Last year’s Child Ballads, Anaïs Mitchell’s collaboration with Jefferson Hamer of traditional English and Scottish songs, has guided her to a position where she is now primarily viewed in a folk music context. It culminated in a recent appearance at the 2014 BBC Folk Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, where she performed alongside the likes of Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson and Bellowhead.
It is a role she takes on comfortably, yet her wonderfully expressive music isn’t always a straightforward fit into the folk genre. Look further back and it’s clear that country music, both traditional and its alternative offspring, equally informs her music. This was very much in evidence at her show at the Little Theatre in Gateshead, part of a UK tour of intimate venues (she will later refer to it as her ‘family tour’ due to her six month old daughter also being in attendance).
Slightly unexpectedly, she begins with Changer and Old-Fashioned Hat, two tracks from 2007’s The Brightness album. Simpler and cleaner in sound to her more recent material, they demonstrate that while there is an endearing frailty to her voice, there’s also an underlying strength and steeliness (on these songs also being slightly reminiscent of a youthful Emmy Lou Harris).
She moves forward with Wedding Song and Why We Build The Wall, a pair of songs from Hadestown, her breakthrough folk-opera based on the Greek myth of Orpheus. Both are sparse compared to the rich production and wider sound of the album, her vocals part-whispered and the guitar lines skeletal. The album versions may have featured the vocals of Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon and Greg Brown, but tonight they lack nothing, proving just how assured a performer she is, in what is arguably her natural environment.
Willie Of Winsbury was recently voted Best Traditional Track at the 2014 BBC Folk Awards and it is the only track from Child Ballads performed tonight, Mitchell understandably explaining how the harmonies work best when Hamer is present. Tonight it may be shorn of Hamer’s vocals but she carries it off superbly, investing it with real authority.
Possibly her finest moment to date, 2012’s Young Man In America, is generously represented however. As Wilderland leads into the title track, we’re reminded of her ability to stretch, pull and shape her voice to reflect the emotion and hardships recounted throughout that album. The relative carefree swagger of Venus contrasts with the gentler, exposed nature of songs like Shepherd and Tailor, but all show her ability as a storyteller, in particular, one that can convey a sense of confiding and of secrets being shared.
She doesn’t overlook her 2004 album Hymns For The Exiled either. Two Kids proves she can deliver vocals in Arabic just as well as English and requests for I Wear Your Dress are honoured (prompting her to self-deprecatingly comment how heartening it is how people keep asking for her ‘depressing’ songs). She is relaxed and is happy to talk, and her connection with the audience grows throughout the evening. After playing 1984 and Cosmic American she reminisces about some of her early gigs in the north east of England, specifically promoting her debut album at Newcastle’s tiny Morden Tower venue before finishing with Our Lady Of The Underground.
Her decision to play a career-spanning set emphasised how she has developed over the years, highlighting her interest in bigger, more ambitious projects. But essentially, tonight served as a reminder that as a performer Anaïs Mitchell simply goes from strength to strength.