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

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Hadestown

Anaïs Mitchell Official Site
Hadestown MySpace

The Low Anthem: Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is the third and most recent release from The Low Anthem. I first heard the music of the trio when they ran around trading instruments on Mountain Stage. Founding members Ben Miller and Jeffrey Prystowsky have taken vocalist and clarinet player Jocie Adams into their fold. The result is an eclectic multi-instrumental wonder.


The child insubordinate disrupts the pecking order
So go marry yound while you can
‘Cause the weave of the rug and the cut of the throne
Testify before the ocean’s open hand

The ethereal falsetto of “Charlie Darwin” stands in drastic contrast to the weightier tone of What The Crow Brings. I laughed when “To Ohio” played, simply because its overtly “indie” style makes it my least favorite track and yet it seems to be the most popular with other music bloggers. I guess that says a lot about my place as the weird, estranged cousin in the music blog family. :)

The intertwined rock growl and backwoods thump of “The Horizon is a Beltway” and the Waits/Kerouac tune “Home I’ll Never Be” much more interesting to me. Once again, I must recommend The Low Anthem to fans of Felice Brothers.

The ballads “To The Ghosts Who Write History Books” and “God Cage The Songbird” ebb and flow beautifully. The sighing instrumental “Music Box” lives up to the tinkling suggestion of its title, and “Champion Angel” sounds like Alejandro Escovedo.

The Low Anthem – Home I’ll Never Be (mp3 removed) *

*mp3 posted with permission of the band’s manager

The Low Anthem Official Site

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The Low Anthem: What The Crow Brings

The Low Anthem’s second album What The Crow Brings is a lovely and understated piece of work. At the time of the recording, The Low Anthem were just Ben Miller and Jeffrey Prystowsky. Guest vocalist and clarinet player Jocie Adams had officially transformed the masculine duo into a co-ed trio by the time I saw them perform at Mountain Stage. The new incarnation of the band has prettier harmony, but this older album holds a more arresting intelligence and breathtaking beauty.


The grasses are green here
The winters are mild
Hunger is passing
It’s just a sensation
And over the world am I

“The Ballad of The Broken Bones” inhales and exhales gentle resignation before blossoming with enchanting harmony and instrumentation. “Yellowed By The Sun” turns the guitars up with a splash of harmonica and the stunning “This God Damn House” is a haunting heartbreaker. These retro folk-rock songs are perfect for fans of classic Bob Dylan or the softer side of Felice Brothers.

“Bless Your Tombstone Heart”, “A Weary Horse Can Hide The Pain” and the delicate mandolin of “Sawdust Saloon” slide into a somber, captivating hush. Then a cover of the inspirational “Keep On The Sunny Side” lends some light. The tune was made famous by The Carter Family and is probably best known to younger generations as performed by The Whites on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

Future band member Jocie Adams lent her honeyed harmony and clarinet to the finale “Coal Mountain Lullaby”, a sweet foreshadow of things to come from this brilliant band. The mesmeric, authentic sound of What The Crow Brings casts the kind of spell I usually only experience at live performances.

The Low Anthem – The Ballad of the Broken Bones (mp3 removed) *

*mp3 posted with permission of the band’s manager

The Low Anthem Official Site

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Mountain Stage: Joan Osborne, Rachael Yamagata, The Low Anthem, Todd Burge, Johnny Staats & Robert Shafer

Last night I attended Mountain Stage‘s 25th Anniversary show featuring Joan Osborne, Rachael Yamagata, The Low Anthem, Todd Burge, and Johnny Staats & Robert Shafer. It was a remarkable show, though more for the occasion than the concert itself.

The event sold out before I could get tickets, so I have to thank Joan Osborne’s representatives for putting me on the guest list. I also think that the people who work the ticket and merchandise tables at Mountain Stage deserve a round of applause, because the crowd was huge and some ladies were being unnecessarily rude to the very nice man watching the “will call” table when I arrived.

In celebration of Mountain Stage’s 25th anniversary, The Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes” created a special black, white, and grey five-tiered cake featuring the show’s logo that was put on display in the lobby before the show. I’m not familiar with the show, but apparently one of the chefs is from WV and is related to one of the Mt. Stage band members. The audience did not get to taste the cake, but the crew were nice enough to provide punch and cookies for us to celebrate after the show.

It was quite a nostalgic evening for everyone involved. Compared to the show’s 25 years, my own experience as an audience member seems limited. But I couldn’t help but think back over my own history with the program. The first time I attended Mountain Stage was in August, 1997, when I was still in high school. Like many locals, I was introduced to the show through a good friend and wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before. The performers that night were Joan Baez, Sinead Lohan, Laura Love, Duke Robillard, and Dar Williams. I fell in love with the show then and don’t have the time or room here to recount all of the amazing performances I have seen there since then.

Some of the most memorable sets I witnessed were by Sinead Lohan, Holly Cole, Cowboy Junkies, Vic Chesnutt, Dayna Kurtz, Natalie Merchant, Kami Lyle, Saw Doctors, Fisher, a then unknown Norah Jones, Odetta, Martina McBride, Bell X1, Samoa Wilson, Zap Mama, Ani Difranco, Anaïs Mitchell, Eleni Mandell, and Sylvie Lewis, Amy Correia (twice), Peter Mulvey and Cathie Ryan (twice), Laura Love (twice), Joan Osborne (twice), and Joan Baez (twice). The second time I saw Baez perform was for Mountain Stage’s 20th anniversary show five years ago. Joan was excellent as always, but I recall that the night was plagued with techinical difficulties. I’m happy to say that last night’s 25th anniversary concert went much more smoothly.

The show is always general admission, so I was fortunate to nab a seat just a few rows back from the stage. Host Larry Groce began by thanking several people and organizations who had helped Mountain Stage over the years, and brought a few of them out on stage. Among them were local singer George “The Earl of Elkview” Daugherty (an old friend of my husband’s), local artist Charlie Hamilton – who painted the huge, colorful painting that always adorns the stage – and the elusive broadcast engineer Francis Fisher (whose disembodied voice is heard at every Mountain Stage). Also present was Deni Bonet, former singing partner of Mountain Stage vocalist Julie Adams and one of performers at the very first Mountain Stage concert in 1983. Bonet sang with the band and performed a song of her own in the first hour of the concert. Groce also acknowledged the recent passing of Odetta, and later house pianist Bob Thompson played a special instrumental tribute to her.

Thanks to the Mountain Stage Blog, I knew before the show that local singer-songwriter Todd Burge had been called in to replace Kathy Mattea. Mattea, who was apparently one of the most frequently schedule guests on the show, had to cancel her scheduled performance due to an illness in her family. The extremely amiable Johnny Staats & Robert Shaffer went first and were a crowd pleaser. Their hyperspeed mandolin and guitar playing was impressive, though they sounded much prettier when they slowed it down. I especially enjoyed their rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”.

I hadn’t heard of The Low Anthem before last night, but I really like them! The trio are multi-instrumental wonders who ran around the stage exchanging instruments in between songs. Their sound is mostly very pretty, soft indie-folk, though they did play one stage rocker. I’ll have to track down their album. They’re cute as buttons, too. Next up was Todd Burge. I really hate to say anything negative about him, because he seems like the nicest guy, but this was the second time I’ve been bored by him at Mountain Stage. I did like his song “I Believe This I Believe”, but other than that….just not my thing. Overall, I found the first hour of the show lackluster and had trouble staying awake. But the second hour more than made up for it.

After some house band performances, Rachael Yamagata took the stage. I expected her smokey alto to be a highlight of the night, but I had no idea just how good she would be live. After the show, every single person I encountered was raving about Rachael’s set. She began hidden behind the piano while she sang the somber “Elephants” from her new album Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart (which I can tell you now will be on my best of ’08 list) and belted out the emotional older tune “Be Be Your Love”. Then she moved to the center of the stage and blew everyone away with an astounding, chill-producing performance of “Sunday Afternoon”, during which she wailed until I thought her throat would fall out. The song was so long (I didn’t notice since her performance was so riveting) that apparently it was to be her last, but the crowd was so responsive that Groce asked her to play one more. She ended with a thunderous take of “Faster”. If there was a star of Mountain Stage’s 25th anniversary show, it was Rachael Yamagata.

Though I loved Yamagata’s music before and certainly after the show, I was mostly excited to see Joan Osborne. I’ve been a fan of Osborne since her debut Relish was first released, and I saw her perform at Mountain Stage years ago when she was promoting her How Sweet It Is album. I remembered Joan’s appearance and performance then as being funky, sexy, and vocally powerful. So it was a bit of a shock when she stepped on stage last night dressed as a school marm – high lace color, long floral print skirt. I only mention it because it was apparently symptomatic of her entire persona mellowing out over the years. Granted, she began with my least favorite song on Little Wild One (“Rodeo”) followed by an even lower key version of the album’s title track. So it may have merely been a matter of song choice or at least my own preconceptions of those particular songs. It just seemed like the spark had gone out of her or something. That is, until she hit the chorus of “Halllelujah In The City” and finally unleashed her voice. Then I finally heard and saw the Joan I knew and loved.

By the time she covered Jump Little Children‘s “Cathedrals”, all was right with the Osborne world. In my review of Joan’s album, I said “I hope I get to hear Joan sing this one live someday, because I can only imagine how much more powerful her voice will be without so much production smoothing it down.” I was absolutely right. When singing “Cathedrals” in person, Joan’s voice was gorgeous, emotive, and supernaturally strong. It was by far the best performance of the night, and what I’ll remember most about the concert. She ended with a rousing rendition of “Bury Me On The Battery”, followed by an encore of “To The One I Love”.

Everyone returned to the stage for one of the show’s better group finales, a cover of Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down”. In the post-show lobby, I met a very gracious and humble Rachael Yamagata. She seemed surprised that we all liked her performance so much, and said she would come back to Mountain Stage (I hope so!). I introduced her to the wonder of the silver sharpie (her album cover is black), a wonderful little trick I first learned of from The Rescues. I passed several members of the Mountain Stage family on my way out, but I always feel weird introducing myself as “the blog girl” so I merely waved at them.

I think the concert would’ve been better with a more significant booking like Joan Baez or Mavis Staples, and I was obviously disappointed by the first half of the show. However, in the end I was very happy with the night and it was nice to relive so many great memories I have of the venue. Here’s to another 25 (or 100) years of Mountain Stage.

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