The hushed three-part harmonies of Durham-based indie band Mountain Man grew out of a college dorm over 10 years ago in rural Vermont. According to the band’s oft-repeated story, then-student Amelia Meath heard a song coming from her dorm’s living room. Captivated by the music, she rushed downstairs to find Molly Sarlé, who taught her “Dog Song.” Meath then taught the song to her friend Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, and soon, the three were recording an album together.
After releasing “Made the Harbor” in 2010, the trio went their separate paths — Meath to Durham, Sarlé to California and Sauser-Monnig to Minnesota. Now, after years spent waitressing, farming, hanging out in zen centers and forming other musical projects, the members of Mountain Man are back.
On three consecutive nights at The Fruit from Friday, Jan. 17 to Sunday, Jan. 19, Mountain Man will present “Cosmic Prom,” a collaboration with visual artist Nathaniel Russell. An immersive visual and musical experience, each night of “Cosmic Prom” revolves around a theme. The band encourages attendees to dress up — as a starry abyss for Friday’s “Beneath the Stars,” a tropical plant for Saturday’s “Under the Canopy” (bring a plant, too!) and a fish for Sunday’s “Below the Sea.”
The band’s music is consistent with this playfulness. Tracks from their 2018 album “Magic Ship” feature nearly-nonsensical rhymes and frequent name-drops of plants and animals. In just one verse from the track “AGT,” the lilting trio sings: “Artemisia in the morning / Silver green, no bloom adorning / Held within each sagey whorl / A diamond dewdrop glowing borne.” Occasionally, the band reaches beyond this whimsy; “Dog Song” from 2010’s “Made The Harbor,” for example, aches beneath Sarlé’s tender delivery.
The tracklist at “Cosmic Prom” won’t end with Mountain Man’s most recent release, or even their whole catalog. Songs from all of the band members’ associated projects — including the indie-famous electropop duo Sylvan Esso, of which Meath is a member — are on the table. What exactly will be played and who else might join the band (the press release promises “special guests” each night) remains a secret.
Nathaniel Russell, the artist who will transform the space in The Fruit for the show, is in the process of making the visuals a week ahead of the event. Russell has maintained an acquaintance with Mountain Man over the last few years and created their tour poster last fall. In an email, he wrote that his “objects and set designs are stewards and conduits for the feeling” the band is reaching for.
In an email, the band wrote that they hope for Cosmic Prom to provoke “a feeling of community, whimsy and joy,” immersing the audience in an environment that “bring[s] people joy in these hard times.”
Critics often observe that Mountain Man’s music feels like an escape to a simpler time, however imaginary that “simpler time” may be. The band’s melodic style borrows from traditional folk music, and it’s not hard to imagine the album “Magic Ship” broadcasting quietly from a static-filled local radio station in an isolated corner of Appalachia. As the threat of war and news of climate destruction flash on our phone screens, Mountain Man’s music feels like an escape into a more peaceful place and time. This weekend, Cosmic Prom will expand Mountain Man’s oasis to the cosmos, the tropics or the ocean — just take your pick.