The air was crisp outside as the crowd shuffled in to see Watchhouse for their first of a two-night sold-out run at Revolution Hall on Wednesday the 23rd of February. The stage was set for an intimate show from the duo formerly known as Mandolin Orange, for their first Portland show in several years, with two albums of new material.
When the audience took a moment to settle into the space before the band started, you could feel a collective inhale, and a tangible excitement for the adventure that was about to begin. Historically a duo, mainstays Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin were joined this time by an upright bassist, a cellist, and a backup guitar player, but the fireside feel wasn’t lost with the addition of the full band. Frantz, always the more fashionable of the pair, commented that the strings were brought in to heighten the cinematic qualities of their compositions, and Marlin bantered about writing multiple songs in the woods of the PNW.
The powerhouse pair of multi-instrumentalists work magic around a single vocal mic, blending harmonies like wind through the woods, where, when still, you can hear a pine needle drop. Revolution Hall was a perfect space for their return, with the dampened room lending a cozy feel to the sweet pickin’ instrumentals, while maintaining the delicate qualities of the vocal harmonies.. The space was illuminated by a lighting rig consisting of what looked like old cafeteria lights painted matte black, alongside the familiar glow of decorative incandescents.
This show highlighted some of the group’s newer tracks from their self titled album, Watchhouse, expanding from their classic string tone to more abstract soundscapes. Frantz and Marlin have found ways to be more and more playful in their strumming, such that they almost dance together using their instruments instead their feet. Equally impressive is the duo’s ability to entangle their vocals as one, so subtly that their lips barely move, almost like master ventriloquists. Having worked with Frantz and Marlin multiple times, I also must note their audio engineer, Mark Alspaugh, has truly become a piece of their tapestry. His ability to engineer and meld the voices and instruments into such a delicate show is no simple task.
Mesmerizing from the start, one couldn’t help but sway, like embers floating upwards from a firepit on cold fall night. The crowd sung along to old songs and new, and even the more somber numbers had couples embracing and smiling, just happy to be listening to live string music again. Calling back to their 2019 release, Tides of a Teardrop, Watchhouse had the crowd howling at the moon during a swinging rendition of “The Wolves”. Then, weaving their way back to the album that guided them into the spotlight, the group played “Wildfire” from their album Blindfaller, raising goosebumps throughout the crowd with a song that examines pride, and the toll it takes over the years. The show ended with the crowd still hungry for more, and for some their wish would be granted, given that the band would be playing a second set the next night. I left stunned yet again by their mastery, and excited to see them grow as writers and musicians for years to come.
Review and photo by Al Parker.