It was a slow night for the guy behind the soundboard during Tuesday's Mountain Man performance. He pretended to stay busy by twiddling a few knobs here or there, but the only sounds coming from Iota's stage were three unaccompanied female voices and an occasional flicker of acoustic guitar. So he got a winning deal — basically a paid night off to be a member of the audience and enjoy the trio's delicate and sweetly enchanting songs.
In terms of looking to the past for influences, Mountain Man puts the current crop of '80s and '90s nostalgists to shame. The group draws on genres from the first half of last century, singing simple, unadorned songs inspired by Appalachian folk, gospel and even barbershop. They do a remarkable job of capturing the stark beauty of those long-ago sounds.
There's no oversinging, but plenty of thrilling harmonies. It's slow-moving, front-porch music with lyrics that would fit a time when all there was to sing about was what you saw in front of you. "And a hole in the leaves we'll see / the bright baby eyes of a chickadee," they sang together on "Animal Tracks." Each member plucked a guitar for a couple of songs but the voices of Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath were always the main attraction.
Seeing the band on stage -- young and dressed in shabby chic clothing — you might get the impression that its members grew up listening to They Might Be Giants and met each other at a small New England liberal arts school. Which is 100 percent true. Vermont's Bennington College was where the three joined forces and during a between-song debate as to whether to play a cover Meath talked about riding with her dad "in the Mazda listening to [They Might Be Giants album] 'Flood' on the way to middle school." The group opted instead for Tom Waits' tearjerker "Green Grass," their sparkling voices the inverse of Waits' rough-throated growl. They also covered original Grand Ole Opry stars the DeZurik Sisters, as if to prove the group wasn't simply some a cappella experiment gone retro.
The three voices were captivating enough to keep the crowd quiet and attentive for 45 minutes. About the only misstep came at the very end when the group led the audience members through a well-intentioned but not-so-harmonious round. Maybe that's when the soundman should have sprung into action with the house music.