Near the end of Thursday’s almost-sold-out show at ACL Live, Andrew Marlin of North Carolina band Mandolin Orange thanked the crowd and added, “I think Austin might be one of my favorite towns to play in, y’all.” This wasn’t just polite professionalism, but rather an opinion formed through a great deal of research. As his partner, Emily Frantz, explained earlier, they traveled here often in the past decade, playing tour dates at many Austin clubs and making several visits to South by Southwest.
Marlin smiled as he recalled trying to two-step at the White Horse during one of those previous trips. Frantz noted that “I feel like I know (Austin) better than a lot of other cities” as a result of those early SXSW appearances, but added that they eventually grew weary of trying to get music-biz out-of-towners to attend their official showcases. “The only people who came to see us,” she added, “were people who lived in Austin.”
That’s turned out to be a good thing for both the city and the band. All those gigs at the Mohawk and Cactus and Continental and Stubb’s (plus two Old Settler’s Music Festivals and an ACL Fest) allowed the group to gradually build an audience that’s now so big, they command downtown’s largest showcase venue.
RELATED: Interview with Mandolin Orange at Old Settler’s Fest 2017
“Command” is the operative word there because this husband-wife duo, supported by three backing musicians, has developed a commanding sense of how to present a 90-minute acoustic show. Their demeanor is so laid-back that they make it look easy, but it’s clear they’ve taken a lot of time and care to get everything just right, from a well-balanced set list touching on most of their six albums to keenly measured sound levels and exquisite stage lighting.
They also change things up just enough to keep the pace from dragging. Marlin and Frantz occasionally pass an acoustic guitar between them, allowing the other to stretch out with a different stringed instrument (fiddle for Frantz, mandolin for Marlin). Josh Oliver adds different textures with both acoustic and electric guitars, while upright bassist Clint Mullican and drummer Joe Westerlund give these often delicate numbers just the right rhythmic support.
Mandolin Orange excels at relationship tunes that tug at the heartstrings (“When She’s Feeling Blue,” “My Blinded Heart,” the new “Lonely Love Affair”), but they don’t shy away from deeper explorations with sociopolitical themes. Among Thursday’s highlights were “Gospel Shoes,” which bemoans how “this world of screaming color is bleached in the blood,” and the haunting show-closer “Wildfire,” which hinges on a key observation: “Pride has a way of holding too firm to history.”
Another intriguing turn toward the end of the set: Frantz and Marlin welcomed opening act Kate Rhudy, a fellow North Carolinian, to join them as a second fiddler on a new fiddle tune titled “The Hawk Is a Mule.” She stuck around to sing harmony on “Into the Sun,” one of the most beautiful tunes on last year’s “Tides of a Teardrop.” Rhudy impressed with a 40-minute solo acoustic opening set that drew largely from her recent debut album that Marlin produced.
1. Golden Embers
2. The Wolves
3. When She’s Feeling Blue
4. There Was a Time
5. Jump Mountain Blues
6. My Blinded Heart
7. Lonely Love Affair
8. Time We Made Time
11. Gospel Shoes
12. The Hawk Is a Mule
13. Into the Sun
15. Hey Stranger
16. Waltz About Whiskey