by Fran Zell
Most of the heartbreakingly beautiful songs performed by the North Carolina-bred, fourpiece Mipso can be found online or in one of six albums released since its post collegiate debut in 2013. But hearing this band live is an unforgettable experience that warms the soul and leaves one wanting more. Mipso is currently wrapping up a two-week national tour that included one such stellar performance steeped in original melodies last Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.
Along with touring drummer Yan Westerlund, the quartet includes Libby Rodenbough on fiddle and keyboard; mandolinist Jacob Sharp; guitarist Joseph Terrell; and bassist Wood Robinson, with all four delivering richly textured vocal harmonies. Terrell and Sharp, who met as freshmen at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill became a popular open mic duo and then an all-out favorite campus trio with the addition of Robinson. Rodenbough joined Mipso as a fulltime member in 2014, rounding out a unique-sometimes big, sometimes intimate — sound, that holds firm to its traditional string band roots, incorporating bluegrass and folk with modern influences.
Mipso kicked off its Chicago performance with “Never Knew You Were Gone,” a poetically wistful song by Terrell about a kid who escapes into nature from a violent home while his parents never leave the television long enough to notice he is gone. It was their first record recorded in a studio, and the first song on the track of an album aptly called Mipso, (released in 2020 by Rounder Records). It’s melody and lyrical imagery was deeply influenced by Terrell’s brush with death in 2017 when the entire band was involved in a serious car crash. Prior to the accident band members had contemplated breaking up, but instead credit the shock, trauma and gratitude of that experience to their decision to recommit to the challenges of creative collaboration. And lucky for audiences that they did.
What is especially exciting about Mipso is how the group manages to preserve the individuality of each voice and musical vision while creating a gracefully cohesive whole, each song building on and amplifying the next. For example there is Rodenbough’s “Down in the Water,” which metaphorically explores being comfortable with personal contradictions and mistakes; Terrell’s “Hey Coyote,” which explores both personal and relational refuge; and “Caroline,” a hauntingly lovely ballad that acquires extra power from its minimalist lyrics. These last two songs are also on the 2020 Mipso album.
Belle White, dubbed “sublime Appalachian heartbreak” by Rolling Stone Country opened for Mipso with a set of original, country songs that dwell on loss and personal upheaval, while revealing a young talent with an impressive amount of potential. The 20 year old singer/multi-instrumentalist grew up in the Canadian city of Calgary on classic country and old time music thanks to her father, a Virginia native.
Mipso ends its current tour on Friday, March 18 in Bridgeport, CT. The band will then spend much of June performing throughout Europe and the United Kingdom before returning to the U.S. to appear at “that music fest” June 24-25 in Durham, NC.
Photos are courtesy of Mipso