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Anais Mitchell - Union Chapel, London, 25/1/2011

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 21 / 2 / 2011

Anais Mitchell - Union Chapel, London, 25/1/2011


Ben Howarth at the Union Chapel in London watches American singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell, with an extensive set of guest musicians including both Thea Gilmore and Jackie Leven, reenact her concept album, 'Hadestown', to standing ovation and hypnotic effect

‘Hadestown’, Anais Mitchell’s concept-album setting the Orpheus myth amongst a post-Apocalyptic depression-era America, was one of last year’s finest albums. On paper, its premise sounds too pretentious. Mitchell calls it a “folk-opera“. Possibly the only words more likely to frighten off indie fans than “concept album”. But, it took just one listen for me to realise that I’d stumbled upon a little piece of magic. I already knew and loved Mitchell’s songwriting (she has the vital knack of making a song sound warm and inviting on the first listen and still exciting on the fiftieth). But, the addition of regular collaborator Michael Chorney’s sumptuous string parts lead to remarkable music, combining devilishly detailed lyrics with dextrous arrangements. It helped that joining Mitchell on vocals were Justin (Bon Iver) Vernon, Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown and Ben (Low Anthem) Knox Miller. Londoners have had plenty of chance to see Mitchell perform these songs on her own (she first wrote and performed 'Hadestown' as a stage show long before she made it into an album), and on each occasion she had expressed a hope that next time, she’d be able to afford to bring the full band with her. At last, she had that chance. I was excited. Chorney’s band was exceptional - swooping drums, lilting guitars, virtuoso double-bass and, just occasionally, thunderous noise from an exceptional drummer. Their efforts made me return to the recorded ‘Hadestown’, aware that it had even more to offer than I’d realised. Mitchell didn’t, however, have all the vocalists with her. Instead, a somewhat random cast of British singers joined the Americans onstage Although Ani DiFranco was herself touring the UK, and had been part of the cast when 'Hadestown; was performed in Glasgow, she was playing her own show tonight. Taking her place was British songwriter Thea Gilmore, whose habit for prolifically churning out album-after-album of spiky, politicised folk-rock made her an ideal fit. She swung into one of the album’s key tracks, the sassy vaudeville romp of ‘Our Lady of the Underground’ with (dare I say it?) far more abandon than DiFranco had managed on record. The toughest task of the night went to folk singer Jim Moray, in his day job a gifted interpreter of traditional English songs, who covered for the absent Vernon. It seemed to take him a little while to settle, but he took hold of ‘If It’s True’ and makes it his own. On record, it’s one of the least memorable of Hadestown’s songs, with Vernon curiously understated. In Moray’s hands, it’s a huge-hearted ballad. I find myself thinking that the next generation of Brit School pop stars might learn something useful from him about the difference between emotion and emoting. The parts of the Fates were taken by three-relatively unknown local folk singers - Wallis Bird, Nuala Kennedy and Sharon Lewis, whose three part harmonies were delicately delivered. Bird had already won over those parts of the crowd not stuck in the bar with an impressive support slot, and - as others have observed - appeared to know the songs backwards. She would have - she helped sing them when Mitchell performed at London’s tiny 12 Bar Club last year. Those in the audience familiar with Mitchell’s solo shows would have recognised her strange, seemingly involuntary, twitchy dance, and her giddy delight at being on stage at all. Her enthusiasm seems to be infectious - each performer seemed to have a huge smile on their face throughout. The show was generally at its best when Mitchell was involved - these are her songs and she knows them well. Her voice is often compared to Joanna Newsome (a tad unfairly, I think), but no one would be here if they couldn’t stomach it. This was the fifth time I had seen her in concert, and provided she keeps coming back, I don’t intend for it to be the last. Alas, the show wasn’t quite perfect. Scottish folk singer Jackie Leven, something of a hero-figure in my family, is probably as admired for his mid-show storytelling as he is for his songs (download ‘Sting’s Dead: The Story of the Death of the Well Known Singer’ if you want proof of that). But, he didn’t always appear to have got his tongue round his words tonight, and - given that we’d all got the album at home - the need for his narration wasn’t really clear. It was hard not to think that Leven’s booming Scottish twang was wasted without a singing part. He’d have been an excellent choice to take on Greg Brown’s deep throated take on the ominous 'Hades'. Instead, Martin Carthy was an unfortunate choice. A legend of folk he may be, but his weedy West country burr had no menace, and if that wasn’t bad enough, he clearly hadn’t learned the songs, ruining ‘The Wall’ by repeatedly missing his cue. Nevertheless, I left the Union Chapel elated, the flaws easily washed over by the great bits. A laid-back reprise of ‘Way Down Hadestown’, performed without mikes, summed up the open, warm nature of the evening. Mitchell and Chorney deserved their packed venue and standing ovation - they’d made a wonderful album and turned it into a great evening out.

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Anais Mitchell - Union Chapel, London, 25/1/2011

Anais Mitchell - Union Chapel, London, 25/1/2011

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