For my wife Kim and myself, the anticipation level had reached a different plane. Not higher. Not lower. Just different.
We always look forward to hearing Underhill Rose perform at High Rock Outfitters, but on Saturday, for the first time in the six years or so that we have been following them, we would see them as a duo instead of a trio.
Salley Williamson, the upright bassist who provided a third part of near angelic harmony to the group, left the band last October to reclaim something like a normal life beyond plucking strings and touring down Interstate highways every weekend.
We didn't know what to expect.
We shouldn't have worried.
Guitarist Molly Rose Reed and banjoist Eleanor Underhill, who began life as Underhill Rose about 10 years ago as a duo, were back to their roots. They met while attending Warren Wilson College near Asheville, and then soon after became part of a well-regarded local female string band, the Barrel House Mamas. When that group eventually dissolved, Molly and Eleanor decided to strike out on their own.
That decision makes the rest of us who follow them very, very lucky. Their harmonies have almost always seemed effortless, and to make things just right, they are both accomplished musicians. Eleanor, in fact, can accompany herself with the harmonica while at the same time bringing her banjo to its knees. It's truly something to see. And hear.
On this particular night, Gary Oliver – who's traveled off and on with the band before – was playing upright bass (he can also play drums), providing the girls a steady, bold and confident bass line.
And drummer Michael Rhodes was also there, giving Molly and Eleanor one less thing to worry about (he said) while establishing rhythm and beat.
They played two sets Saturday night, tossing in a couple tunes now and then that we hadn't heard before in their show. Molly served up "Dublin Days," a wistful song she penned about their tour to Ireland last year. I wanted to hop on a plane and go.
Eleanor gave us her "Captured in Arms," inspired by the massacre at the Bataclan Theater in Paris in 2015. It's an unlikely tune for Underhill Rose to perform, but I'd heard her sing it before in a solo performance in Asheville last year. This time, with Molly, Gary and Michael backing her, it was an amazingly moving song. The line "Please don't kill my friends anymore" is a hard one to let go. (Listen here )
During the first set, Eleanor told the audience to feel free to ask for requests. About five or six were suggested (including "Freebird." Sigh), and consequently, about half of the songs planned for the second set were bumped by the requests. That was cool.
I asked for two cover tunes: Jamey Johnson's "In Color," and John Prine's "Long Monday." I love both of these songs in any case, but Molly and Eleanor have somehow made them their own. Johnson and Prine ought to pay them performance fees. "Long Monday," a plaintive but thoughtful love song from a master lyricist is special, especially with Eleanor's melancholy harmonica bridge and soulful vocal interpretation. It's an earworm that is still with me days after the concert. The difference is I don't want it to go away. (Listen here).
Changes are possibly on the horizon for Underhill Rose. They are still negotiating a landscape without a third voice. Duo or trio – which way will they go? Meanwhile, Molly is pregnant with her and her husband's (Tyler Housholder of The Broadcast) first child. How will parenthood affect band dynamics? And Eleanor is preparing for her first solo CD release.
I'm a selfish guy when it comes to Underhill Rose. I just want them to continue on for as long as they can. The harmony. The talent. The personalities.
It just all adds up.