With the current backdrop of what “Americana” means to modern-day audiences, it’s a wonder how a band like Mt. Joy gained enough traction to fill up the iconic Greek Theatre on Friday in Los Angeles. On paper, Mt. Joy’s presentation might be misconstrued as yet another “Hey!” and “Ho!” folk-revival band filled with bearded dudes in suspenders and enough wide-brimmed fedoras to keep the styling department of The Voice working for a millennia. But to pigeonhole Mt. Joy in such a category would be an oversight, and the many descriptors attached to Mt. Joy is a testament to what makes them outliers compared to their contemporaries. “Psychedelic,” “Americana,” “Folk,” “Indie,” and so on exhibit the amalgam of styles informed by their Laurel Canyon sensibilities and their roots stemmed from Philadelphia soul.
With a band name like Mt. Joy, you’ll likely not be surprised to hear that the overall vibe of their live show is one of positivity. With lyrics like “In love, we got to try” (“Ruins”) and “Fix me a blue sky in a warm sun” (“Julia”) combined with an affable and free-wheeling manner, it’s not difficult to understand why the majority of the audience was covered in a haze of herbal-scented smoke. The band exhibits their joy not only through their lyrics and rousing, anthem-choruses but also via homages to their ostensible heroes — touting those influences as if they were updates to the Great American Songbook. Snippets of The Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby”), The Velvet Underground (“Oh! Sweet Nuthin'”), The Pixies (“Where Is My Mind?”), and even Frank Ocean (“Ivy”) were added throughout their 25-song, two-set performance.
Despite the all-around good vibes, there’s also a specific edge to Mt. Joy that more accurately depicts the roots of Americana. A foundation set by towering icons like Woody Guthrie, a man who proudly inscribed in his acoustic guitar the phrase “this machine kills fascists.” The mainstream and commercialized genres of Americana, Roots, and Country have been arguably co-opted by a divisive dialectic. One that is not at all unfamiliar with a constant message from a particular political persuasion that proposes a myopic and anti-cosmopolitan worldview. Instead of songs written to reflect on pertinent themes like equality, anti-fascism, and genocide with songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “Oklahoma Hills,” we are now inundated with dog whistles that are brazenly carved into blunt instruments of glorified violence via works like “Try That In a Small Town”; ironically performed by a survivor of a mass shooting that spent over 1000 bullets and took more than 60 lives, Jason Aldean. While not overtly political, Mt. Joy appears to be more Guthrie than Aldean. With songs like “Sheep” and “New President,” Mt. Joy tackles themes that reflect the world as they see it, not what they hope it to be. On “Sheep,” singer Matt Quinn sings, “Maybe I was born in the wrong skin” in reaction to the killing of Freddie Gray on the streets of Baltimore. A type of reflection informed by empathy and protest, a sharp counter to the American mythmaking of popular Americana that consistently searches for a country that never was.
This is not to say that Mt. Joy is positioning itself as an arbiter of what constitutes authenticity in music. On the contrary, there is something uniquely Californian to their mentality. Through their words, music, and stage presence, there’s a breeziness to their overall ethos — a type of attitude that screams, “I’m just hungry. Let’s just go find some barbecue or something.” At the same time, there’s sincerity in the message they’re attempting to get across. Whether that is a pot-smoking Jesus, an unrequired object of affection, or a meditation in an emergency, Mt. Joy hopes we see them for who they are. A band that takes what some may consider “unserious” seriously, thinks the words “psychedelic” and “folk” as not-so-distant cousins, and hopes the simple act of joy can serve as a template for resistance.
Words and photos by Eric Han
FULL MT. JOY AT THE GREEK THEATRE FULL GALLERY:
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