REVIEW: Mountain Stage With Larry Groce November 19

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The air was brisk and the sun set early on Sunday, Nov. 19 in Charleston, WV. Although it might have been cold and dark outside, inside the West Virginia State Capitol’s Culture Center, things were anything but during the taping of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Mountain Stage with Larry Groce.

Nearly 34 years strong, the weekly program focuses on live performance on the radio, an art that one may have worried died out sometime before the mid-century.

It was apparent from the moment that the Chandler Travis Philharmonic took to the stage – complete in their delightfully garish costume-like attire – that the night was going to be a good and odd one. Travis himself, the owner of a particularly interesting voice, led the ragamuffin group of horn players and percussionists, setting the tone for the following acts.

Susan Werner brought to the stage songs about Cuba – a place that she visited not so long ago. From details about congregations of stray dogs to a tribute to the particularly stimulating nature of Cuban coffee, the tunes, all from her latest EP, An American in Havana, featuring Cuban American percussionist Mayra Casales (who performed alongside Werner on Mountain Stage,) were equal parts charming and occasionally truly laugh-inducing.

Joan Shelley is a particularly beloved modern singer-songwriter. She took to the stage alongside her longtime creative partner, Nathan Salsburg, in a paisley maxi dress with black booties. She opened with the haunting “We’d Be Home” an aching song from her latest self-titled work, a meditation on a love lost, perhaps – or, more accurately, a love that probably never was. The song, like many in Shelley’s catalogue, is a tribute to the winds of chance and time, ultimately indifferent to human sentimentality or any type of striving to make meaning.

One wouldn’t think that Cleveland punk rockers Pere Ubu would be a great fit on the often Americana-tinged Mountain Stage – but one also wouldn’t think that the band would pull out “Breath,” the leading single from their 1989 experiment in pop “Cloudland” some 28 years after its release, for said hypothetical performance. But they did, and they are a fantastic fit on Mountain Stage, a show that, beyond being a consistent tribute to the importance of Americana music in the modern age, is also a hold out for tradition, for a world that listens to the radio for weekly live music performances – a world that may or may not truly exist anymore. Much like Pere Ubu, a punk rock band by all means, but, also, a tribute to a fading understanding of what punk rock is. The band pulled out tunes from their raucous latest release, 20 Years In a Montana Missile Silo, which are as lively and odd as one would hope.

“It’s not for everybody, but it’s for me,” said Groce after Pere Ubu’s performance.

Surrealist singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock was the last to take the stage – donning a green and white polka dotted shirt and straight cut jeans. Fighting a cold, Hitchcock managed to make the theater tremble with his voice and guitar alone, pulling out a few oldies-but-goodies, like “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” from his 1985 album with the Egyptians, Gotta Let This Hen Out!, and “The Queen of Eyes,” from some of his earliest work on the album Underwater Moonlight with his first band, The Soft Boys. Hitchcock is nothing but amiable, though the voice that he takes on in song occasionally swings into true cynicism, or, perhaps more accurately, detached objectivism.