Live Reviews

Anaïs Mitchell @ Little Theatre, Gateshead

21 February 2014

Anaïs MitchellLast 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.

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More on Anais Mitchell
Anaïs Mitchell @ Little Theatre, Gateshead
Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer – Child Ballads
Anaïs Mitchell – Young Man In America
Anaïs Mitchell @ Union Chapel, London
Anaïs Mitchell – late addition to the next big thing?

  • Kim Hadleigh

    Er, thats ‘based around the Orpheus myth, set in a post apocalyptic, great depression era America’-
    not space suits, more old fashioned hats…

  • Pleased you picked up on Anais. She is already big in the States as anything on Righteous Babe- Ani DiFranco’s label, is immediately opened up to all her adoring fans and rightly so. She is so refreshing, unlike Little Boots, Florence & The Machine or Lady Gaga who seem to be repeating something we’ve all heard before.

  • Hi Gabby. Nice to see you on here!
    What’s odd about Righteous Babe stuff is that it doesn’t seem to translate to a wide audience over here in the way you say it does Stateside. Ani’s forever showcasing her roster as support acts in her own tours, such as Hamell on Trial, who supported when I saw her at Bush Hall in 2007. But there doesn’t seem to be any follow-through. She relies on word of mouth, and what marketing she and her organisation does do almost seems to be grudgingly done.
    And maybe that’s where those derided marketing departments come in. They create a base from which an artist can continue to make music because funds come in and they have, if you like, a career.
    As for my near-neighbour Florence, give a girl a chance. She’s not even released an album yet.
    So I wonder if the real target of ire ought not to be the marketing departments or the artists, but the BBC’s Sound of 2009 (or whichever year it is) poll.
    Has it actually polarised opinion about the acts it mentions so much that people ‘in the know’ in music have actually started to shy away from the acts it recommends? And not because of the acts themselves, but because they don’t like the feeling of having an elite ramming its opinions down the collective throat of the masses?
    I cite Tim’s recent White Lies review:
    He spent a whole paragraph deciding they were worthy of a mere star for their debut album because of their temerity to be featured in the poll. If they’d not been featured, I wonder if Tim would’ve reviewed in the way he did. He can answer for himself, of course.
    There’s a feature in there ^^ somewhere…

  • @ Kim Hadleigh: important distinction. Corrected now.

  • Tim Lee

    No. I probably wouldn’t have. But I my ire is elastic, push it far enough with your incessant and unnecessary hyping up of bands and it snaps back with a mighty force.
    Frankly, the spirit of those ‘Sound Of…’ lists has been lost. The original, or at least the romantic, reason for them should be akin to a trusted friend sharing the benefit of their knowledge with others. There should be no ulterior motive.
    Now, it’s a just a competition. A bunch of self-righteous arseholes sitting in a windowless bunker trying to outdo each other in terms of predicting trends.
    Plus, it’s now just self-perpetuating. Bands become the ‘Sound of 2009’ because they’ve appeared in the poll tipping them as the ‘Sound of 2009’.
    A Baudrillardian nightmare. So what’s the point?

  • Michael- thank you for the reply- well said. I saw Ani at The Forum last year and although it was one of my favourite gigs ever I couldn’t escape the feeling that 90% of the audience were Americans/ Canadians and that she was really just singing to them and slightly mocking the English!!
    I feel I should apologise for my comment on Florence – I know what its like to not get down on record what you have in your head and to fall into traps- I do have a lot of respect for her and the fact that she has a wonderful Harp player in her band. Good luck to her.
    X Gabby

  • John Murphy

    Ooh a busy blog! Thanks for the tip about Anais Rob, she sounds just up my strasse as they say in Germany. I’m going to toddle off in a moment and investigate further. Anything Ani-eaque (the reason I started writing for OMH, 8 years ago) is good for me.
    Anyway, this Sound of 2009 poll business. I can kind of see what Tim means – music seems to be being taken over by people who are determined to see themselves as “tastemakers”, as if anyone has the right to dictate to someone else what they should be enjoying.
    However the fact that acts have been featured in such a poll doesn’t mean we should automatically hate them. Personally, I don’t like White Lies, because to me it’s something that’s been done before by much better bands such as Interpol and – yes, I can hear you tutting now – Editors (sorry, I still like them).
    But I love Florence & The Machine just as much now as when I heard very rough demos of Girl With 1 Eye and Hospital Beds. And the fact that she appears to be the music business’ tip for success in exactly the same way that Adele was last year hasn’t put me off her in the slightest.
    Same goes for Passion Pit, who I picked up on after hearing a review on the Guardian’s podcast, listened to the EP and loved it. Just because they’re gaining popularity now doesn’t mean I’m embarrassed to be listening to them.

  • John Murphy

    Oh and the whole Ani thing – I saw her in New York a few years and was taken aback at how frenzied the audience were, especially compared to the handful of times I’ve seen her in Manchester. So yeah, something is definitely being lost on us Brits as she’s probably my favourite singer/songwriter of the last decade.