Live Reviews

Anaïs Mitchell @ Union Chapel, London

25 January 2011

Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown was one of last year’s most ambitious and beautiful albums, a “folk opera” based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, transposed to the age of the Depression and dustbowl blues. Originating as a theatre piece staged in Mitchell’s home stateof Vermont, the music references Bertolt Brecht, Tom Waits and even traditional Afghan music, exquisitely arranged by Michael Chorney. The album also features an outstanding cast of guestvocalists, including Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) as Orpheus, Ani DiFranco as Persephone and Greg Brown – with his extraordinary mineshaft of a voice – as Hades.

Tonight’s concert performance – one of only two in the UK – was undoubtedly a special event, and the crowd was bubbling with asense of occasion enhanced by Union Chapel’s ceremonial atmosphere. The show required, however, a little expectation management: the guestspots were to be taken by various British folk singers, several of whom had never performed the material before. The results weresometimes glorious, sometimes downright disappointing.

Mitchell herself (singing Eurydice) was a captivating presence and confident ringmaster: her solo song Flowers was stunning, lump-in-the-throat stuff. By contrast, her cast of singers all exhibited various degrees of shakiness and nerves, not quite knowing what to do with their hands in the absence of a guitar, not quite committing to their characterisations. The show’s lack of polish was understandable, as were the decisions to perform it without staging and using local singers from the world of folk rather than, say, musical theatre. But the lack of drama in the performances (and in Jackie Leven‘s narration) represented a real missed opportunity.

Thea Gilmore – vocally, at times, a dead ringer for DiFranco – caught the knowing, sexy complexity of Persephone: her Our Lady Of The Underground was a highlight, complete with a scorching muted trombone solo from Paul Taylor. Her Hades was Martin Carthy, the biggest name on the bill, but also the night’s big disappointment. He barely knew the tunes and, in a blue Hawaiian shirt, got nowhere near the brooding menace of Hadestown’s “mean old boss”. Jim Moray as Orpheus had the toughest job of the lot, following Justin Vernon’s multi-tracked splendour and playing the greatest singer inhistory to boot. Despite his fidgety physicality, Moray warmed up into the role and his performance of If It’s True was impassioned and affecting.

Nuala Kennedy, Wallis Bird and Sharon Lewis were excellent as The Fates – serving as Greek chorus, infernal minions and backing singers. Special mention must go to Bird, who not only did a fine job as the solo support act, but was also the only guest singer to seem totally immersed in Mitchell’s songs. And what songs: the lyrics combine narrative clarity with fiendishly clever touches of wordplay; Chorney’s arrangements have a poise and sparseness that allows the material plenty of breathing room, and were faithfully recreated by Chorney’s well-drilled six-piece band of guitar plus drums, double bass, cello, viola and trombone.

The “reverse elegy” of I Raise My Cup To Him closed the story to a rapturous ovation before the band and singers returned for an unplugged singalong of Way Down Hadestown. Though the encore left the audience with a sense of the warmth and community at the heart of Mitchell’s project, it was nonetheless hard to shake the feeling that this often delightful evening could – should – have been an extraordinary one. Let’s hope this isn’t the last London hears of Hadestown.

buy Anais Mitchell MP3s or CDs
Spotify Anais Mitchell on Spotify

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.