Throughout the month of March, North Carolinians generally don’t leave the state unless they’re planning on going to the Elite Eight or the Final Four. So it’s a special event when one person — not to mention a whole band — appears in on stage in our neck of the woods. And honestly, why would you leave the Tar Heel State? By now, the weather’s finally turned temperate, the good shows are starting to hit the local venues after a cold and slow winter, and you might have the chance to burn a bench or tear down a lamppost — directly correlated to how drunk your frat is at the time and how good your basketball team is in the postseason. So when Durham’s Mount Moriah and Chapel Hill’s Skylar Gudasz came to the Middle East Upstairs last night (March 15), the audience knew they were in for a real alt-country treat.
By far the most traditionally alt-country of the two groups, Gudasz took the stage first and helped to set the mood for the evening. She catapulted to indie fame after her appearances in the Big Star Third set of tribute concerts, and it’s easy to see why she’d excel at singing an Alex Chilton part. Her voice has a similar undeniable soulfulness to it, a slick professionalism only slightly covering the deep emotions hidden within her songs. Her sound is as if Chan Marshall had decided against the blues for The Greatest and devoted her talents to making a really smooth country record. The first track she played, “Car Song,” is a great demonstration of her skills as a singer and as a guitarist, and was amongst the most high-tempo songs in her set. Fascinatingly enough, her set relied on a lot of guests — a trombone player (who, in fairness, did all the orchestration for her record) on “Ships,” a fiddler on the gorgeous “3,000 Miles,” a spotlight duet with her rhythm guitar player on “I’ll Be Your Man” — that only slightly obscured the quality of her solo performance. She’s an incredible talent, and it’s not impossible to see her selling out the Middle East on her own in a few years.
The tone of the evening seemed to shift when Mount Moriah took the stage. Vocalist and songwriter Heather McEntire greeted a crowd with a gentle “Good evening, Massachusetts,” before cracking a smile and telling us that saying so “reminds me of the Bee Gees song.” The band front-loaded their set with singles from their latest record, How to Dance, and began the evening with “Calvander,” the lead. By the time they’d settled into soulful lament “Baby Blue,” the room relaxed into a gentle swoon, the 60 or so who witnessed it utterly transfixed. It was an astonishing and fully confident display of talent by all involved.
McEntire’s voice is actually even better than it sounds on their records, and witnessing it in person is something truly not to be missed. Jenks Miller’s guitar is always effective and emotive, and the band itself just feels a whole, as if any part of it were missing it’d all collapse. The last song played in their main set, “Little Bear,” showed off a different side of the band than we’d seen throughout the show — there had been little glimpses of Yo La Tengo-songcraft within their sound- and they brought those bits and pieces to the forefront, unleashing a seven-minute work of propulsive southern rock that never overstayed its welcome.
For an encore, they played “Lament,” a short track from their self-titled 2012 release, an after-dinner mint of a track if there ever was one. McEntire couldn’t find the tamborine that she usually plays during the track, so audience members offered up their keys to use in its place. It’s hard to imagine an audience normally being down with giving up their house and car keys, even for a minute (and that’s true even when the band is crashing on the punk house floor), but the general feeling of goodwill on each side of stage was all-enveloping.
Near the end of the performance, while thanking the crowd for their attendance, McEntire told us that they’ve never played the Middle East before, and were glad to have been there. An excited member of the crowd responded with a “Well, come back!” hollered at the top of his lungs. It’s hard not to think that they will.