Offbeat | Mt. Joy rocks Stage AE on “Fall Tour ’21”

Offbeat is a bi-weekly blog offering new and meaningful takes on all things media — podcasts, Instagram posts and everything in between.

By Jillian Rowan, For The Pitt News

Microphone interference rattles through the airwaves, soon succeeded by Matt Quinn’s warm, tender voice. 

 “We’re a band called Mt. Joy, and we’re from right here,” he said.

I remember the goosebumps that lined my arms when I heard those words spoken by Quinn, the band’s lead singer, in January 2019. Mt. Joy played at The Fillmore, Philadelphia’s equal-parts elegant and edgy music joint. The then-rising folk rock group opened for indie icons Rainbow Kitten Surprise.

I watched my favorite band, Mt. Joy, take the stage yet again two years later, on Oct. 2, after many months lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. This time they headlined my new home — Pittsburgh.

Nestled next to Heinz Field on the North Shore, Stage AE is Pittsburgh’s indoor-outdoor music venue. It boasts a versatile yet intimate setup with an outdoor capacity of around 5,500. I just so happened to be in the front row hugging the guard rail as Mt. Joy rocked Stage AE for the 24th show of their national stretch, “Fall Tour ’21.”

Mt. Joy is the brainchild of five young musicians, becoming an overnight indie sensation in 2016. The band embodies a reignited musical spark between high school friends Matt Quinn and Sam Cooper, in addition to then-roommate and struggling producer Sotiris Eliopoulos, keyboardist Jackie Miclau and Michael Byrnes, a bassist the group found on Craigslist.

Before their set started, I motioned to the band’s photographer. I asked him how he found himself on the opposite side of the barrier. Band photography is my dream job — being able to create a tangible, beautiful “something” out of doing what I love. I could tell he was grinning under his mask by the way the creases around his eyes softened. He introduced himself as Cooper Baumgartner, music photographer and videographer.

“You have to grind like hell,” he replied with a chuckle.

Baumgartner got into filming Mt. Joy with a bit of luck and absolute finesse. 

“I wore an all-black outfit, carried a camera bag and nobody asked questions,” he confessed.

Baumgartner’s since filmed all of Mt. Joy’s pandemic-catered drive-in concerts — the Pittsburgh set was just his fourth “normal” show. We exchanged contact information, and he later shot me the message, “Hope you get to do this someday!”

Standing in the front row is an experience — no absurdly tall folk, glaring phone flashlights or flailing hands obstructing your view, it’s just you and the band. Of course, I danced in the beautiful light displays as the band strummed through their hit songs —  “I’m Your Wreck,” “Sheep,” “Younger Days,” “Julia,” “Dirty Love,” “Cardinal,” “Jenny Jenkins” and “Silver Lining,” to name a few.

Mt. Joy writes the kind of music that makes me reminisce on a life I’ve never lived and people I’ve never met. The kind of music that becomes the soundtrack to my life, songs that play softly in the background through all my triumphs and downfalls. The kind of music that makes the mundane euphoric and romanticizes the thin line between pain and pleasure. This, to me, is music that makes the sour taste of dwindling youth a little sweeter.

As the lights fade and the show nears a bittersweet end, a hazy caramel glow frames Quinn. Released amid the craze of the pandemic, the Billboard-ranking song “Strangers” begins, guided by delicate guitar strums and airy piano keys. 

“Well, I guess I’ll have to fall in love with strangers,” Quinn croons, his voice a stained cherry wine.

Videographer Francis Galluppi characterized the song to Relix Magazine as “a beautiful metaphor for the confounding sense of insecurity and wonderment that comes from exiting a relationship and entering into the uncertainty of life ahead.” I relished the night in the company of strangers, cradled by the low-hanging notes of the bass and shocked back to reality by that last lingering drum beat, which filled the night sky long after the song ended. 

While the smoke machine haze clears and my ears begin to ring, the management crew hurriedly cleaned up the stage. Picking up amps and rolling away keyboards, the unsung heroes prepared for the next act.

A stagehand ripped up the setlist from the floor with a swift tug and crumpled it up into a duct tape-covered paper ball. Another crew member hopped off the stage and thrust the glorious, sticky wad right into my hand. Grabby fingers lingered, but I shoved the relic deep into the jean pocket of my overalls. Can you tell I’m an indie band groupie?

I had the pleasure of talking to Quinn after the show. We laughed about being from the same county — our high schools play each other in football every fall. Though I can’t imagine the sheer number of people he meets every night on his 49-show tour, it was like talking to a friend. Wearing a faded, “kindness is cool” T-shirt, Quinn certainly lives up to the message.

Leaving Stage AE, I felt an immense sense of gratitude bubbling up within me. Mt. Joy and their music is the most honest portrayal of a life well-lived — dotted with dreams, failures, love, tragedy, the gut-punching disappointment of reality, exhilaration and lust for younger days.

I’ll never forget the unreleased sounds that blessed my ears, the conversations I had and the happiness I felt that night. Seeing the makers of the music that shaped my life, not only once but twice, is something I’m still reeling over.

I can’t wait for round three.