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

Mountain Stage: Neko Case, Crooked Fingers, Vic Chesnutt, Greg Brown, Sonos

NPR’s Mountain Stage had a rare mid-week concert Wednesday night, and temporarily switched venues for the occasion. Scheduled to perform were Neko Case, Crooked Fingers, Vic Chesnutt, Greg Brown, and Sonos.

The radio concert series is usually taped live in front of an audience at the Cultural Center auditorium in Charleston’s Capital Complex. But for this night, the show was held at the Civic Center’s Little Theater – the same venue where the Irish boys played last May. I prefer the comfy atmosphere of the Cultural Center, but I’ll take Mountain Stage wherever I can get it.

Though I do wish they had not booked the program for the same time and venue as Ringling Bros. Circus. While Mountain Stage was held in the Little Theater, the circus was going on in the main coliseum of the Civic Center. I do enjoy a circus, but not the crowd that goes with it. I arrived early enough that it didn’t affect me much, but I heard several complaints from others both before and after the show about the parking problems and cramped space for the line at the Little Theater’s door. Charleston isn’t exactly a boomtown of entertainment, so I can only assume the double booking was due to the artist’s schedules.

Once we all filed in to find our seats, though, the grumbles died down. The lobby of the Little Theater may be too tiny to house such a large crowd, but the auditorium is very nice. All Mountain Stage shows are general admission seating, but it’s always an orderly affair. Say what you will about West Virginians, we are typically polite. Lots of friendly “excuse me”s and “thank you”s in the air as I walked to the sixth row back from the stage.

I was surprised to see video cameras positioned in various places around the stage, and one on a large crane near my seat. Though the show was taped and broadcast on PBS for a short time, it had been a while since a new concert was taped for television. As Assistant Producer Adam Harris explained during his introduction, they were taping a pilot to be shopped around to cable networks. Anything that gives Mountain Stage positive attention and helps the show survive is a good thing to me, so I hope it gets picked up.

I felt a bit nostalgic as the house band took their places and host Larry Groce once again dueted with singer Julie Adams on the show’s theme song. Like many people across the nation, I’ve watched the tragic state of the economy rob my hometown (which isn’t really big enough to be called a town) and surrounding cities like Charleston of many of their staple businesses. Almost all of the Mom and Pop grocery stores, restaurants, and other small businesses that populated my life have crumbled beneath the weight of this recession. Except Mountain Stage, which has miraculously managed to maintain its rural roots while still progressing with the modern age. So you can listen to the show online and they occasionally book the hot “indie” artists making the blog rounds, but the show itself is as genuine and substantial as the first time I attended in high school.

First up were Sonos, a six-piece vocal ensemble from Southern California that performs a cappella covers of songs by popular indie artists. Sonos are Paul Peglar, Ben McLain, Rachel Bearer, Jessica Freedman, Katharine Anne Hoye, and Christopher Given Harrison. I was unfamiliar with them before the concert, but they can count me among their fans now. I was particularly impressed with human beatbox Ben McLain and the vocals of Jessica Freedman, whose seraphic voice sounds similar to that of The Bird & The Bee‘s Inara George. Among the re-imagined a cappella covers they performed at the concert were Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place”, Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal”, and “Oh What A World” by Rufus Wainwright.

Mountain Stage singer Julie Adams gave her rendition of “These Days” before the incomparable, brilliant, amazing Vic Chesnutt took the stage. I think it was in 2002 when I first saw Vic at Mountain Stage, shortly before he released Silver Lake. The best word I can use to describe his set back then is transcendent. His performance of “In My Way, Yes” was particularly moving. His recent collaboration with Elf Power, Dark Developments, has a slightly harder sound, so I didn’t expect him to duplicate the magic of his past performance. But he did.

After some lighthearted banter with host Larry Groce, Vic sang “Mystery”. The Mountain Stage band joined him for the song, and it made me wish pianist Bob Thompson would branch out into rock more often. Thompson’s beautiful piano playing was the perfect complement for Vic’s voice.

If you readers ever wonder why I’m cynical about certain other performers (see below), all you have to do is see Vic Chesnutt in concert. After witnessing live sets by artists like Vic Chesnutt, Odetta, Joan Baez, Amy Correia, and more recently Rachael Yamagata (all singers whose voices seem to wrestle with their own bodies before ripping out into the air full force), it’s difficult to ignore what I personally feel are weaker performances. And not only does Vic Chesnutt possess such an awe-inspiring voice, but his lyrics and melodies are just as powerful. I wish he had been asked to do an encore.

Chesnutt proceeded to play “Stop The Horse”, a mesmeric ballad I didn’t recognize (with the lyrics “feast in the time of plague”), and a funny song about his grandmother. Vic said the latter song came to him in dream, but he forgot two of the verses when he awoke. Ever the audience charmer, he added (in a very high pitched voice): “they were killer!”

Crooked Fingers had to walk into Vic’s shadow, but they did an admirable job of it. Though I didn’t enjoy the band’s Forfeit / Fortune quite as much as I did lead singer Eric Bachmann’s solo effort To The Races, I figured they would put on a good show and they certainly did.

The announcement that Bachmann was a former member of Archers of Loaf drew a large roar from the crowd, but he seemed a humble fellow. He and the other two members of the band quickly launched into “Little Bird”. It must be said that studio recordings do not do justice to the band’s instrumentation, vocal harmony, or the rich tone of Eric’s voice. I especially liked their loud, passionate performance of the album’s title track.

I’d also seen singer-songwriter Greg Brown at Mountain Stage before, though I can’t remember when. I always hate to write anything negative about artists here. But I’ve been criticized for being too nice in my reviews in the past, so I do try to be honest when I don’t like something. So honestly, I was bored and annoyed with Brown’s pseudo intoxicated folk schtick. Leon Redbone (who I also saw at Mt. Stage years ago) can carry off that kind of routine because he is a strong singer and musician, and has the stage presence to match it. But Brown’s funny hat just wasn’t enough for me. I felt like I was watching my drunk uncle pluck a guitar at a family reunion.

However, Brown is always a crowd pleaser at Mountain Stage, and is obviously a respected and well liked artist in general. So maybe I just don’t get the joke? I did like the one blues song that he sang, which I thought was much better suited to his deep voice. And being sandwiched between two elegant piano performances by Bob Thompson (first the Mountain Stage theme, then a Bill Evans tune) didn’t help my perception of Brown’s comical set.

Last but not least was Neko Case, who seemed to be the artist that most of the crowd came to see. I’ve been a fan of Neko’s ever since I first heard her twangy wail on the title track of Furnace Room Lullaby in 2000. As expected, Case performed new material from her latest release Middle Cyclone (review forthcoming).

Neko and her bright red hair were accompanied only by a guitarist and a backup singer. After some tampon jokes, she and her band launched into a somewhat sedate version of “People Got A Lotta Nerve” – a song Neko described as a “circus killing spree” and dedicated to the circus next door. She followed that with the new album’s title track, then she and her singing partner revealed their “old lady crushes” (Neko, for example, likes Gene Hackman and Peter Falk) before their first performance of “The Pharoahs”.

I don’t know if Brown just killed my enthusiasm for the show or my expectations were too high, but I was a little disappointed by Case’s vocal restraint during the set. The new album has a much smoother veneer than her older releases, but I’d hoped she’d let those pipes lose on stage. But other than a few select notes (the effects of which were dampened by her moving away from the mic), her vocals were undeniably pretty but not nearly as powerful as she is obviously capable of. I wonder if she was sick or suffering from vocal strain, because she restarted and then abandoned a Buffy Sainte-Marie cover halfway through the song – simply saying “sorry, can’t do it” – and repeated “The Pharoahs” at the end of the set because she thought the first take sounded “underwater”.

The highlights of her set were “Vengeance Is Sleeping”, “I Wish I Was The Moon” (from Blacklisted), and her beautiful cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me”.

Neko opted out of the group finale, which was a song I didn’t recognize. I was feeling a little under the weather myself, so I didn’t stick around to see if the artists mingled with the crowd in the lobby afterwards. Which probably worked to my advantage, because I heard the traffic after the show (which ended precisely as the circus did) was horrendous. Oh well, it would have been worth it to see Vic Chesnutt.

Check out my friend (and NPR DJ) Mona Seghatoleslami’s review of the show at The Gazz.

Crooked Fingers – Phony Revolutions (mp3) *

*mp3 hosted by & posted w/ permission of Toolshed Media