Mountain Stage: Anais Mitchell, Danielle Ate The Sandwich, Horse Feathers, Delta Spirit, Black Dub

I expected Sunday night’s Mountain Stage concert to be good, but even I was suprised at just how fantastic it turned out to be. The lineup was Anaïs Mitchell, Danielle Ate the Sandwich, Horse Feathers, Delta Spirit and Black Dub.

Portland, Oregan “chamber folk band” Horse Feathers opened the show with songs from their latest release Thistled Spring.

Led by singer-songwriter Justin Ringle, the band’s current touring lineup is violinist Nathan Crockett, cellist Catherine Odell, and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cooper. After seeing Alex Wong, The Low Anthem and Lost in the Trees at Mountain Stage, I’m not as easily impressed by multi-instrumentalists as I used to. However, Sam Cooper ‘s ability to play the banjo and the drums at the same time was nothing short of extraordinary. Unfortunately, his drum set prevented me from getting a good shot of him in action.

The highlights of Horse Feather’s set were the hypnotically sparse title track from the new album and the beautiful ballad “Cascade.”

Next up was the incomparable Anaïs Mitchell. When I first saw Anaïs perform at Mountain Stage two years ago, she played a captivating song called “Why We Build the Wall” from a “folk opera” she was working on at the time. Since then, her “folk opera” was completed, recorded, and released by Righteous Babe Records. Hadestown is by far my favorite album of 2010, and to say I was excited to hear portions of it live would be a chasmic understatement.

The studio recording of Hadestown featured such well known guest vocalists as Ani Difranco, Greg Brown, Petra Haden, Bon Iver, and Ben Knox Milller of The Low Anthem. Sadly, though, it was impossible to book all of those artists for one Mountain Stage show. Instead, Anaïs was accompanied by her Hadestown co-composer Michael Chorney and “The Hadestown Orchestra.” Fine by me, Anaïs’ superbly nuanced voice has more than enough emotion and inflection to portray the entire cast of characters herself.

Since last winter, I have played the Hadestown album on repeat so many times that I know it by heart from beginning to end and love it with a passion and admiration I usually reserve for great literature. The monumental brilliance of the album was difficult to recreate in a live setting without the extra players, but Anaïs was absolutely resplendent and her backing band did an excellent job.

I wrote all about the inspirations, inner workings, and song descriptions in my rave review of the Hadestown album (click title for review). Long story short: Hadestown resets the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a fantastical Depression-era walled city with a gold mine. Proving my point that this isn’t your typical concept album, Anaïs provided little background on the songs she performed at Mountain Stage. Yet the audience obviously enjoyed and enthusiastically responded to each song for its own substantial merit without any need for context.

Anaïs began with “Wedding Song,” the Orpheus and Eurydice love duet that opens the album The stage arrangement and Anaïs’ vocals seemed much more buoyant than on the studio recording, which I think added the crowd’s enjoyment of the song. The faster, jubilant tempo didn’t work as well for Hades’ call-and-response “Why We Build The Wall.” The orchestral stage arrangement didn’t have quite the same chilling impact of Greg Brown’s quietly menacing album version or Anaïs’ previous solo acoustic performance. That slight disappointment aside, though, it was still a great performance.

Anaïs was wonderful as Persephone in the swaggering, speakeasy number “Our Lady of the Underground.” As much as I love Ani DiFranco’s version, I think Anaïs’ voice was better suited to the setting and time period. And hearing Anaïs sing Eurydice’s melancholy theme “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)” live was as moving as expected. She ended her set with “How Long?,” the duet originally recorded as “Hades and Persephone” on The Brightness.

There are several videos on YouTube from the original Hadestown productions, and you can hear Anaïs Mitchell’s solo performance at Mountain Stage of “Why We Build The Wall” at NPR.

Anaïs Mitchell – Flowers (mp3)*
Anaïs Mitchell – Wait for Me (mp3)*

*mp3s hosted by & posted w/ permission of artist’s PR rep Toolshed Media on behalf of Righteous Babe Records

Buy Hadestown @ Amazon

Anaïs Mitchell Official Site

As I said in my review of her album Two Bedroom Apartment, Danielle Ate the Sandwich is Nebraskan singer-songwriter Danielle Anderson and she describes her sound as “seven minutes in heaven with the most popular girl’s significantly less attractive best friend.”

Let me tell you, Danielle is freakin’ adorable in person. And not just because of her cool horn-rimmed glasses and bright green sweater. Her down to earth demeanor, wry in-between songs banter, heartfelt vocals and pretty acoustic melodies quickly charmed the audience. And that girl sure can pluck the life out of a ukulele.

I was a little worried for her having to step in Anaïs Mitchell’s shadow, but I must say Danielle Ate the Sandwich stole the show. If she ever tires of singing, she could easily have a career in standup comedy. She kept thanking us for being nice to her and alternated between self-deprecating quips and grandiose statements to the radio audience about her “amazing” instruments. After confessing her discomfort among “cool-looking musicians,” she said “I look like I made straight A’s, don’t I?”

Jokes aside, her voice was strong and beautiful. Danielle is a prime example of why I hate the current crop of Auto-tuned, packaged pop and country stars. Truly great singers don’t need any effects to make their voices sound perfect. She played “Bribes,” her funny ode to “El Paso,” the audience favorite “We Are Hot Dogs” and “American Dream.” But it was her lovely tribute to her grandfather, “17 and 53,” that stood out most to me.

You can watch and hear Danielle sing several of her own songs as well as some unusual covers at her YouTube channel.

Buy Two Bedroom Apt @ Amazon

Danielle Ate the Sandwich Official Site

Delta Spirit (which I keep confusing with The Duke Spirit) were formed by bassist Jon Jameson and drummer Brandon Young, both former members of Noise Ratchet . The band played songs from their new sophomore album History From Below, the highlights of which were the small-town boy in the big city anthem “St. Francis” and the love gone wrong ballad “Scarecrow.”

Lead singer Matthew Vasquez’ gritty vocals and the band’s combination of dusty tales and rowdy folk-rock were reminiscent of Felice Brothers. They were so good, I was starting to think it was going to be one of those rare Mountain Stage concerts that I loved from beginning to end. It almost was, but then…

Black Dub featuring guitarist-producer Daniel Lanois, singer Trixie Whitley and drummer Brian Blade ended the show with an extended set of rock, soul and Jamaican dub music. They played tracks from their recently released self-titled debut.

The first half of their set was astonishingly good and I was shocked to hear such a big, formidable voice emit from Trixie’s lil body. That girl can wail with the best of them. The highlights were “Surely” and “Sing.”

But when the band switched from soulful blues-rock to what Lanois called “cinematic” music, the evening took a long and boring turn for me. Longtime readers know how I feel about jam bands, and that is what Black Dub became for the second half of their set. The long instrumentals and repetitive vocals seemed popular with the musicians I glimpsed gathered backstage, but it’s just not my thing.

Anaïs Mitchell, Danielle Ate the Sandwich and members of Horse Feathers joined the Mountain Stage band for the group finale – a cover of the traditional “Sinner You’d Better Get Ready.”

Sometimes on these group sings, the whole isn’t equal to the sum of its parts. But this time all the singers sang in glorious harmony and it was one of the better finales to the show I’ve heard.

Contrast Podcast: Best of 2010 (So Far)

You can hear my voice in the new edition of Contrast Podcast, which has the theme “Best of 2010 (So Far).” My pick was Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown album (click title for my review) and I submitted the 100% legal, label-authorized mp3 “Flowers (Eurydice Song).” Hadestown will almost certainly still be my #1 album of 2010 at the end of the year.

Contrast Podcast – Best of 2010 (So Far)
Anaïs Mitchell – Flowers (Eurydice Song) (mp3) *

*mp3 hosted by & posted w/ permission of artist’s PR rep on behalf of label

Muruch Hadestown Review

Buy Hadestown @ Amazon

Hadestown

Anaïs Mitchell Official Site

Giveaway: Win Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown CD!

Contest Closed

I’m thrilled to be able to give away 2 copies of Anaïs Mitchell’s magnificent new CD Hadestown (click the album title for my rave review), featuring Ani Difranco, Greg Brown, and Bon Iver. See contest details and download two mp3s from the album below.

The Prize:

2 winners will receive 1 copy of Anaïs Mitchell’s new CD Hadestown

The Rules:

Comment to this entry with the name of your favorite myth or your favorite musical (or both) and your email address. All new comments are moderated to avoid spam, so it may take a day for your comment to appear if you haven’t commented on Muruch before.

Note: This contest is open to everyone, but all contestants must enter with a valid email address in order to qualify. The winners of the contest will also be required to provide me with their full name, phone number, and postal address for shipping purposes.

The Deadline:

The contest will end on Friday, February 26th. The winners will be chosen at random and contacted via email.

Go now go! And tell others.

Anaïs Mitchell – Flowers (mp3) *
Anaïs Mitchell – Wait for Me (mp3) *

*mp3s hosted by & posted w/ permission of artist’s PR rep

Buy @ Amazon

Anaïs Mitchell Official Site

Contest Closed

Anais Mitchell: Hadestown

Anaïs Mitchell is already known as a phenomenal singer-songwriter, but now she has proven herself to be a brilliant poet and playwright with her new album Hadestown. This studio recording of Mitchell’s “folk opera” will be released on March 9th by Righteous Babe Records, and features such well known guest vocalists as Ani Difranco, Greg Brown, Petra Haden, Bon Iver, and Ben Knox Milller of The Low Anthem. In Hadestown, Anaïs transforms the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a post-apocalyptic American fable with Depression era style and indie-folk sensibility. This gorgeous, exciting project reminds me why I love music so much and why I love writing about music so much.


the enemy is poverty and the wall keeps out the enemy
that’s why we build the wall, we build the wall to keep us free

I should preface this review by saying that Hadestown should not be avoided if you dislike musicals or concept albums. I know many people were turned off by The Decemberist’s Hazards of Love since the tracks were difficult to listen to individually. But the songs of Hadestown stand strong on their own and together make a magnificent album. It is what I would imagine Les Misérables might have sounded like if it had been written by Woody Guthrie.

The underworld in Hadestown is a corrupt company town with a gold mine. Surrounded by a country sunk deep into financial crisis, the inhabitants of Hadestown have been tricked into viewing their walled city as a safe haven. The common people mindlessly follow their oppressive ruler Hades out of fear and greed, trading their freedom for a false sense of security.

Anaïs uses this as the setting for a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, in which a devoted musician travels to the underworld to retrieve his dead bride.

Anaïs Mitchell originally wrote the stage musical in collaboration with director Ben Matchstick and orchestrator Michael Chorney, and the folk opera was performed in Vermont in 2006 before going on tour throughout New England. When it came time to record the album, Anaïs reworked many of the songs and put together a new cast of indie stars Ani Difranco, Bon Iver, Petra Haden, and The Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Milller, as well as folk favorite Greg Brown.

I was initially disappointed that Anaïs didn’t choose to sing every song herself. I adored her simple, heartfelt solo interpretation of “Hades and Persephone” on The Brightness and the haunting rendition of “Why We Build The Wall” she performed when I saw her live at Mountain Stage two years ago.

The thought of Greg Brown’s presence in particular made me cringe. Enduring two painful Mountain Stage performances by Brown had put him on my “things I intensely dislike” list somewhere between Taylor Swift and Dane Cook.

I also thought Bon Iver had been horribly miscast as Orpheus. The mythical Orpheus was supposed to be such a supernaturally gifted musician that even nature and inanimate objects fell under the spell of his voice and lyre. I felt that kind of character really called for stronger pipes than Bon Iver’s mellow voice.

However, listening to the album erased all of the disappointments and pre-conceptions I had. I still would have liked a bonus disc of Anaïs performing the songs alone. But in the context of the Hadestown story, every casting choice makes perfect sense and Anaïs has made me love Greg Brown and Bon Iver with the substantial material she gave them to sing.

Bon Iver (credited as Justin Vernon) plays an optimistic, boyish Orpheus. The album opens with “Wedding Song”, a duet between Orpheus and his new bride Eurydice – portrayed here beautifully in the sweet tones of Anaïs Mitchell.

The barking of stray dogs and a lone harmonica herald in the dazzling “Way Down in Hadestown.” The Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Milller (as messenger Hermes) leads Bon Iver, Ani Difranco, Anaïs Mitchell, and a chorus of former Hadestown cast members in a sing-a-long propelled by Tin Pan Alley instrumentation. It only took one listen and I was singing along. This song belongs on Broadway.

“Hey, Little Songbird” finds the dulcet tones of Eurydice tangling with the sinister, seductive growl of Hades. Greg Brown’s Hades is all jaded, bitter, gristled blues, and his voice has never sounded better. The deep gravel of his throat is especially effective in the xenophobic anthem “Why We Build The Wall,” in which Hades and his brainwashed “children” engage in a call-and-response recitation of the wall’s chilling purpose.

Vernon’s Orpheus has taken on a melancholy tone as he follows Hermes’ whispered directions to the underworld in “Wait For Me,” and seems to consider abandoning his quest before regaining his courage in “If It’s True.”

There are no innocent victims in Hadestown. Eurydice and Persephone are traditionally viewed as chaste maidens who are held hostage by evil Hades, but these musical counterparts seem to have brought themselves to the underworld with their own moral weaknesses.

Eurydice pines for her lost love and former life in “Gone, I’m Gone” and “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song),” while The Fates (Petra Haden and her sisters – billled as The Haden Triplets) slide in to taunt her with menacing Andrews Sisters croons on “When The Chips Are Down” and “Nothing Changes.”

Ani Difranco’s rich inflections add a new dimension to the character of Persephone. “Our Lady of the Underground” has a Mae West swagger and runs a subversive speakeasy in her infamous husband’s murky world.

In the original myth, not even the cold heart of Hades can resist the beauty of Orpheus’ music, and so he is granted permission to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living. In Hadestown, however, it’s the persuasion of Persephone that convinces the dark king to release the two young lovers.

Ani Difranco and Greg Brown give the most emotional vocal performances of their respective careers in their duet of “How Long?” – a revamped version of “Hades and Persephone.” As much as I loved Anaïs’ original recording, Difranco and Brown truly bring the characters of Hades and Persephone to life as they argue over the fate of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Hades contemplates the effect his compromise might have on the power he holds over his kingdom in “His Kiss The Riot,” but in the end allows the young couple to escape on the sole condition that Orpheus not look back at Eurydice on the way out.

“Doubt Comes In” as Hades predicts when Orpheus is unable to keep his eyes off his beloved for the entire journey for fear she has fallen behind. As a result of his doubt, she is pulled back into the underworld and he loses her forever.

The tragic tale ends with the lament “I Raise My Cup To Him,” a lovely duet between Anaïs Mitchell and Ani Difranco as Eurydice and Persephone.

There are several videos on YouTube from the original Hadestown productions, and you can hear Anaïs Mitchell’s performance at Mountain Stage of “Why We Build The Wall” at NPR.

Anaïs Mitchell – Flowers (mp3) *
Anaïs Mitchell – Wait for Me (mp3) *

*mp3s hosted by & posted w/ permission of artist’s PR rep Toolshed Media on behalf of Righteous Babe Records

Buy @ Amazon

Hadestown

Anaïs Mitchell Official Site
Hadestown MySpace