NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — For the four members of the acoustic group Mr. Sun, music is a conversation among players who know their instruments — and one another — quite well.
“Everybody’s gotten to the point on their instrument where it’s really like just, you know, conversation,” said fiddler Darol Anger, of Nashville, Tenn.
Mr. Sun is Anger, Grant Gordy on guitar, Aidan O’Donnell on bass and Joe K. Walsh on mandolin and vocals. All four compose tunes and songs — some have words, some don’t — that pull from bluegrass, jazz, American roots and more.
“Everybody composes. While we naturally decompose, we’re still composing. We also play covers from just about every style,” Anger said.
The group performs at 7 p.m. May 20 at The Parlor Room, 32 Masonic St., Northampton, about 45 minutes south of Brattleboro, Vt., as part of its tour to promote its new album, “Extrovert,” out Friday through Compass Records. Tickets for the Northampton show are $20 and available online at signaturesoundspresents.com/shows/mrsun.
The band also has stops May 19 at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and July 15 at Chandler Center for The Arts in Randolph, Vt. More information on the band and a full list of tour stops are at mrsunband.com.
Anger recently took some time to talk to Vermont News & Media about band names, musical chemistry and why people go to concerts.
Q: Where does the name Mr. Sun come from?
A: That actually occurred in Vermont. Our very first gig as a band — we didn’t know we were a band yet — was up there in Richmond, Vermont, just south of the college there. And it was put on by a fellow named Don Sheldon, who’s a very generous benefactor to musicians up there. Basically, we played a little community center in Richmond, and there was a children’s library on one end of the building and the venue on the other side of the hall — really, it was just a meeting hall.
I had been playing gigs with Joe (K. Walsh) for maybe like five or six years prior to that, but I hadn’t played with Grant (Gordy), the guitar player yet. Grant and I are both alumni of David Grisman. So we had a lot in common in that, a lot to talk about, and just the music — it was kind of explosive. It was just great. So we took a picture of the band.
We went back and had a picture of us all under a batique of a sun. It was a smiling face kind of thing that you would see in a children’s library. We took a look at the picture and our bass player, the original bass player, said, “Oh, Mr. Sun.”
There’s a lot of those kind of names, ironic, you know, country names around and I just wanted an uber name, something that took us out of the genre because it’s sort of a personal genre. It’s everybody’s. That’s what I love about the band, is that, everybody is playing themselves. Everybody’s doing a cameo appearance in our own movie every time we play.
It’s short and you can spell it and it’s easy to say. We’ve had plenty of those long band names that go on and on. It just felt right. There’s a nice positive quality to the group that kind of goes along with the idea of a sunny attitude and everything.
Q: Can you tell me about your lineup?
A: The band is really just the same core band all the time. It’s myself, Joe and Grant and Aidan O’Donnell. We’ve had three different bassists. I guess it’s the exploding bass thing for us. But Aidan has been with us now for oh, maybe three or four years. And he’s going to stick. He’s fantastic. He’s from Scotland. And he lives in Brooklyn. And so does Grant. So since I’m in Nashville, and those guys are in Brooklyn, and Joe, the mandolin player, is in Portland, Maine, it makes it difficult to do a lot of rehearsing. It’s kind of a long commute.
But it turns out that there’s a deep communication that runs through the group. We’ve had a lot of shared history and a lot of shared love of music and everybody’s gotten to a level on their instrument … It’s always an interesting conversation. A lot of times it turns out to be music that’s about other music. But it’s never been so abstruse that everybody in the room can’t follow it. It’s always inclusive of the audience. Because it sure wouldn’t make sense for us to be up there wiggling around without anybody else in the room. Just doesn’t make sense to us.
Q: Can you tell me about how the pandemic affected you? What was it like not being able to perform live for a long stretch of time?
A: Right. Yeah. We really did not perform together in any way during that time, because of other other considerations actually, that were happening. Just personal things. I was actually living on the West Coast and dealing with some very serious life changes. And those guys were, well, everybody was locked down, of course. So there’s a lot of layers to that. But we had a record that was in the can. We recorded something right before the whole pandemic, that was just sitting there ready to go.
And, of course, we have all this new material. We have all these ideas for new projects. But it’s kind of interesting to get reacquainted with the material we have and some of it’s challenging, just the sense that there’s a lot of parts.
And (laughs) that was something that Joe said, the thing that kind of drives him a little crazy about the band sometimes, and sort of drives us all crazy, is that, we’re trying to be a band, the kind of band that lives in the same house and rehearses every day, all day, but we’ve never done that. We never will do it.
Q: Can you tell me a little more about this chemistry among the band members?
A: Well, there’s a lot of humor. Everybody’s gotten to the point on their instrument where it’s really like just, you know, conversation. So if Grant has a thought about something that I just played or am about to play — because it’s at that level, just about everybody in the band can sort of see around corners at this point, and we know each other well enough, that I can see that something’s about to happen here. You can actually choose to play something that doesn’t go with it in a funny way, and just everybody in the band cracks up while we’re still playing. It is great. There’s just such a beautiful, you know, fizziness to the group.
There’s also another layer that’s coming out more and more, and I think it’s from having to go through some very difficult times for everybody. We’ve had some deaths in our extended families and immediate families. It’s been pretty intense. And there’s a layer that is much going on, it’s much deeper, and everybody can get behind the story within each song, or tune — doesn’t really matter whether it’s got words or it doesn’t have words, we do both. I’ve always had a really big affinity for the overall story within a song. Everybody understands the emotional and dramatic arc, the principle of that, the kind of thing that you spend years studying as a writer.
That’s one of the real, extra super talents that this group has, as a group. Any individual person could do that. But if the whole group isn’t on the same page, then it doesn’t happen. So, yeah, this wild combination of fizziness and being able to keep things interesting. And yet, underneath it all, there’s this powerful, deep, emotional understanding.
We’ve been playing some really nice, bigger venues with some air and, that kind of airspace is so important for us. To be able to play the silence and what’s not said, is usually the hardest thing for a band to get to. People that do get there are usually very beloved, and people might not even know why they love it so much, but that’s what’s going on.
Q: Have you played The Parlor Room before?
A: Yeah it’s a beautiful little room. It’s so cozy and it just feels like a living room, but bigger. Nice, a little more air. And I love Northampton. I’ve been coming back there since probably the early ’70s.
Q: What do you hope audiences take from a Mr. Sun show?
A: Really, what the band is about is about the story. It’s something I always told my students at Berklee, which was kind of a hotbed of having to play a lot of notes. We said, people don’t come to our concert to hear notes or a lot of notes. They don’t come to even a concert to hear necessarily music. They come to a concert to be in a place where cool stuff is happening. And they get to be part of it together. That’s really the gig, is to make it a beautiful experience. No matter whether you know, 11,278 notes are played or three.
Q: Was 11,278 a totally random number?
A: Yes. (laughs)