Traditional ideas, new experiences
From the February, 2016 issue
The members of the bluegrass quartet Mipso met as students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and chose the name because they wanted something unique--even now, they say, when you Google Mipso you find only them. They "took alternating years off school," mandolinist Jacob Sharp told the Bluegrass Situation, and they played enough gigs that their skill as instrumentalists and as songwriters began to develop. When their second album, Dark Holler Pop, hit number eight on Billboard's bluegrass chart, they knew they had something worth keeping.
That title suggests a fusion of opposites, as does Mipso's designation of themselves as "renegade traditionalists." Broadly, they fall among the group of young bands who have heard many kinds of music and have gravitated toward playing it on acoustic instruments as a way of making it all their own. Yet they don't simply transfer alternative rock, jazz, or other music to bluegrass instruments. All their songs are originals, and all start with the imagery, vocal harmonies, and instrumental sounds of traditional bluegrass as a framework even as they explore experiences any contemporary college student might have and bring in freer song forms and funkier beats. It's an arresting and novel combination.
Mipso sings of love and of the forces that make relationships fly apart, of taking to the road, of how to find meaning in life in the absence of old certainties. They can pull off a genuinely experimental lyric in a song like "Bad Penny," in which a statue of Abraham Lincoln begins to talk, in a cleaner way than your average jam band. And they give a sense of how hard it can be for young Southerners to shed the small towns where they grew up.
Mipso's immediate ancestors are Nickel Creek and especially the North Carolina band the Steep Canyon Rangers, who gained fame when they toured with Steve Martin. But their songs, although less virtuosic--"if people ... expect a Tony Rice solo, well, I'm definitely
not going to deliver," bassist Wood Robinson has said--have more of a personal and lived-in quality than those of either band. If you're looking for that elusive 1960s mood in which young bands took to the road with fresh ideas about how to use folk traditions, you'll find a good measure of it here.
In North Carolina Mipso is now playing venues that seat audiences in the high hundreds of people. They recently released their third album, Old Time Reverie. It feels like the future of acoustic music, and Mipso brings it to the Ark on Sunday, February 28.
[Originally published in February, 2016.]
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