Mandolin Orange plays to the Commons

Tift Merritt, Megafaun, Mandolin Orange
Carrboro Commons
Sept. 21, 2012

To any concert promoter or civic entity in Durham, Wake, Orange and surrounding counties with the means to put on free and accessible outdoor concerts with local musicians: We need more of them. Friday night, after three good to great sets in the Carrboro Town Commons — one of the Triangle’s most criminally underused outdoor venues — that was the thought that stuck with me.

The first-ever edition of “Cat’s Cradle in the Commons” — of which there will hopefully be many more — packed a trio of artists with strong local ties, offering them up in a free, all-ages outdoor setting early on a weekend evening. With a wealth acts that are charming, accessible and artistically adventurous, the Triangle music scene is in the perfect position to benefit from such easy entry points. On Friday night, the Commons crowd seemed equally rewarded.

Folks were still flowing in as Mandolin Orange kicked things off a little after 5:30 p.m. Expanded into a full folk-rock ensemble after a few years spent as a bare-bones duo, the Chapel Hill outfit ambled along with rustic charm. The harmonies of singers Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin were as bright and warm as the early fall sun setting behind them. Their organic interplay — as well as their respective fiddle and mandolin solos — were enough to elevate staid folk arrangements into something lush and welcoming. Approachable and tuneful, Mandolin Orange was a winning choice to open things up.

Megafaun challenges the crowd

Durham’s Megafaun played the middle slot, offering an admirably adventurous set considering the mostly unindoctrinated audience. Though they started as a willfully weird folk outfit, Megafaun’s current live show is a marvel of mercurial rock ‘n’ roll influences. The sarcastically inclined spiritual “His Robe” blended gospel with elements of psychedelic funk, jagged guitar lines and a raw keyboard solo adding rhythmic aggression to the traditionally inspired melody. Best of all was “Real Slow,” a Crazy Horse-inspired slow burner that the band expanded with a boundary-testing interlude. Ethereal distortion and skittering rhythms built until the song’s central melody returned, propelled by cathartic arena-rock riffs. At points, many in the audience seemed confused by the avant-garde display, but most of those people stood to applaud at the song’s end, won over by Megafaun’s expert mix of challenging sounds and irresistible melodies.

Tift Merritt plays with passion

Acclaimed songwriter Tift Merritt headlined, and while she no longer calls the Triangle home, she got her start with the Chapel Hill band The Carbines. She lovingly recalled playing shows at the Cave and continually heaped praise on the area. She and her band presented a polished country sound highlighted by rich melodies and lush, road-worn textures. Merritt stamped and spun during her breaks from the mike, highlighting the emotional power of her songs as the other players embellished them with cutting guitar fills and prickling pedal steel.

In the past few years, the Triangle has seen a variety of locally sourced outdoor concerts find success. From the Locally Grown and Oak City 7 summer series in Chapel Hill and Raleigh respectively, to Durham’s concerts on the lawn at the American Tobacco Campus, these free events bring dollars to downtown businesses and ears to artists that are ready for the exposure. “Cat’s Cradle in the Commons” was further proof of how successful these events can be, a reminder that there’s no shortage of people ready to take a chance on local music when it’s made easily accessible.