Fletcher Opera Theater can pack a lot of people into its relatively small space, and Carrboro’s Mandolin Orange sold out the 600-capacity room Friday night. The curving rows of seats all but guaranteed an unobstructed view from anywhere in the house, and a respectful silence fell over the room during two sets and an encore, though the theater emptied out almost as the final notes rang. There was none of the dawdling that accompanies club or bar shows; hundreds of attentive eyes and ears very quickly gave way to empty seats. Given the miserable onslaught of rain and more rain outside, I wasn’t sure what the hurry was.
It made more sense when I was mobbed by an excited crowd just outside the stage door. “Where are Andrew [Marlin] and Emily [Frantz]?” one of them asked, referring to the members of the duo. “Which way did they go?” Collapsing under the sudden pressure, I gestured lamely toward the lobby, only guessing that they’d headed in that direction and, to be honest, wanting the intense attention to go away.
Mandolin Orange began 2014 by facing that level of excitement and scrutiny, handling it like champs. I could hardly take 10 seconds with maybe a dozen people; they’d just given an apparently relaxed performance to hundreds of silently attentive listeners, with no audience member further than 70 feet from the stage, as the Fletcher website boasts.
For their two sets, they drew from their three-album catalog, though not as much from debut Quiet Little Room as from its successors. Accomplished local bassist Robbie Link accompanied the band for much of the evening, resulting in a well-rounded and excellently textured trio. There were also duo performances: Frantz picked up a Telecaster and joked about covering Slayer before easing into “Clover Tune,” a mercilessly bleak cut from 2011’s Hard Hearted Stranger. Her clean, measured electric guitar lines perfectly established an arms-length intimacy. At the end of the first set, Mandolin Orange covered The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” in tribute to the late Phil Everly. The band balanced the inherent sweetness of such a move with the wink-and-a-nod awareness that “gee whiz” sounds kind of silly when you sing it.
That equilibrium of comedy and naked emotion defined the evening and, ultimately, made Mandolin Orange appear relaxed and confident in the dignified environment. True to his trademark dry wit, Marlin dropped jokes between most songs. “We’re going to be playing every style of music there is: country, bluegrass, folk,” he remarked early on. During the second set, he encouraged the audience to relax as well. “It’s so quiet,” he said. “We’re used to playing in bars. Somebody cuss as us!”
After the concert, Marlin and Frantz stood at the merch table to chat and sign LPs. A long queue formed. Whereas I had frozen up after a few seconds of such excitement, the duo appeared at ease and happy—not to mention deserving, considering the intimate, casual performance they had just given. The people who had so quickly escaped from the theater weren’t necessarily hurrying to leave, but to meet the band, who were already waiting for them, all smiles and ready for the rush.