Fiddler Darol Anger wasn’t eager to join another jazz- and bluegrass-inspired acoustic combo that also included guitar, mandolin, and bass. He’d scratched that itch when he was in the original incarnation of the David Grisman Quintet back in 1976. But in 2012 he found himself in a children’s library in Vermont, playing a pick-up gig with mandolinist Joe K. Walsh, guitarist Grant Gordy, and bassist Ethan Jodziewicz.
“It was, unexpectedly, this real emotional experience, because of the people involved,” says Anger. “I had not expected to still find juice in the string band format, but it was just the right combination of personalities.”
A picture in the library inspired the ensemble’s name, Mr. Sun. Now, seven years after their debut, “The People Need Light,” the band (with new bassist Aidan O’Donnell) is releasing its second album and mounting a tour that stops at Club Passim May 18 and the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport May 21. (Anger and Walsh return to Passim as members of the band EANDA on Aug. 18.)
The reemergence of Mr. Sun comes after a decade of personal and professional changes, and more recently loss, for Anger. Around the time he started teaching at Berklee College of Music, where he was appointed to the faculty in 2010, he moved to Arlington with his wife, Emy Phelps. Anger, a towering figure in acoustic music, and Phelps, a gifted guitarist, singer, and songwriter, quickly became a frequent and welcome presence at both formal and casual musical gatherings around Boston. The two had met when Phelps’s daughter attended a string of fiddle camps on the West Coast that Anger had taught at.
“I was just so impressed by her music. Funny enough it was my first real experience working with a singer/songwriter after so many years of being in mostly instrumental groups,” says Anger.
In 2020 at the age of 64, Phelps died after a struggle with leukemia. Last year Anger released her final recordings as “I’ll Leave You With This: Emy & Darol 2020.” The album ends with “While You Were Sleeping,” a guitar duet Phelps made with Gordy.
“When she made those last few songs, she was really fighting through some incredible physical pain, but she needed to get that music out there,” says Anger. “She gave the world a treasure through those songs. I so treasure the time I had with her, and the music I made with her, and I’m glad we were able to get it out there.”
When Phelps became ill, she and Anger moved to the West Coast to be with her family. Now Anger has relocated to yet another home, Nashville.
“I realized that so many of the kids I taught when I was at Berklee are now in Nashville, although a lot are also in Portland, Maine, where Joe Walsh is making that scene happen,” says Anger. “And a lot of my contemporaries are also here.”
The title of Mr. Sun’s new album, “Extrovert,” is tongue-in-cheek. According to Anger “We’re actually all quiet people who would rather sit at home and tweak out on our instruments and share funny stuff, but when we get in front of an audience, we’re capable of sharing the feeling of togetherness.” The recording mixes songs made famous by the Beatles, Ray Charles, and Charles Mingus with a variety of originals, some of which Anger wrote years ago but had never brought into his live repertoire.
Walsh says that more than just a love of many streams of music unites the group. The bluegrass world is full of flashy virtuosos, but for “Mr. Sun there’s the shared priority of a conversation, and the openness to adjust what each of us is doing in the moment in response to the other. It’s simple to describe that, but that’s not often a shared priority, especially in the string band world.”
For example, “The Traveler’s Prayer,” an instrumental Walsh wrote with Gordy, was inspired “on one of the days where the news was about our country no longer being willing to accept refugees and migrants. The melody arose from being heartsick about it. And as Grant notes, as musicians we are travelers professionally, so onstage he calls it a song for travelers who are traveling by choice or by circumstance.”
Since both Gordy and O’Donnell are based in New York, Mr. Sun is a quartet whose members are in three different parts of the country. “We’re trying to do stuff that bands that live in the house try to do, and I’d say we succeed about 70 percent of the time,” says Anger, laughing.
“The fact that we’re so committed to improvisation and listening makes it possible,” adds Walsh. “If our aesthetic was more about exact precision, that would be harder to achieve with the geographic limitations.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to play with a lot of really great fiddlers,” says Walsh. “But Darol is really the one that they all want to play like — and in many cases, they decided they wanted to play the fiddle because of Darol. He’s so completely himself, and that’s a really beautiful beacon for the rest of us, and for anyone trying to make personal music in the string band world.”