Oh, Mipso, you have my heart.
Mipso, a folk/bluegrass quartet hailing from Chapel Hill, returned to Ann Arbor this past Friday to perform at the Ark and fit into this city like a vintage, leather glove.
The evening began as quietly and strangely as it ended, with the astral music of openers Bridget Kearney on electric bass/vocals and Benjamin Lazar Davis on a whole slew of instruments. Their music snuck up on me. These two quiet, endearingly awkward musicians created these incredibly stark soundscapes dotted with musical oddities and rhythmic complications. Kearney’s deceptively simple lyrics combined with Davis’ eccentric musical flare made for a continually surprising experience. It felt simultaneously welcoming and isolating, like they were inviting you to feel lonely with them. Each song had an uncomfortable element to it, but uncomfortable in that it made you alert, not in a way that was unpleasant to listen to. These oddball songs, coupled with the performers’ awkwardly wonderful sense of humor, made the audience ready to receive anything.
When Mipso entered, they slid right into their set as if they had always been there, playing as smooth and consistent as river water. They didn’t stop to acknowledge the audience until after their third song, and the greeting seemed less like an introduction and more like a continuation of a relationship. Their set glittered with gems from their new album, EDGES RUN, as well as a few sneak peaks from their upcoming album (title TBD) and some hilariously-picked and brilliantly-executed covers. The audience chuckled and cackled in disbelief when the shimmering opening chords of a new song quickly turned into a Death Cab for Cutie song.
Each member shone brilliantly: Jacob Sharp’s (mandolin, vocals) lyrical depth and quiet, yearning vocals were heart-wrenching; Wood Robinson (bass, vocals) rooted the band with his steady playing; Joseph Terrell (guitar, vocals) gave the band its fun, classically-country flair; and Libby Rodenbough (fiddle, vocals) tied it all together with a fiddle that soared and danced, a voice that slipped through tight harmonies and sweet lyrics, and an attitude that commanded and drove the band forward.
Though each was remarkable, the most beautiful aspect of their performance — in addition to their quirky quips between songs and their friendly, intimate banter with each other and the audience — was how much they shared the spotlight. The songs in the set felt varied tonally in a complementary, refreshing way, and the lead singer was constantly rotating between the band members.
In fact, I don’t even know if I can say there is a lead singer in the band. Mipso accomplishes something rare that I didn’t realize the full extent of until seeing them live: they all work. Each one of them played at least two different instruments in the concert alone, all of them sang beautifully, and from the lyrical variance, it became clear that each of them contributed to the writing. Each band member is a musician, a singer, a lyricist and a vivid, welcoming presence onstage, making each of them essential and irreplaceable. And that is, for a lack of better words, truly insane.
It is rare to see tight collaboration anywhere, but what a delight it is to witness such collaboration in action.
The multi-talented, symbiotic relationship between all of the group members coalesced into a vibrant, energetic folk experience. Each song charged forward, while retaining that sense of laid-back ease inherent in folk music. They met each moment with enthusiasm and then relaxed into it. And, in turn, we relaxed with them.
When they came back out for their encore, the band met the audience with an incredibly somber song about being ready to die. This made a few audience members who recognized the tune greet the encore with scattered chuckles, but we all quickly gave into the soothing flow of the song.
They slipped out of the concert and this town as smoothly and naturally as they had entered it, leaving the audience with sweet memories of well-crafted songs and a subtle itching in the back of our minds — a sense of waiting and eagerness for whatever is to come from the haunting, lively band Mipso.