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Sounds Local: Folk roots band The Mammals returns from 10-year hiatus with Turners Falls show

  • After a 10-year hiatus, the folk roots band The Mammals is performing at the Shea Theater Arts Center on Saturday. The band recently released its newest album, “Sunshiner.” Contributed photo

  • HUNTER



For the Recorder
Thursday, November 01, 2018

After a 10-year hiatus, the folk roots band The Mammals is back, and sounding better than ever.

Ruth Ungar and Mike Merenda were living in Cummington in 2001 when they formed the band with Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who Merenda first met when he was working at the fretted instrument workshop in Amherst. All three had strong backgrounds in traditional music and an interest in writing politically charged lyrics.

The band got its start playing at area venues and went on to record for the local Signature Sounds record label. In 2007, the band went on hiatus as husband and wife Ungar and Merenda were starting a family, and Rodriquez-Seeger had recently married and moved to New Orleans.

During the intervening years, fiddle player/vocalist Ungar and banjo player/guitarist/vocalist Merenda recorded and toured under the moniker of Mike + Ruthy. After releasing five albums and evolving from a duo into a full band, in 2017 it seemed like the time was right to bring The Mammals back. Once The Mammals returned, one of the first shows the group played was as the opening band for the Sweetback Sisters at the Shea Theater Arts Center in Turners Falls last September. The Mammals also performed at this year’s Green River Festival.

And now, with a new album called “Sunshiner,” the quintet will perform at the Shea Theater on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. This show is a co-bill with singer-songwriter Sean Rowe.

But why reunite now after so much time has passed?

“We had always intended to get back together, but it was the 2016 election that really got us thinking,” said Merenda in a phone call from Woodstock, N.Y., where he and Ungar live with their two children. “There was a cultural shift with the election of Donald Trump, and there seemed to be this need for strong voices that offer hope and that remind people that dissent is not only okay, but a necessary component of our culture.”

The Mammals had always had a strong social conscious and Merenda felt that the kind of ideas the band had always stood for needed to be championed again.

When it came time to relaunch the group, Rodriguez-Seeger did not want to participate, but he gave Ungar and Merenda his blessings to move forward. They recruited some musicians that had worked with The Mammals in the past, including local musician Ken Maiuri, who plays keyboard. (Maiuri will not be playing at the Shea show as he’s currently on tour with the B-52’s).

But from the start, Ungar and Merenda envisioned this new version of the group as a revolving collection of collaborators. For this tour, they have recruited a group of accomplished musicians from the Woodstock area to form a touring quintet on the fiddle, banjo, guitar, organ, bass and drums.

The new album “Sunshiner” is the kind of rollicking roots music with a message that we have come to expect from The Mammals. All of the material was written by Ungar and Merenda, who blend traditional and contemporary music to create a sound that is fun and fresh. The band mixes up danceable numbers like the zydeco-flavored “Doctor’s Orders” and the pop-influenced “Open the Door” with more serious songs like “Culture War” and “My Baby Drinks Water.” The latter was written by Ungar before The Mammals’ reunion and was inspired by the mothers and their babies whose water supply was threatened by a proposed pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

But one thing that stands out about “Sunshiner” is its spirit of hope and optimism.

“You need the sugar with the medicine,” Merenda said. “Someone once called The Mammals ‘a party band with a conscious.’ If you are going to make people think, then you are going to need to release the static with some dance music.”

I told Merenda that with all that is going on in the world, I’m was actually surprised it isn’t an angrier album.

“You aren’t the first person to say that,” Merenda said with a laugh. “One thing we have discovered about ourselves as we get older is that we find it to be more productive to sing about what we are for, rather than what we are against.”

Merenda added that there is plenty to be against these days, and that he and Ungar are writing some of those songs, but he feels that is not the most productive way to engage with the audience and build community.

“It can be polarizing, and lord knows we don’t need more of that,” he said. “Whatever we can do to counteract polarization seems to be the way to go right now.”

Merenda knows something about polarizing an audience, as he received some flak for a song he wrote back in 2004 called “The Bush Boys,” which was a less than favorable look at the ex-president. He doesn’t think that kind of reaction would occur today, and is actually writing new lyrics to update the song.

Until then, the track “Sunshiner” seems to be emerging as a new anthem for The Mammals’ fans. Crowds love singing along to the line “Yes my daddy was a miner/ But I’m gonna be a sunshiner/ And my grandaddy was a miner/ But I’m gonna be a sunshiner.” The song is concerned about the environment and advocates for solar energy, and the term “sunshiner” also applies to individuals who are committed to building a better future.

‘“Sunshiner’ is the perfect title track — it’s respecting the past, but embracing the present,” said Merenda, noting that it’s a great sing-along song. “To hear a whole hall of people singing ‘I’m gonna be a sunshiner’ is really empowering.”

So, come prepared to sing along on Saturday. Additionally, the band will be filming the show.

“We decided we wanted to film in a beautiful theater with a great audience, and I think this is going to be the perfect choice,” Merenda said. “We have always had good shows in western Mass. It is one of our hometowns, so it always feels good to perform in that region. It’s like a homecoming in some ways.”

Advance tickets are $20 and can be purchased at signaturesoundspresents.com. Tickets are $25 at the door. Doors open at 7 p.m.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com.