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With Pug, Mandolin, sum is even better than parts

The Sinclair, Cambridge, Mass., February 25, 2016

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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For music fans, this night proved to be the case of the best of both worlds. Bluegrass-based band Mandolin Orange opened while Joe Pug closed out the night in a solo acoustic setting. Either could have headlined on their own. So, it was no surprise that the club was SRO to enjoy about an hour of each.

Mandolin Orange proved a most dexterous band, steeped in bluegrass sounds with a laid back approach. Fronted by Andrew Marlin, who handled almost all of the lead singing and sparkled time and again on mandolin runs and fills, and Emily Frantz on fiddle, they were also backed by an acoustic guitarist and upright bassist.

Mandolin Orange's touchstone was the front porch style where you could imagine a plaintive Marlin singing away always ably backed, but not overwhelmed, by his band mates. Frantz was there time and again to provide beautiful backing harmonies to give the songs a bit more texture.

The songs (the very fine "That Wrecking Ball and "Waltz About Whiskey") tended to start with spare instrumentation, often Marlin doling out a few mandolin licks, before he would begin singing in a typically slow, unrushed delivery.

Fortunately, Mandolin Orange wasn't stuck in cement either, changing it up just enough. The encore of "Drink Up and Go Home," featured a backing band member on vocals with all four coming to the front of the stage around the mic.

Mandolin Orange played most sweet music on this night.

Pug flew solo, and with folk and Dylan underpinning his musical direction, that worked well for him. Pug has that Dylan tonality vocally, while also beefing up the songs with occasional harp playing.

Pug indicated he had intended to play with his band, but for reasons not entirely clear, that wasn't in the cards this night. A band might have provided Pug with more musical freedom to alter the sound and approach a bit more as the style came off a bit too familiar after awhile.

But Pug's material was strong enough to carry him through, particularly with the first encore song, "Pair of Shadows." He proudly told the crowd he wrote the song for his, whom he married last summer. He played it for her with anticipation, only to be told that was "the darkest song she ever heard."

She may have had a valid point, but the Pug offered a most heartfelt version before closing out the night.

Fittingly, Put invited the openers to join him onstage for just the right touch, a closing reading of Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City." The show was a case of two strong acts on their own, with the sum even better than the individual parts.