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Anaïs Mitchell: Heaven to Hades in 90 Minutes

December 4th, 2012

Anaïs Mitchell – The Bowery Ballroom – December 3, 2012


Anais Mitchell began her 90-minute show at The Bowery Ballroom last night with an a cappella hymn, she and her bandmates singing gospel in a heavenly, monklike three-part harmony. It was utterly beautiful: a transcendent moment kicking off a show full of them. The hymn melted perfectly into “Dyin’ Day,” off Mitchell’s newest album, Young Man in America, her voice mixing with banjo, her sound a puree of Ani DiFranco, Neko Case and Lucinda Williams at the cusp of electric and acoustic. It was like if the sweet girl next door was filled with dark intensity.

Mitchell’s onstage presence was a generous one, sharing the limelight with her excellent backing band, sharing the stage with multiple appearances by the horn players from the opening act, Cuddle Magic, and sharing her emotions with the audience through her music. While her voice and delicate touch on the acoustic guitar could have carried the entire show on their own, she let the band stretch out, pausing between verses as banjo, Rhodes piano and bass stirred cinematic, bringing life to powerful imagery of her lyrics. The set leaned heavily on material from the album, with “Annmarie” and the title track becoming long, sweeping narratives. She explained that “Shepherd” is based on a book by her novelist father (whose face appears on her album’s cover). It is a chill-inducing song, haunting and beautiful and heartbreaking, and it was played to full chill-inducing effect, the crowd stunned into silence by its power.

Scattered throughout, punctuating the new material were more of those moments like the opening hymn. Mitchell paired in duo form with drummer-banjo player-everyman Ben Davis for a brand new tune, revealing a perfect, existential love song. Another track had her singing with keyboard-guitar player Rachel Ries, a tune off the Country E.P. Later the band extended their chops and showed they could handle a pop hook with a great cover of Robyn’s “Hang with Me.” The show closed with a swinging version of “You Are Forgiven,” Mitchell’s voice once again elevating and inviting. The encore perfectly displayed her two sides: starting with “Tailor”—strong, honest and emotional. Then the horns returned, the lights went to a dark red and the band played a deep, thoughtful “Why We Build the Wall,” off Mitchell’s Hadestown concept album. It wasn’t your typical uplifting show closer, but it was honest and felt complete. —A. Stein

Photos courtesy of Mike Benigno | mikebenigno.wordpress.com