As reliable as the holidays, Peter Mulvey’s takeover of the Café Carpe happens every year about this time. This year there were going to be eleven shows, covering every weekend from now till just before Christmas, a musical Advent calendar of sorts. Each night features a different panel of guests with Mulvey playing the ringleader for an evening of songwriters in the round. I usually try to make at least one of these; it wouldn’t be the holidays without it. This year the choice was easy since tonight Mulvey was joined by Madison favorites Amanda and Allan Rigell of Count This Penny and the terrific violinist Randy Sabien. I’d only seen Sabien once before (also with Mulvey), but I didn’t expect him to be the comic relief.
When his turn came around the first time, he announced solemnly, “this is a seasonal number,” before playing a popular tune reworked into a lighthearted Christmas song. This continued for the rest of the evening, and each time he made his pronouncement it was a little funnier than the time before. An example was his version of “Yesterday,” where “Christmas seemed so far away, now it’s only days away.” Since I knew him only as a fiddler, it was surprising to see him play guitar for most of his own numbers, to which a mock annoyed Mulvey commented how dispiriting it was that Sabien was better on his second instrument than he was on his first. “Actually,” he replied, “it’s my third.” When not playing his own songs Sabien joined in with Mulvey and Count This Penny on theirs. It’s unlikely he’d heard CTP’s songs much before this afternoon, but he played them like he’d played them on the record.
Despite being relative newcomers to the local music scene, and this being their first appearance at the Carpe, CTP definitely held up their part of the show. They played most of the songs of their impressive sophomore record Pitchman, making the most of Amanda’s gorgeous voice and Allan’s smart storytelling. They switched the bass guitar back and forth between them depending on who was backing the other. Highlights from the pair included Allen’s suicide (or was it?) ballad “Mountain,” a cover of Nick Brown’s “Living This Way” and of course the indelible title track. While they played their own songs perfectly, they looked a little lost when the other two played. Amanda claimed afterward that their New Year’s resolution was to get better at their instruments.
Mulvey was terrific all night, playing songs I knew by heart and ones I hadn’t heard before. He didn’t seem to mind a bit that the Rigells hadn’t joined in on other songs, and he looked quite pleased for the entire evening, saying afterward that he thought this was the night to beat. I didn’t make it to any of the other nights, but I am pretty sure he was right. A friend who was seeing Count This Penny for the first time just kept whispering “Best. Show. E-ver.” to me. That might be going a bit far, but it was terrifically enjoyable.