Anais Mitchell at Isis Music Hall (Asheville, NC – October 4, 2014)
It takes a certain kind of chutzpah for a songwriter prized for their digestible — if remarkably poetic and often downright literary — songs, to open a well-attended show with a six-and-a-half-minute centuries-old Scottish folk ballad. Then again, if any singer-songwriter making their way around the folk circuit these days can get away with this, it’s Anais Mitchell.
Saturday night, Mitchell took the stage at the historic Isis Music Hall — where the sound is impeccable for these sorts of shows, mind you — and opened with “Willie o’ Winsbury” from her 2013 EP Child Ballads, a collaboration with Jefferson Hamer. But, even without Hamer’s dexterous guitar solos and dangerously tight harmonies present at this show, Mitchell’s delivery of the traditional song was exquisite. She has a well-proven knack for walking onstage, directly into the zone of empathy and emotionalism that drives so many of her musical narratives; such that, even when she’s solo-performing songs she wrote and recorded with a collaborator or an ensemble cast in mind (as with selections from Hadestown), nothing is lacking in the performance.
This night, there were several tunes from Hadestown — Mitchell’s impressive post-apocalyptic working-class folk opera interpretation of the Orpheus myth, which was released in 2010 with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) singing the role of Orpheus, Mitchell as Euridyce, Greg Brown as Hades, and Ani DiFranco as Hades’ wife. Since that recording, Mitchell has traveled the U.S., putting on several performances of the opera, using singer-songwriters from the local and regional music scenes in the towns where the tour has taken her. She noted that she’s hoping to create a full stage production of the piece in the months (or perhaps years) ahead. It remains one of the most stunning creative accomplishments to emerge from the contemporary folk singer-songwriter world in recent years, so I personally look forward to seeing the full production come to fruition.
But, in addition to re-introducing many of the Hadestown tunes, Mitchell opened up the floor to requests early on, delivering “Old Fashioned Hat” and “Cosmic American” as though she were practiced and prepared for both. Mentioning she wrote both for the same man, years apart, she told how she and he — and their baby Ramona — are touring the country in the family SUV. This explained the somewhat random disconnectedness of much of the set list, not that lack of set list flow really put a damper on things. The songs stand on their own, no matter where you put them.
Songs and stories, that is. “Shepherd” and “Young Man in America” (the latter, the title rack of 2012’s remarkable album of the same name) was based on her father’s poetry. “Tailor” — a simple but intense heartbreak tune that leads its narrator from lovesick immersion to self-deprecation, to self-awareness — was originally intended to be a song about the oil industry, inspired by the film There Will Be Blood, of all things.
Though Mitchell delivered from across her several recordings (including from xoa — the solo-acoustic, somewhat informal, greatest-hits-style recording she made with Gary Paczosa, which released this week), the most resonant moment of the night was her delivery of “Two Kids,” from her 2004 album Hymns for the Exiled. During college, Mitchell spent a semester studying in Cairo, hanging out in Tahrir Square before it was known worldwide as the launching place for the Arab Spring. She traveled to Syria with a friend, where she met a Syrian poet who wanted to collaborate with her. She told him she wanted to write a song from the perspective of two children — one American and one Iraqi — to shed a light into the humanity of the Iraq war. He wrote her an extensive poem in the dialect of an Iraqi village just across the border from Syria. She took one verse from his poem and turned it into this arresting tune, which holds new meaning now, as Syria’s own story of unrest and upset unfolds by the day:
Anais Mitchell music, tour dates, and other info is available at her website.