What’s the difference between bluegrass and string music? The former is a hootenanny, the latter an “Old Time Reverie.”
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, quartet Mipso, whose second and most-recent album is called “Old Time Reverie,” brings strings out West this week for shows at Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Lake Tahoe.
“This is our first time in Tahoe both as a band and as individuals and we keep hearing great stuff and we’re excited to get up there,” said mandolin player Jacob Sharp, whose bandmates are fiddler Libby Rodenbough, guitarist Joseph Terrell and bassist Wood Robinson.
Mipso features great songwriting, crisp musicianship, four-part harmonies and a heavy dose of minor chords. It’s a concoction of old-timey and modern-day music, hold the twang.
“The group didn’t come out as four students of bluegrass music. Our influences are as wide as John Coltrane,” Sharp said. “We came together with an appreciation and respect for all types of music and, as writers first, we just like good songs and spaces where you can convey emotions and experiences.
“Bluegrass and old-time music are the bedrock of what we. But if you look at a lot of the structural arrangements of our songs, we pull as heavily from our favorite pop records as we do from bluegrass records.”
As University of North Carolina students, Sharp, Wood and Terrell had no intention of becoming professional musicians, yet Mipso has played about 200 shows in each of the last four years. Rodenbough joined the band in May 2014 and the band’s second album, “Old Time Reverie,” was released last fall.
“Mipso a made up name,” Sharp said. “We thought we were just playing a fundraiser at a fraternity. We didn’t want to call ourselves the Something Brothers or the Something, Something Mountain Boys. There was enough of that already. We just chose a word that we thought sounded cool.”
Sharp’s first exposure to cool, live sound was when he attended a String Cheese Incident concert as a sixth-grader. A month later, he saw Doc Watson. He was disinterested in piano lessons and his brother took his guitar and learned how to play it. Sharp said he wanted to write songs with a more unusual instrument, so he took up the mandolin.
At UNC, he earned a degree in geography and international studies. His thesis was about the geography of music and how bluegrass spread to Japan after World War II.
“That led to our first tour after we graduated,” he said. “The first time we left North Carolina was to go to Japan and China.”
Mipso then tried out the United States, and Sharp had some trepidation about how the string music would be received in places such as New England and the Midwest.
“We have seen equally rambunctious reception in cities and communities all across the country,” he said. “It’s definitely a good time to be playing the music and as fans we are lucky we get to play with people whose music is similar but different, inspiring us all the time. That’s a fun aspect of it.”
Mipso’s players continue to use Chapel Hill as their home base, a city with a rich musical history of folk, punk and indie rock. It’s also the home of the North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team.
“North Carolina as a state bleeds music and basketball, and March Madness is the holy time of the year,” said Sharp, who flew from a tour to attend the NCAA Championship in Houston. Villanova made a three-point shot at the buzzer to break hearts in North Carolina.
However, Sharp said he was happy later when he learned that former North Carolina assistant coach Jerod Haase, who is from South Lake Tahoe, was hired as the head coach at Stanford.
“Anyone under coach Roy Williams’ tutelage is welcome in Chapel Hill and Jerod’s been around a lot,” Sharp said. “People in Chapel Hill think it’s cool that he got that job.”
Sharp and his bandmates also are appreciating their postgraduate jobs.
“Some people have said, we have four liberal arts degrees, what good will that do you on the road?” Sharp said. “But we have a good framework from which to understand and we appreciate societal spins that we feel our band is a part of.”
The West Coast swing will start at two large clubs and finish in the intimate Red Room.
“It has less to do with the size of the venue and more with the personality of the crowd,” Sharp said. “It’s all about the conversation with the crowd. We have a different set list every night and generally we do it after sound check after getting a feel for the room. And then we call audibles all the time. We play 200 shows a year, and we’re happy they don’t all have the same vibe.”
- Mipso in the West
- When: 10 p.m. Wednesday, May 18
Where: Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz
Tickets: $7 in advance or $10 at the door
Must be 21, please contact 831-479-1854 or visit www.moesalley.com
- When: 9 p.m. Thursday, May 19
Where: Slim’s, 333 11th Street, San Francisco
All Ages Welcome, please contact 415 255-0333 or visit www.slimspresents.com
- When: 10 p.m. Friday, May 20
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Red Room, 14 State Highway 28 Crystal Bay, Nevada
Must be 21, please contact 775-831-0512 or visit www.crystalbaycasino.com
- Where else
May 26-29: DelFest, Cumberland, Maryland
May 29: Eddie’s Attic, Decatur, Georgia
June 22-25: ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches, Owensboro, Kentucky
July 7-10: Red Wings Roots Music Festval, Mount Salon, Virginia
July 28-31: Ossipee Valley Music Festival, Cornish, Maine
Aug. 26-27: Jam in the Trees, Pisgay Brewery, Black Mountain, North Carolina