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Anais Mitchell - Luminaire, London, 25/1/2010

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 13 / 2 / 2010

Anais Mitchell - Luminaire, London, 25/1/2010


At the London Luminaire Ben Howarth sees Anais Mitchell and her label mate at Ana di Franco's Righteous Babe label Erin McKeown play an exuberant acoustic set to promote Mitcherll's forthcoming folk opera, 'Hadestown'

An old friend of this writer, the Luminaire in Kilburn is the place where I have seen at least half of all the gigs I’ve been at since moving to London in 2007. And some special ones too - an excellent performance from Darren Hayman (when he debuted songs that would go on to be standout parts of his career defining concept album, ‘Pram Town’), a raucous tour-de-force from Okkervil River (which turned me into an overnight lifelong fan, as brilliant gigs so often do) and last year, a farewell show from Australia’s much-missed Lucksmiths. But none was quite so impressive as Anais Mitchell in January 2009 - one of the rare moments when an audience seemed to embrace the night and, as one, conspire to turn it into more than just a singer getting on stage and running through her set. One moment in particular defined the evening, having introduced her song with a long speech in which her excitement about President Obama’s election overcame her, she played ‘1984’, a love song with a tragic twist, written at a point when President Bush’s war agenda seemed like it would turn the US into a police state. Mitchell noticed two people in the front row singing along to 1984 and said “who are you guys? You know the words”. Evidently, she was used to playing to polite audiences, but not devoted ones. The response? The whole audience started singing along - and Mitchell returned the favour with the performance of her life. Almost a year to the day later, she was on the same stage, playing to a venue that was packed to the rafters, either with those of us who had been there before or with people who had been dragged along on the promise of something special. In all honesty, tonight’s show wasn’t quite as exciting - I doubt that it could ever have been. In 2009, the audience arrived hoping for a good show and had shivers sent down their spine. In 2010, we arrived expecting something exceptional. We weren’t disappointed (that exceptional show was exactly what we got), but this time, the delightful element of surprise was understandably absent. One pleasant surprise, however, did come in the form of the support act: Mitchell’s Righteous Babe label mate, Erin McKeown. Decked out in an immaculate white suit (I learned later that she refuses to ever appear in stage in anything but tailored clothes), she delivered a confident set in an erudite fashion, more than compensating for the fact that her lack of height made it quite hard to see what was happening over the heads of a full house. If her live show lacks the wide variety of instruments and styles that made her most recent album, ‘Hundreds of Lions’, so enjoyable, then it more than compensated for that with sheer enthusiasm. She’s a fan of crowd participation and long song introductions, often a risky policy, but tonight’s audience were more than willing to indulge her - and were rewarded with songs that veered between unvarnished sentimentality (‘You, Sailor’) and sardonic humour (‘(Put the fun back in) the Funeral’). After going down so well as a supporting act, McKeown was soon back on stage, lending her hands in aid of Anais Mitchell, as she performed a selection of songs from her forthcoming album, ‘Hadestown’. This album is (take a deep breath…) a folk-opera, set in a post-Apocalyptic America and based on the Orpheus myth. Its better than it sounds, trust me! If this album is as successful as it deserves to be (with Ani DiFranco and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on board as vocalists, I suspect it will be), then Mitchell will probably be in a position to bring her full band with her the next time she comes to England. But, in the meantime, she remains a compelling solo performer, especially with guitar skills that are more technically accomplished than most. Most of the highlights of her back catalogue get an airing tonight - the beautiful ballad ‘Your Fonder Heart’, the disarmingly elegant ‘Old Fashioned Hat’, the moving letter to an uncle ‘Out of Pawn’ and the aforementioned ‘1984’. Perhaps the reason why she is able to write a folk-opera, when nobody else could expect to get away with such seeming folly, is that she is wonderfully adept at making daunting subjects into delicate songs. Indeed, where Erin McKeown filled her onstage banter with cheeky jokes, Anais Mitchell begins her set by introducing a song about a shepherd whose wife dies in childbirth, while he is tending his flock. But that’s not to say she is humourless - there are a series of amusing anecdotes out of the tour diaries of this pair of ‘stablemates’, who had spent the last fortnight travelling the UK together. Unlike last time, it is the songs from the opera that get the wildest cheers - in particular her take on ‘Our Lady of the Underground’ (sung by Ani DiFranco on record, but arguably better when its author takes lead), a multi-layered song, which manages to seem both silly, sultry and scary all at once. Where DiFranco delivers this track with her typical understatement, Mitchell opts to let go entirely, bringing the imagery of lost souls finding slight scraps of joy in a hopeless world to life. If the evening contained one slight faux pas, it was the decision to offer just one song as an encore (though this might be excused on the grounds that Mitchell was having to struggle through a heavy cold without her favourite American pharmaceutical product, a zinc remedy that hasn’t passed through Britain’s rather more rigorous licensing process). Having explained that they failed to find common ground in 80s pop or hip-hop, Mitchell and McKeown opted to close the show with a cover of a gospel song, ’Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down’. For the second time in a year, Mitchell then left the stage to unanimous applause, whooping and the odd ear-splitting scream. It's nothing less than she deserves and perhaps the next time she comes to Britain the enhanced reputation she takes from Kilburn will have spread to everywhere else.

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Anais Mitchell - Luminaire, London, 25/1/2010

Anais Mitchell - Luminaire, London, 25/1/2010

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