Live Review: The Mammals + The Rye Sisters, The Town Hall, Kirton In Lindsey – 7th April 2023

Mike & Ruthy live at The Town Hall, Kirton In Lindsey. 7th April 2023
photo: Mark Dinnage

Throughout the years I have been privileged to witness some of the worlds finest acts, encompassing the full range in performance and entertainment levels, from the average and disappointing all the way to the breathtakingly brilliant. There is however another level, one which transcends all expectations, that lifts the audience to another plane and that rarest of experiences that is best described as an ‘I was there moment’. This evening’s show at Lincolnshire’s premier Americana music venue, The Town Hall, Kirton In Lindsey will I believe be remembered as an ‘I was there moment’ by the packed audience that had turned out to witness one of New York State’s finest treasures.

Mike and Ruthy are Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar who hail from the Hudson River Valley area of Upstate New York and who first joined forces back in the late nineties before forming The Mammals with Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, grandson of American folk icon Pete Seeger, and Alicia Jo Rabins. Their formative years would see them perform on stage with such luminaries as Arlo Guthrie and Odetta, as well as the aforementioned Pete Seeger and his half brother Mike, whilst the release of four albums and two EP’s between 2001 and 2006 helped to cement their position at the forefront of the contemporary folk scene. In 2008 The Mammals took a hiatus while Merenda and Ungar continued to perform and record as a duo releasing another four albums whilst juggling the extra responsibilities of parenthood. However 2018 saw the release of the first new album from The Mammals in over ten years, the highly acclaimed ‘Sunshiner’,  followed in 2020 by ‘Nonet’ which featured in many of the ‘Best of’ lists at the end of that year. This new incarnation of the band is now primarily Merenda and Ungar supported by an array of musicians in the studio and occasionally on stage allowing them to perform under either moniker playing material from across their esteemed career. Thus it was that this evening’s performance delivered a perfect mix of the new along with some old favourites.

The first half of the show was taken up in the main with tracks from ‘Nonet’ and found the duo ably supported on bass guitar by non other than their son Will and whilst the album version of these songs were more adorned with musical accompaniment the stripped back, rustic versions delivered live tonight allowed the audience to connect with the very essence of the song. The success of this was in no small part due to the level of musical excellence that emanated from the stage as the duo displayed their prowess on guitar, banjo and fiddle, continually swapping instruments from song to song, whilst their emotionally potent harmonies had the congregation hanging on their every breath. Tracks such as ‘California’ with some fine claw-hammer banjo from Merenda and ‘If You Could Hear Me Now’ with Ungar’s sonorous vocal delivery quickly set the tone, while ‘Radio Signal’,  surely a classic folk song for the 21st century,  found the audience in good voice as Merenda encouraged their support through the chorus and Ungar demonstrated her amazing soulful vocal range on the outro. Barely five songs into the night and the town hall was already rocking as two more songs from the latest album followed, the playfully upbeat ‘You Can Come To My House’ and ‘East Side, West Side’, an environmental anthem that echoed those great folk songs of the past and reminds the audience of the duo’s musical roots from which they never stray too far from. This point was cemented very early into the set when they performed ‘My New York City’ a song that first appeared on the ‘NYC’ EP in 2012 which perfectly marries the music of the duo with the words of the mighty Woody Guthrie, a union that came with the blessing of Guthrie’s daughter Nora and helps epitomise that which lies at the very heart of the duo’s music.

Mike & Ruthy live at The Town Hall, Kirton in Lindsey. 7th April 2023
photo: Mark Dinnage

After a short interval which allowed the audience to meet the duo and take advantage of the ample fare available from the merchandise table, ably staffed by Merenda and Ungar’s daughter Opel, it was full steam ahead into the second set opening with a cover version of the Etta James’ classic ‘Something Got A Hold On Me’ which the duo recorded on their album ‘Honeymoon Agenda’. The focus of material now shifted to the ‘Sunshiner’ album, first with the environmental themed a cappella ballad ‘My Baby Drinks Water’ and then with ‘When My Story Ends’, both songs preceded, as were the songs during the first set, by some lively storytelling that helped to deepen the overall experience for the audience. These two songs were interspersed by the new single ‘Families’ before Merenda increased the tempo with ‘Rock On Little Jane’ a song for his daughter that originally appeared on the 2015 album ‘Bright As You Can’.

For those that aren’t aware, Ungar is the daughter of Jay Ungar, the acclaimed fiddle player and original co-musical director along with Ally Bain of the first televised series of the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’ and is herself a very fine exponent of the instrument. That said this evening’s performance did deliver something of a first for Ungar as during a fiery rendition of the fiddle tune ‘The Hangman’s Reel’ the bow flew out of her hand adding an unsuspected level of surprise as well as humour to this particular recital. For many Ungar’s father is best remembered for his tune ‘Ashokan Farewell’ and there was no hiding the pride of her father’s masterpiece either in the preceding backstory or the rendition delivered tonight with such authentic and emotional artistry that so captivated the room that you could hear a pin drop, such was the collective focus. Another track from the ‘NYC’ EP, ‘On My Way Home’ brought the evening to a close but not before the audience were rewarded for what can only be described as the most vociferous and exuberant demand for an encore that I’ve witnessed for some time, so much so that Merenda jokingly confessed his concerns for the safety of the hall on returning to the stage before he and Ungar said thank you and goodnight with a cover of an old Pete Seeger song that in a sense brought things full circle. A fitting end to a memorable night.

Mike & Ruthy live at The Town Hall, Kirton in Lindsey. 7th April 2023
photo: Mark Dinnage

This review cannot be complete without mentioning the evening’s support act whose contribution went a long way in helping to make this concert so memorable. The Rye Sisters are a duo from Lincoln comprising of Sue Pomeroy on guitar and vocals and Ishani Siriwardena on violin and vocals who have been performing together since 2016. Prior to joining forces Pomeroy had worked with such acts as The Woodberry’s whilst Siriwardena’s musical background had its origins in classical and jazz but a shared love for such Americana icons as Buddy & Julie Miller, Civil Wars, and The Secret Sisters brought the two together. On this, their first visit to the Town Hall, their set was made up of a selection of self penned numbers along with a couple of well chosen covers. From the opening bars of their first number ‘I Sing’ it was clear to the local congregation that this duo were to be taken seriously with their simply exquisite harmonies immediately capturing everyone’s attention. This level of excellence was maintained throughout their set with Pomeroy’s guitar and Siriwardena’s violin adding just the right amount of musical accompaniment and colour to their sublime vocals while a real sense of chemistry emanated from the stage. In a performance littered with highlights two songs in particular stood out, the self penned ‘White Mercury’, a historic tale of unfaithful love and deception, and their cover of The Secret Sisters’ ‘Tennessee River Runs Low’ which they truly made their own. By the reaction from the audience as the final song from the half hour set concluded I would say another 30 minutes from the duo would have been very warmly received. A planned trip to the recording studio in July will hopefully see an album release before the end of the year and, who knows, maybe a return visit to the Town Hall. One thing is for sure if you like your Americana music to be full of glorious harmonious and finely crafted self penned songs then The Rye Sisters are certainly a name to keep on your radar.

The Rye Sisters, live at The Town Hall, Kirton in Lindsey. 7th April 2023
photo: Mark Dinnage

About Graeme Tait 121 Articles
Hi. I'm Graeme, a child of the sixties, eldest of three, born into a Forces family. Keen guitar player since my teens, (amateur level only), I have a wide, eclectic taste in music and an album collection that exceeds 5.000. Currently reside in the beautiful city of Lincoln.
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Great article on our favorites Mike and Ruthy of the Mammals. We love their heartfelt issue driven music!!!👏👏👏👏