Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Watching a radio show recorded before a live studio audience feels like tuning into an earlier decade. In an MP3, song-downloading world, there's still a red-lighted "On the Air" box up on the stage, the tech of the earliest radio days.
Public radio's venerable two-hour "Mountain Stage" is recorded live about 26 times a year, most of the time in Charleston, but sometimes in other West Virginia cities or even out of state. It's produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and runs on Public Radio International stations in about 100 markets nationwide, from Anchorage to Boston.
To hear it in this area, you often have to stream it from its Web site, listen on XM Radio or buy one of the popular compilation CDs of past broadcasts. Or you can drive to West Virginia and not just hear it, but see it.
The show is recorded live, usually on Sundays, at various campus and art center auditoriums around the Mountain State and elsewhere. (Next up: Sept. 24 in Bluefield, W.Va.) But its home stage is in the West Virginia Cultural Center, on the grounds of the state Capitol in Charleston, about a 5 1/2 -hour drive from Washington. That's the trip I made in August for a glimpse at authentic radio and the beauty of the mountains in which it is made.
The scenery is great, but the music was the star of the weekend. Some big names have graced the Mountain Stage, both before and after they made it -- Norah Jones, R.E.M., the Indigo Girls, Emmylou Harris, k.d. lang. But more often, the acts are out of the mainstream. It's a good show for hearing the lesser-knowns who have a shot at becoming the better-knowns.
At the August show, it was Mystery Music Night, with five performers unknown to me. They played tunes ranging from pop to rock to world music, with a little bit of country thrown in.
Walking through glass doors and onto the marble floors of the high-ceilinged Cultural Center, I ended up in a red upholstered seat two rows from the stage. It's general admission, so be sure to arrive early, before the doors open at 5:30. Behind me in line were Paul and Darla Kuryla, both in their mid-forties. They live down the road in Hurricane, about 30 minutes away, and have been ardent fans for about 15 years.
"You hear artists you want to hear and artists you wished you'd heard before," Paul said. "And sometimes those you hope you never hear again." The name that attracted the couple to this particular show was Edwin McCain, a self-acknowledged Meat Loaf look-alike who blends folk, soul and rock.
They hadn't heard of some of the other performers that night: Vienna Teng, a young former software engineer trained in classical piano who sings pop with a sweet voice; Duncan Sheik, a pop singer with gold records and a Grammy nomination under his belt; Chris Smither, a finger-picking acoustic guitarist whose lyrics center on questions of life, death and politics; and Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited. Mapfumo is a 61-year-old Zimbabwean protest singer whose music has a lively Afro-pop beat and politically charged lyrics.
In another day, this might have been called a variety show. "Mountain Stage's" Web site describes it as "the most stylistically varied of any national radio or television performance program." I buy that completely, having heard just one two-hour lineup. (The unedited version ran 2 hours 45 minutes, all for a $15 ticket.)
At 6 o'clock, everyone was seated and the executive producer, Andy Ridenour, came out wearing a plaid button-down shirt and a "Mountain Stage" baseball cap. He explained that the host, Larry Groce, was going to rehearse the theme song and that we, the audience, were going to practice clapping real loud.
Ridenour continued with some standard warm-up banter. Anyone from out of state? People responded that they were from New York City, Louisville and Athens, Ga., and as far away as San Diego and China.