Live Music + Gig Reviews

Bonny Light Horseman & London Contemporary Orchestra @ Barbican, London

15 September 2023

The songs of the American alt-folk band receive sympathetic and embellishing orchestral treatment in a sublime show

Bonny Light Horseman

Bonny Light Horseman (Photo: D James Goodwin)

Bonny Light Horseman have only been releasing music since 2020 but their sound is steeped in traditions and history that dates back much further. They record as a trio (Anaïs Mitchell, Fruit Bats frontman Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman (who has also played with The National, Hiss Golden Messenger and Josh Ritter) but for tonight’s show at the Barbican are expanded to a five piece and have the considerable backing of the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Robert Ames.

Their two albums to date, 2020’s eponymous debut and 2022’s Rolling Golden Holy (which Mitchell spoke to us about in more detail) have established their credentials as an alt-folk/alt-country outfit of note (their talents are pulled from different sources but the term supergroup seems to miss the mark when discussing them). Their songs (both renditions of old traditional tunes and original compositions) centre on a classic brand of songwriting that interweaves different styles. Their music hasn’t suggested itself as an obvious candidate for the orchestral treatment so the show offered an intriguing prospect as to how the large scale LCO would be employed (the arrangements were courtesy of The National’s Bryce Dessner who has made a name for himself over recent years in such a role).

The band are positioned to the right of the stage, seemingly squeezed on given the size of the orchestra (any thoughts that this could be a slimmed down LCO were very much misguided). The early moments see sympathetic yet quietly embellishing contributions from the orchestra. Opening tracks Exile and Comrade Sweetheart benefit from some gentle warmth, the orchestra both giving the songs space while also smoothing out any rough edges. There’s a rustic, patchwork quality to the band that is in contrast to the pinpoint professionalism of the orchestra but both components find a close common ground to ensure the show is an undoubted success.

For some songs the band play alone, the LCO sat motionless in the dark (it’s particularly effective on the exquisite Magpie’s Nest). It shows a pleasing sense of restraint and helps showcase the contribution of the additional band members (JT Bates on drums and Cameron Ralston on bass). Both Mitchell and Johnson’s voices elevate the songs to a higher level, the former’s expressive and characterful, the latter’s raw and weathered but still crystal clear. On Jane Jane, their version of an old American spiritual song, it feels like there are few singers more suited to singing its simple, nursery rhyme lines than Mitchell, especially the one about the “itty, bitty babies”.

Rolling Golden Holy’s grandstanding alt-country closer Cold Rain And Snow recalls the likes of Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams while Fleur De Lis remains as poignant live as on record. The most successful moments arrive with California, The Roving and Deep In Love, the orchestral arrangements for each providing a palpable sense of uplift and expanse. Mention is made of a third album being in the works which comes as most welcome news. It’ll most probably continue their stripped down musical aesthetic but for one night the combination of minimalist, tradition-respecting alt-folk band and vibrant contemporary orchestra made for a sublime pairing.

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