Several years ago, I attended a fantastic live performance by Mandolin Orange, who were then on tour promoting their new album, Blindfaller. The concert took place at the Old Barn on the grounds of Sonoma Valley’s historic Gundlach Bundschu Winery in November of 2017, as the sun was setting over the burn-scarred surrounding mountains. It was the first live event held at the winery since the devastating California wine country fires earlier that fall, which were terrifying to witness. Their ashes still stick and linger in memory, like dirt from a garden plot lodged so deeply into one’s fingernails that it resists removal, despite repeated rigorous washings.
When the band played their hauntingly beautiful, meditative song, “Wildfire,” many in the crowd had tears in their eyes, and for good reason; there were a lot of open wounds in the audience and surrounding communities that were far from being healed. I know of only one song about wildfire that is as good: “Seeds of the Pine” by Montana-based songwriter, Martha Scanlan from her album, The West Was Burning. Martha gives a pretty mean concert herself, but Mandolin Orange’s performance in Sonoma Valley that night was something extraordinarily rich in layered meaning whose reverberating impacts I am only now beginning to appreciate.
I continue to listen to the album regularly from the relative security of a small cottage in a quiet corner of the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking the vastness of the Pacific Ocean – when it’s not too foggy to see that far into the distance, that is. Like an ancient redwood approaching its first millennium of life on planet Earth, Blindfaller only gets better with age.
Next to a raucous, sweat-soaked live event I attended at Williams College by the band, Blues Traveler, in which lead vocalist John Popper just rocked his harmonica solos while I danced like Dionysus skin-to-skin with a dark-haired Spanish beauty (who also had the brains to match) named Marta, I think that Mandolin Orange concert was one of the best real-time acts of audio artistry I’ve ever witnessed. The only experience that even comes close was by the classical music pianist, Evgeny Kissin, whom I once heard perform in Berlin’s Philharmonie when he was still at the full height of his youthful mastery. Now maybe that’s just the half bottle (probably more) of Gundlach Bundschu’s rich and delicious 2015 Mountain Cuvée talking that I consumed that night, but all my instincts are telling me otherwise.
In addition to the delicate and deft mandolin playing of Andrew Marlin and the vocal and violin virtuosity of Emily Frantz, I was also enchanted by Josh Oliver’s acoustic and electric guitar playing on the album. Their instrumental talents are even more intense when witnessed live while standing mere footsteps from the stage, swaying in time to the rhythms of the crowd, caressing a stemless glass filled with fragrant red wine in one hand, and fondling the thick strands of a lover’s long, blond, lavender-scented hair in the other.
As far as the album’s defining tune, my vote is for “Echo,” and not just because it imagines life from the perspective of an old redwood tree slowly crumbling ” to rust/with no bend and sway at all/that ancient dance was lost.” I can almost feel the pain of the saw biting into soft, wooden flesh when I listen to the lyrics. Somehow, the song manages to tie together a far-flung arboreal community of trees, forests, and flowers that the songwriter has known and loved from his youth up until those he meets while traveling as an adult musician worried about how much longer the song of nature’s beauty will last in the face of human-induced climate change and other environmental horrors.
The songs on this engaging and deeply meaningful album are less mournful than they are memorializing, and while the album obviously wasn’t written with the California wildfires of 2017 in mind, Blindfaller and those scorching, searing, soul-staining times will always be linked inextricably in my heart and mind. That is what great music – and musicians – are capable of doing. Writers and visual artists have their powers to stimulate our minds and spark genuine emotion when we read or view their works, but no one can compete in this regard with audio artists of such immense modesty and ferociously quiet, cathartic power as those who sing and play together under the banner of Mandolin Orange.