Review: The Coastal Cohorts Bring a Carolina Breeze to the Big Apple
By Megan Wrappe, Contributing Writer, May 22, 2018
Many say that New York City is the greatest city in the world, and for some maybe it is. But if you haven’t traveled below the Mason-Dixon line, you may not know what you’re missing. As someone who grew up smack dab in the middle of North Carolina, I grew up eating biscuits and grits, saying phrases like “bless your heart,” and taking summer trips to the beach. My recent evening spent with The Coastal Cohorts and their performance of King Mackerel & the Blues Are Running: Songs & Stories of the Carolina Coast at the West Bank Cafe’s Laurie Beechman Theatre brought me right back to my childhood.
Listening to the bluegrass sounds of this show felt like opening a window to let a summer breeze blow in. The Coastal Cohorts is comprised of three friends who have known each other since college days — Don Dixon, Bland Simpson and Jim Wann — and they’ve been writing and performing together ever since. The original production of King Mackerel was performed in the 1980s and has traveled all around North Carolina, Virginia, Martha’s Vineyard, a successful summer run at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and to New York City, where it has played over 50 performances over the last 30 years.
The plot for the show is fairly simple: three friends relaying incidents of their childhood and adult trips to the Carolina coast. They regale us with stories of meeting Miss Maddie Jewell who rings her famous dinner bell at The Corncake Inlet Inn — and you better be there on time, otherwise, you won’t eat! Another story of one of them spending the summer with Georgia Rose who changed their way of thinking about the world, and then during one hurricane season, the three of them threw an infamous hurricane party, complete with food and beer to ride out the storm.
King Mackerel is actually more “concert” than musical, but that was just fine with me. Listening to the Cohorts croon away transported me to feeling like I was in a bar back in the Carolinas. It was endearing to see how well the three men work together. Knowing that they’ve been together for more than 30 years, you could pick out the moments where they were “acting” and those moments of seeing them relating through the bonds of true friendship. When they were watching a particularly moving black and white reel of coastal hurricanes, Dixon put his hand on Wann’s shoulder, who patted it and smiled. That is something that can’t be faked, no matter how hard you try.
The stories left me laughing so hard I was crying, reminding me of the storytelling tradition I was introduced to in college. In North Carolina, storytelling is an actual profession, with performers regularly invited to speak at festivals; the stories in King Mackerel felt along the same lines. My favorite was definitely “Rushing the Season,” involving a man trying to fish before the opening of the official season one year. First, taking his boat out, only to have his rod fall in, and when he tried to dive for it, he stripped all of his clothes off in the water. When he tried to get back in the boat, he fell on his fishing tackle box, leaving him covered in hooks stuck in his stomach. As he put on the bottom half of his diving suit to keep warm, he remembered that his house and car keys were at the bottom of the lake in his pants pocket, so when he finally got his boat to shore, he had to hot wire his car to get home. That story has been told hundreds of times by now, but there wasn’t a single person who didn’t laugh at it, or at many of the other stories the trio told.
One aspect about King Mackerel I wasn’t expecting was its almost cult following. At the performance I attended there were several tables of people singing every single word to every single song. I don’t know if the Cohorts shipped everyone up from North Carolina to New York just for this show, but I could tell there were many who had seen these performers numerous times before. I loved the fact that even after 30 years, people are still coming to see this homegrown show outside the borders of the Carolinas.
King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running: Songs & Stories of the Carolina Coast at the West Bank Cafe / Laurie Beechman Theatre, 407 West 42nd Street, on May 18-19, 2018. Written and composed by Don Dixon, Bland Simpson, and Jim Wann. Produced by The Coastal Cohorts; associate producer: Cary Bland Simpson. Directed by Kenny Bell; sound and lighting technician: Frances Ines; featuring the Coastal Cohorts: Don Dixon, Bland Simpson, and Jim Wann.
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Cover: The Coastal Cohorts: (l. to r.) Don Dixon, Bland Simpson and Jim Wann; courtesy of the artists.