The Scene: Middlebury Vermont is a quaint little town about an hour south of Burlington and as luck would have it as I was passing through the town was putting on a series of free concerts on the town green. The concerts dubbed “Festival on The Green” were primarily focused on Folk and Bluegrass and the crowd reflected this. It was largely a seated “wine and cheese” kind of crowd of fleece and Teva wearing Vermonters with a few tourists looking on from the fringe.
Now I put “wine and cheese” in quotes because this festival was actually completely dry. I am not sure why to keep it dry with such a fantastic brewery in town (Otter Creek) but maybe it harkens back to the old days of the puritanic forefathers of our country. Or maybe it is the fact that the Green is squarely in the shadow of a beautiful New England white steepled church. Whatever the reason the lack of alcohol at the event did it’s part in keeping the sedate crowd quiet for most of the evening.
The Mammals: The Mammals are a Folk-Rock band based in the Hudson Valley of New York state and it is no doubt that were raised on the early folk songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie who, also based in the Hudson Valley, used to roam the Northeast singing protest songs and ballads of all the pain and beauty that life has to offer. The Mammals music reflects this influence and they, like all good bands, have put their own spin on the genre and have added a bit more energy and flair to their brand of folk music.
As I walked into earshot of the stage I heard the familiar opening notes of one of my favorite folk songs, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. Mammal Mike Merenda sang lead on this one and the band did the song justice, pairing the powerful and bitersweet lyrics with a sparse arrangement that floated through the light summer air. It was all the introduction I needed to know that I had to stick around for a bit to see what this band was all about.
As the set wore on, we were treated to more songs from Merenda as well as a few from Fiddle and Ukelele player Ruth Ungar. But is was the songs in English and Spanish from multi-instrumentalist Tao Rodríguez-Seeger that were the most fascinating. As the Grandson of Pete Seeger he was surely steeped in the folk music tradition from a very young age. Rodríguez-Seeger was also perhaps the most interesting of the band personalities as he related tales of being raised in Nicaragua and learning Cuban ballads from the street musicians of Havana. As the set was drawing to a close he played one of the most recognized songs in Cuban music, “Chan-Chan,” that The Mammals recorded on their 2004 release Rock That Babe and that appears as the first track on Seminal, Ry Cooder produced, Buena Vista Social Club.
Though there was a loyal contingent of dancers to the left of the stage all night, by the time The Mammals said “good night” much of the crowd was on their feet as the band closed with two raucus and danceable numbers. With much applause and cheering the audience was able to entice the group out for one last tune before the band members retired for the evening.
In many ways The Mammals reminded me of the Virginian Folk band Eddie From Ohio and, while The Mammals draw influences from a more Appalachian source than EFO, they engage the crowd with a similar energy and passion for their work. The result is a very satisfying performance for those who like their Folk music raw and earthy.
Stage Presence: B+
Set/Light Show: C-