New twist on traditional music takes Mipso far

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by Jordan Green

One or two songs into Mipso’s Aug. 21 concert, a line was forming in the venue’s long hallway. As a disappointed woman threaded her way back from the host stand, an enterprising man intercepted her to share that he had two tickets she could buy to the sold-out show.

It’s not every night in the Triad that a venue even as intimate as the Garage fills to capacity for live music, and owner Tucker Tharpe, grinning as he wove through the queue, acknowledged that it’s an even more rare occurrence in mid-August. Many a toiling journeyman, accomplished veteran and overlooked talent has played the Winston-Salem room to scarcely a dozen or more listeners; a bustling scene with eager fans packed elbow to elbow and cheering lustily at the end of every other song is indeed an occurrence worth calling home about.

It’s not as though the traditionals-plus quartet of freshly scrubbed UNC-Chapel Hill grads came out of nowhere. With three previous appearances at the Garage over the course of their five-year history, Mipso has always enjoyed an enthusiastic reception at the Winston-Salem venue. Considering that three of the band’s four members are from Greensboro and High Point, it’s somewhat remarkable that they’ve largely leapfrogged the local scene on the way to quickly establishing a national profile — not unlike the Carolina Chocolate Drops before them. In Mipso’s case, that’s partly a function of performing largely in Chapel Hill for the first couple years before they graduated.

“We’ve already played over 100 shows this year in more than 30 states,” mandolin player Jacob Sharp announced from the stage. “Which is good. That’s what you go for.”

Concluding “4 Train,” a song by guitarist Joseph Terrell that showcases his mate’s sparkling mandolin playing, Sharp revealed that it was the second time the band had performed the tune from the new album Old Time Reverie before a live audience. Debuting it for 800 fans in Boone the night before had been “nerve-wracking,” he said, adding, “But we’re cool with y’all.”

Terrell’s preternaturally stoic vocal lent a core of spiritual authenticity to the next song, a country-gospel number that he wrote called “Father’s House.”

“If y’all get tired of hearing all those new songs, just say, ‘Play the hits,’ and we’ll get the idea,” Terrell joked.

The title of the band’s last album, Dark Holler Pop, characterized by sunny and affirmative telegrams like “Carolina Calling,” provides a good summation of the band’s sound. A string quartet with traditional Piedmont instrumentation — acoustic guitar, double bass, mandolin and fiddle — there are plenty of rhythmic and harmonic divergences from both bluegrass and old-time. A pop gloss more apparent on the previous album than the new one and clearly articulated vocals are a couple of the group’s distinguishing features.

With the addition of Libby Rodenbough on fiddle — bassist Wood Robinson, along with Terrell and Sharp, formed the original trio — the band has emerged as a cohesive unit with each member individually making essential contributions, whether through songwriting, instrumentation or vocal leads and harmonies. Sharp’s effervescent, sweet tenor complements Terrell’s deeper and more resonant vocal. As musicians, all four members display an uncanny sense for when to lean in and when to lay out, their solos nestling and building a framework for the next rather than ricocheting one to the other. The instrumental chemistry between Terrell and Rodenbough is particularly apparent, with skeletal note runs by the former laying a foundation for virtuosic hoedowns by the latter.

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Terrell is a solid songwriter, with a knack for wry observation and allegorical lyricism, but the two songs Rodenbough brings to the new album showcase a startling emotional depth. Rodenbough, who was classically trained in violin and studied fiddle in Ireland for a short period, sings on “Everyone Knows”: “Everyone’s here, everyone knows/ Wearing our pride like the emperor’s clothes/ You’re feeling bare and, honey, it shows.”

One grizzled veteran of the music scene who has been admiring Mipso for several years remarked on his way to the bar: “They’re just good, attractive young people — the type of young people I would typically hate.”

He had a point: Good looks and exceptional talent don’t always add up to soulful artistry. But in Mipso’s case, wonderful songs that make an immediate impression are only made more irresistible by four musicians whose friendship anchors them in the shared endeavor. Smug self-congratulation or egoism could easily derail a less grounded group, but a relaxed confidence and sense of humor seems to reinforce the band’s relationship with its fans.

After one typically spirited song, Stark expressed appreciation for the way the Garage’s massive, propeller-like fan blew his hair back, confessing that he had been fantasizing about a music video featuring himself riding a unicorn.

“That’s where I’ve been for the past three minutes,” he said.

“That’s not the first music-video idea Jacob has had that involves a unicorn, trust me,” Rodenbough added.

When it came time for an encore, there were no fiery solos or showy vocals. They stepped forward and sang together without amplification, tender voices rising above an industrial hum. A reverent quiet descended on the room, and some in the audience took up the lyrics of “Farther Along.” The four members of Mipso gave a testimonial of encouragement and patience through the traditional song.

“Cheer up, my brother, and live in the sunshine,” they sang. “We’ll understand it all by and by.”