined on fiddle by opening act Kate Rhudy on what turned out to be one of the livelier moments of the show. Ms. Rhudy stayed onstage to sing harmony on an inspired rendition of “Into The Sun.”

Originally from North Carolina, Mr. Marlin and Ms. Frantz have been touring together since 2009. Judging by the nearly-full Englert and the success of their most-recent album, last year’s Tides Of A Teardrop, they appear to be reaching a new level of popularity and recognition in the Americana field. Mandolin Orange has a number of prestigious festivals on their summer itinerary, including Bonnaroo, Newport and Telluride. In addition, they have a two-night engagement at the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville booked for early September. Sometimes, not knowing much about a band yields a delightful and thrilling surprise. Terri and I have certainly become big fans and we’re excited to be on the Mandolin Orange bandwagon, it will be interesting to see where they go from here.