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24 Hours of Music at Mohonk
In the mountains with Natalie Merchant, Rhett Miller, and Jay Ungar & Molly Mason.
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It took us decades to finally get to the hallowed Mohonk Mountain House west of New Paltz in the Shawangunk range just south of the Catskills. It’s been rambling along Lake Mohonk going back to the 19th century and its founders, the Smiley brothers, are duly honored for keeping 8000 pristine acres out of the hands of developers—and why it’s a much-visited area now known as the Mohonk Preserve.
We finally got up there in 2019 for a bird/raptor weekend, and learned that their post-Labor Day “music in the mountains week” would feature Natalie Merchant, a longtime Hudson Valley resident—in a historic 150-seat parlor, no less. So we drove up again for that and were thrilled, as Natalie did a terrific acoustic set, with pianist, as if in our living room. This came at a rather down time in her long career, however, as she had not had a new album or tour for awhile, partly due to health issues.
It turns out that she plays this gig almost annually, in support of Mohonk’s preservation mission (it’s still managed by Smileys), and for no fee. We hoped for a repeat but Covid intervened, although she managed to keep the date nearly every year.
Now, in 2023: Natalie is coming off a fantastic “comeback” album and highly successful national tour, and heads for Europe this autumn. But still at Mohonk this weekend, back in the parlor for her ninth intimate concert, as she reminded us. Once again it was wonderful, this time with a guitarist, much humor, and four cuts from the new album to keep things fresh, while also re-visiting “Carnival” and “Wonder,” “Motherland” and “Tell Yourself,” plus a killer Marlene Dietrich impression. She closed with her “Kind and Generous” hit, addressing a heartfelt personal “thank you” to olde portraits of the Smiley brothers hanging nearby on the walls.
Two hours earlier she had sat with the rest of us enjoying dinner in the common dining hall without any visible fan annoyance. But that’s Mohonk for you. Here’s one-quarter of her set list later last night, and then below that her fellow weekend performers.
“Motherland,” not long ago, acoustic with her guitarist.
“Babel,” also meaning “political babble,” live, from new album.
“Eye of the Storm,” which she managed to perform without the trad Irish musicians.
Friday we had enjoyed in the same parlor the well-known folk duo, also locals, Jay Ungar (violin and mandolin) and Molly Mason (guitar and piano). Jay is best known for providing the haunting theme for Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series, and other Burns projects. Fun show with high musicianship and apparently they do it live on Facebook every week. Here’s that “Civil War” theme, if you haven’t heard it for awhile, actually titled “Ashokan Farewell,” that’s the name of a Catskills town (and famous reservoir) where they’ve run a fiddle and dance camp for four decades. Jay said he’s just been contacted to provide music for an upcoming, no doubt major, Burns series on the Revolutionary War.
Saturday afternoon, Mohonk hosted a lawn party by the lake starring Rhett Miller, lead singer and writer for one of the great early Americana bands, Old 97’s. He’s also performed solo (often at Mohonk and nationally) for many years but still tours and records with his old band. A Texas native but now another Hudson Valley mainstay, he’s an interesting cat: podcasts, writes essays and articles (one for The Atlantic), fiction, poems and children’s books. Here’s an Old 97’s song he played on Saturday, with an excellent band he’s dubbed The All Stars, and then my video of his cover of one of my all-time favorite songs, the Woody Guthrie-Jeff Tweedy “California Stars.” Note: Old 97’s even had a Miller song called “Oppenheimer” but, sadly, it’s just the name of a road (in the tune).
“California Stars” conclusion…Nice shirt, Rhett. Provides a bit of a look at the Mountain House lurking behind.
View of the Shawangunks above the clouds from the Mountain House porch this morning. And then the misty lake.
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