Anaïs Mitchell, Bush Hall, London. June 4th 2011
Anaïs Mitchell has been a regular visitor to the UK since 2005 when she was invited over by promoters Acoustic Sussex to play a few dates in support of her 2004 release HYMNS FOR THE EXILED. Since that debut, six years on, one EP and two albums later she has built a loyal constituency that encompasses the young, not so young and everybody in-between, as evidenced by the packed room at London’s Bush Hall.
Greeting the audience with ‘Hello London!’ and launching in immediately with Wedding Song from 2010’s HADESTOWN Mitchell at a stroke invoked fond memories of the triumphant staging of her folk-opera in the city earlier this year. Sitting to her right this evening was Michael Chorney, on guitar. He has been collaborating with her since HYMNS FOR THE EXILED as producer, arranger and accompanist. Chorney’s intricate and accomplished playing throughout the evening was a joy and complimented, beautifully, Mitchell’s poetic lyricism. Together they weaved their way through a set-list which to draw a parallel with my comment about the audience, included new songs, old songs and ones in between.
Mitchell is a contradiction in terms – one the one hand you see a young woman with a sweet, almost naïve air about her, singing in a child like voice, yet on the other hand, her writing is very powerful with hard hitting political lyrics dressed up as fine storytelling. An example of what I mean was given when three songs in she said ‘we’ll do an oldie’ and then talked about the events which have recently unfolded in the Middle East – the ‘Arab Spring’. In ‘honour of Egypt’ she played Before the Eyes of Storytelling Girls. Another example tonight was Out of Pawn her response to the anger she felt at her (then) President’s lack of effective action to the devastation caused by the 2005 hurricane in New Orleans. Mitchell’s story of ‘Katrina’ found its voice through a love song.
A measure of an audience’s respect for an artist’s body of work comes from not just wanting to hear the familiar material but eagerly anticipating new material. It was indicative of Mitchell’s standing with her fan base that when she played the new songs, of which there were at least four in an eighteen song set, everyone listened with rapt attention. There were back-to-back readings of The Shepherd’s Song and Wilderland, Young Man in America, which I thought worked well as a combination. Other new ones were Tailor and Ships. (I hope I’ve got the titles right; time will tell as the indications are that she is working on new recordings so hopefully they will be featured on her next release).
As she sang, played and did her quirky little dances mid-song she invited Wallis Bird to join in Why We Build the Wall then said ‘we heard a request that made us feel nervous but we might try it – talk amongst yourselves’. Taking the cue from her the audience did just that as she and Chorney worked out what they needed to do to play Wait For Me. That type of improvisation is what gives Mitchell an edge and endears her to her paying public. Finishing the main set with Your Fonder Heart they returned for a two-song encore. The first in honour of Bob Dylan’s 70th Birthday was The Times They Are A-Changin’ for which she was joined by opener Sam Airey and then as he left the stage, Wallis Bird came up again to join in on another from HADESTOWN (she previously sang as one of the three Fates) Way Down Hadestown. Rapturous applause followed so much so that to everyone’s delight Mitchell and Chorney reappeared for a final encore – Cosmic American. Yes, Mitchell is American; one dictionary definition of cosmic is ‘heavenly’ and she certainly is that too. Jela Webb