By Anna DeSmet
The pairing of music and politics is like cheese and fruit: an unexpected pairing that compliments each other surprisingly well. The Mammals, a group that formed in 2001 and started producing music again in 2017 after a nine-year hiatus, is certainly aware of this. The folksy band is known for protest songs and political messages sprinkled throughout their discography. Two of its original members, Ruth Ungar and Mike Merenda, front The Mammals while accompanied by bass, drums and pedal steel.
I had the pleasure of seeing The Mammals live at the Alberta Rose on Feb. 25. I absolutely loved it. Their music is certainly not for everyone; if you absolutely hate folk or bluegrass music, stay away. But if you like Mumford & Sons, The Mowgli’s or are intrigued by upbeat instrumental music, I think you will find something to enjoy.
The Mammals had great energy, and more importantly, were able to read and influence the energy of the crowd. They began with a lively song and played other similarly paced pieces interspersed between their slower songs. I enjoyed every one of them. Ungar, the lead singer, has an enthralling voice with great musical range. For her song “My Baby Drinks Water,” the rest of the band left the stage. She sang the lullaby accompanied by neither person nor instrument. And she had the voice for it.
They also possess an impressive musical prowess. Both Merenda and Ruth Ungar played multiple instruments during the set, Merenda picking up a whopping four instruments and sometimes playing two at once (harmonica with a stringed instrument).
The most endearing part of the concert, however, was the band members themselves. Both the music of The Mammals and their stage presence conveyed that they were absolutely comfortable with themselves and believed in the music they were playing. Merenda, Ungar, the bass player and the piano player closed their eyes at different moments, seemingly to enjoy the music more. It felt like friends were playing; they invited the audience to sing along no fewer than four times in a 70-minute set.
Their new album “Sunshiner,” coming April 2018, is a wonderful re-introduction to the music world after their nine-year hiatus. However, the members were plenty busy during that time: Ungar and Merenda started a family, the biannual folks music festival Hoots and made five albums with their separate group, Mike + Ruthy.
Why did they come back? They allude to President Trump’s election as their reason for their revival without naming him.
“So it’s fun to be The Mammals again,” Ungar said after their first song.
“You guys remember The Mammals from back under the George W. presidency? Anyone remember that? For some reason, we felt like we had to be The Mammals again. Just happened about a year ago, and we were like, ‘It’s time. It’s time. It’s time.’”
Mike Merenda later repeats this sentiment when he introduced their song “Culture War.”
“We released this song as a single, back in March,” Merenda said. “When we re-emerged as The Mammals, this was our opening (song). When we were finishing it in November, that horrible month last year, I remember our engineer said, ‘The bad news is that we have to finish ‘Culture War,” but the good news is we have to finish ‘Culture War.’”
“Sunshiner” boasts titles such as “My Baby Drinks Water,” a song about water pollution, and “Sunshiner,” which tells the story of the son and grandson of miners who will instead be a “sunshiner” and support solar power.
But politics are not the focus of their songs.
“We write and sing about pretty much everything,” Ungar said. “So to us it’s basically a matter of allowing our whole lives to be in our music. So sometimes we sing about our kids, or being on the road, or, you know, you write what you know. So to exclude what’s going on in the world, to exclude that element from our songs would feel really awkward.”
As Ruth walked off-stage, barefoot since the encore with a ginger cider in hand and her boots slung over her shoulder, I knew I was sorry to see them go. It was a concert unlike any other I have attended.