Caught by the River

Mountain Man

8th July 2010

Mountain Man: Live in St Augustine’s Tower, July 10, 2010.

by Kieran Evans.

I think I witnessed one of the best gigs of my life last Thursday night. I say I think, not because I’m still in two minds or doubt what I saw or heard…but because I’m still thinking about what I felt just being ‘there’. I can’t remember most of the songs that were performed and I can’t even remember where I stood. But I was 40 ft up in a church clock tower in Hackney and where people placed themselves was not exactly that important. There were only thirty of us present and the band stood a foot away from us at the best of times. The band in question was a three-piece called Mountain Man who hail from Bennington in Vermont and comprise of Molly, Alex and Amelia. Their record is called ‘Made The Harbor’ and you definitely won’t hear anything else so haunting and beautiful this year. If you want a roadmap, take the next left for Appalachian folk songs, then a sharp right in to ‘that song’ by Krauss, Harris and Welch in ‘O’ Brother Where Art Thou’ and then continue for five hundred yards with some Judee Sill and you’ve got a vague idea of where I’m going.

I saw Mountain Man the previous week at the Union Chapel as part of a Bella Union label night. There they sang without microphones, just three voices and a guitar yet the sound they created filled the space. It was magical. But still, nothing prepared me for Thursday night.

Congregating outside St Augustine’s Tower at the allotted time, we were ushered in to the small ground floor for a cup of orange juice and just about enough time to learn that the tower is Hackney’s oldest building, dating back to the thirteenth century. At a given point, we filed up the narrow winding staircase to the first floor where the band stood in front of a stained glass window, awaiting our arrival. In that awkward silence, we shuffled into the small space, and waited. There were a few asides and some nervous laughter…and then there was a glance, a plucked note and they began. Their voices soared above us and their harmonies enveloped us but they didn’t look at us. They just looked at each other, staring deeply into themselves, an almost psychic musical connection keeping their vocal inflections and rhythms in perfect harmony. At the end of the first song, there was an audible intake of breath followed by ripples of applause. This was something special.

A few songs later and as we shuffled out of the room and climbed single file up the spiral stairs, the band, in amongst us, sang their song ‘Babylon’, building a haunting three part harmony around three different sets of lyrics and phrases repeated separately over and over, until slowly the words “We remember, we remember we remember thee Zion” came together and echoed all around us. It sent shivers down my spine as we kept heading up.

We squeezed into a smaller room, which held the clock mechanism and we waited. Someone loaned Alex a knee to rest her leg on whilst she tuned her guitar. She found the note and the voices soared above us again, their simple yet effective words transporting us to the far corners of the American Plains. I kept looking around at other people’s faces, trying to gauge whether they were feeling the same thing I was beginning to feel. Hard as it was in the dull light, the hushed silence and atmosphere seemed to confirm we were all on the same journey.

“Follow, follow, follow, follow the Buffalo. In my eyes I saw the great black hills and the mighty Mississippi River swells…”

They finished in this room with an astonishing song called ‘River’ which combined a chiming, birdlike ‘coo-ing’ melody with lyrics that seem to indicate an impending tragedy; “Down to the river by boat and oar, give the word to my mother, tell my sister and my father, that on the shore lay my brother, and it’s all that I remember”. A possible clue to what happened in the story lay in how the song ended as we were left with just the sound of Molly, Amelia and Alex exhaling sharp, deep pants in a rhythm that slowed and slowed till finally all we could hear was just Molly and her breathy exhales diminishing into silence.

So we continued up the steep narrow steps to the next floor and another set of songs, this time performed around a large bell. Despite the stark beauty of their voices, the murky light of our surroundings and the charged atmosphere brought a darker heart into play with the songs they sang in this room. As the words “Broken wings won’t bring you home, soft white tendons robe hollow bones, you hung those feathers from your ceiling, so the women you bring home lay down” hung heavy in the air, we could’ve almost been in a scene cut from Twin Peaks.

As we milled around, Molly, Alex and Amelia chatted between themselves or with us, sharing anecdotes of their lives back in the States. Sometimes the tales they told were as stark and fascinating as the songs that they sang …including one about singing to a raging schizophrenic who’d followed Molly and her friend home and burst into their house with tales of conspiracy and hatred. Others no doubt would have fled, yet Molly chose to stay and sing. Looking into his fiery, wild eyes, she sang lullabies to him in her softest, gentlest voice, calming him down long enough for them to get help.

These stories I think, provided some form of cover to the nervousness they felt performing so up close and personal but as they finished one of their most evocative songs ‘Sewee Sewee’, we were left in no doubt about the hardships and struggles they’ve faced. The lines ‘We travelled far on this road run, from the great plains there, the tall green grasses of the low range’ seem to linger longer than normal in Amelia’s head. A fact we all acknowledged as her voice trembled and cracked as she recounted how much they’ve criss-crossed America performing their songs and the comfort they draw from each other when times get hard.

And then, when the time was right – and we all knew when it was right – silence descended upon the room and those voices drifted up and over us again. For the song ‘Animal Tracks’, we were corralled into the middle of the room whilst each of the band took up position in one of the corners. And as we stood looking inwards at each other, they sang around us…their vocal harmonies triangulating and immersing us. “And the sweat will roll down our backs as we follow animal tracks, to dream of the woods and the holes in the leaves where you see, the bright baby eyes of the chickadee”. I closed my eyes and let the sound and words roll over me and for one brief moment, I was there with them.

Finally we got to the roof, London around and beyond us, a beautiful antique weather vane above. As the sun set in the distance, Alex, Amelia and Molly sang us a final three songs including a new one they’d prepared just a few days earlier. As the final note disappeared into the air, there was an awkward silence. Somehow we didn’t want this to end. We clapped yet we were all paralyzed. The band slipped away quietly whilst we milled around on top of that roof, unable to speak. A few couples hugged each other and looked into the horizon. Friends, acquaintances and strangers just blew the air out of their cheeks. Nothing needed to be said. I knew. They knew. We all knew.

Afterwards, when we had all finally made the descent back down to the ground floor we sang Happy Birthday to Amelia and celebrated with some cake, cut up and dispensed using a Billy Bragg CD. The band was clearly happy. They jumped and piggy backed around the small space and smiled a lot. I smiled too, and as I looked on at this simple and childlike yet ecstatic release I realized that it encapsulated everything I love about music…that yes, music is powerful, it can overcome you, it can immerse you, it can hurt you, it can even destroy you…yet it can lift you, it can help you, it can heal you but most importantly it can be this simple and this beautiful.

And now as I sit here and think about what music really means to me, I realize it isn’t just about a listening experience. It’s something that transcends the communal, collective experience. It’s a spiritual journey that takes you to a place inside yourself, a place where you truly immerse yourself and let go, a place where you free your doubts and fears and trust in the judgment and experience of others. I found that place again on Thursday night. That it took place in a 13th century clock tower in the middle of Hackney with 30 other people somehow makes it feel just that little bit more magical. For me, I consider myself to be lucky, because I truly believe angels sang for me last Thursday night, and I got closer to God.
For one night only…

[audio:|titles=_Mouthwings (live in an east London clock tower, July 1st, 2010)] ‘Mouthwings’ recorded live at St Augustine’s Tower. The original version of this song can be found on the Bella Union album, ‘Made The Harbor, which is out now and available from Rough Trade.
For a chance to win a copy of ‘Made in Harbor’ see this Friday’s newsletter.

Kieran Evans is a documentary film-maker. His cv includes, ‘Vashti Bunyan: From Here To Before’ and ‘Finisterre’. At the moment he is developing, ‘Down by the River’, a music film feature for Caught by the River, that will launch at the end of August.