Anais Mitchell: Live at Mountain Stage, 3/4/12

This week’s Mountain Stage concert featured Anaïs Mitchell, Cowboy Junkies, Paul Kelly, and Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes.

The radiant Anaïs Mitchell stole the show for me. This was the third Mountain Stage appearance by Anaïs that I’ve attended, so she’s tied with Amy Correia as the artist I’ve seen perform the most times at the venue. She never fails to deliver a captivating live performance, and her set at Mountain Stage last night was no exception. Sadly, I didn’t realize until the concert started that my camera’s batteries were dead. I don’t think you could capture that magic on film anyway.

As I said in my review of her superb new album, Young Man in America (click album title for my review), : “Anaïs Mitchell is like a modern day Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. Her epic lyrical narratives echo Guthrie’s masterful talent for blending the literary with the ordinary, while her fierce and unique vocal phrasing as well as her intricately multi-layered arrangements take Dylanesque to a whole new realm.

Anaïs’ dual role as singer and poet were on beautiful display on stage last night. She always had a charming stage presence, but her on-stage confidence seems to have blossomed over the years. Her “Young Man Band” – comprised of singer Rachel Ries (Anaïs’ Country EP partner), bassist Noah Hahn and multi-instrumentalist Ben Davis – provided worthy accompaniment. Davis’ banjo playing during “Dying Day,” which opened the set, was especially noteworthy.

“Dying Day” was the perfect way to introduce the audience to Anaïs and her new album. It was remarkable how her performance evoked a strong, positive reaction from everyone in the crowd, regardless of age – both the middle-aged man beside me and the little girl sitting in front of me nodded their heads along to the song.

Anaïs and her crew combined brief “Wilderland” and the title track from Young Man in America into one seamless, stellar medley. All of the songs sounded even better live than on the studio recording, but “Young Man in America ” was especially moving.

Anaïs’ plaintive call of “my daddy was a repo man, put me out onto the street, didn’t give a damn for me, did not give a damn!” brought tears to my eyes, and the haunting transition from the song’s final lyric “let me climb back in the bed you made me in” to the gorgeous instrument flourish that closes the song was absolutely hypnotic.

Anaïs’ set wasn’t heavy on banter, but she did talk a bit about her father when introducing the song “Shepherd,” which was inspired by his out-of-print novel The Souls of Lambs. It is her father’s face that adorns the cover of Young Man in America and Anaïs joked about his not wanting to cut his hair so people would recognize him from the picture.

During Anaïs’ emotive rendering of “Shepherd,” I noticed bassist Noah Hahn kneeling down on one knee with his eyes closed and his face turned up toward Anaïs. It seems her heartfelt vocals and musical narratives were as rapturous to the members of her band as to those of us in the audience.

“Tailor,” while not a favorite track of mine on the album, was incredibly powerful live – especially Anaïs’ breathy sighs of “Who Am I?” in the last verse. She then ended her spectacular set with “You Are Forgiven.”

After three brilliant albums and three magnificent live performances, Anaïs Mitchell has cemented herself as my favorite contemporary artist.

Anaïs Mitchell will perform a rare full concert in West Virginia at Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall on April 14th. I hope to attend and review that show as well, so stay tuned.

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Anaïs Mitchell Official Site

Anais Mitchell: Young Man in America

To say Anaïs Mitchell’s fourth album, Young Man in America, was my most anticipated release of the new year would be a chasmic understatement. Listening to this worthy followup to 2010’s spectacular “folk opera” Hadestown, I kept thinking Anaïs Mitchell is like a modern day Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. Her epic lyrical narratives echo Guthrie’s masterful talent for blending the literary with the ordinary, while her fierce and unique vocal phrasing as well as her intricately multi-layered arrangements take Dylanesque to a whole new realm. Young Man in America, which features guests Chris Thile and Rachel Ries, will be released on Mitchell’s new independent label, Wilderland Records, on February 28th. I don’t think it premature to predict it will be on my year end list next December.

The sparse yet dramatic instrumental intro to the album’s opener, “Wilderland,” blooms into a haunting, humming choir of voices. The title of the track, coined by Anaïs after she witnessed a family being evicted from their home, gave her record label its name.

The album’s impressive title track is one of those songs that burrows deeper beneath the skin with each listen. Anaïs’ folk orchestra of players provide a lush and stunning arrangement, particularly in the horn-driven instrumental finale of the song.

The song’s lyrics, and the general theme of this entire song cycle, share the tale of a Prodigal Son of sorts. The titular “Young Man in America” is a rebellious youth seeking to quench his discontent and wanderlust with travels, drugs, alcohol and various other excesses and indulgences…all of which fail to satisfy his melancholy hunger.

Another wayward son / waiting on oblivion
Waiting on the kingdom come to meet me in my sin
Waiting to be born again / mother kiss me cheek & chin

“Dying Day” is another stunner with its choral harmonies, steady rhythm, poetic lyrics and Chris Thile’s lovely mandolin embellishments.

The beautifully tragic ballad “Shepherd,” based on her father’s novel The Souls of Lambs, sings of a worked-obsessed farmer whose wife dies in childbirth as he tends his fields.

The storm was o’er within the hour / the shepherd saw the sun come out
The shepherd’s wife saw ne’er again / he buried her and the babe within
He turned the seed into the ground / he brought the flock to feed thereon
He held the cleaver and the plow / & the shepherd’s work was never done

Even tracks that didn’t initially captivate me, such as “Venus” and “Anne Marie”, grew on me with subsequent listens to the extent that I wondered why I didn’t love them at first listen.

To be honest, Young Man in America doesn’t compare to the magnificence of Hadestown or the delicate charm of 2007’s The Brightness. But then, what could? It’s probably like whatever Michelangelo created immediately after sculpting David and painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Some artistic heights are simply too lofty to surpass no matter how gifted the artists or how great the subsequent art. Taken on its own merit, however, Young Man in America is both an ambitious recording project and a beautifully rich tapestry of classic folk songwriting. Anaïs Mitchell just may be my generation’s most talented singer-songwriter.

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Anaïs Mitchell Official Site

Anais Mitchell & Rachel Ries: Country E.P.

I’ve been meaning to post about the new Anais Mitchell and Rachel Ries Country E.P., and this seems an appropriate time since the duo will be performing at the Songs: Illinois house concert this weekend. Mitchell and Ries wrote two songs each, and the other track is a Louis Ledford cover. I’m a big fan of Anais Mitchell, whose album The Brightness was #2 on my Top of ’07 list and her performance at Mountain Stage was my favorite concert of last year.

Had this been a full-length album, I would have devoured and raved about it long ago. But as I’ve said many times, I generally find EPs annoyingly short and rarely give them a second listen. And while the 7″ vinyl record that came with this particular EP is charming, I personally would have preferred a full-length CD instead. A five-song CD coupled with a three-song LP seems an ill fit both for Luddites like me who still actually listen to albums and the mp3 crowd who download individual tracks. However, this is about as good as an EP gets and I at least respect the artistic vision of the set.

Of course, once I listened to Country E.P., I kicked myself for waiting so long. I should’ve known it would be so beautiful. Unusual and pretty harmony floats through the dusky opening ballad “O My Star”, Rachel’s throaty lilt takes center stage on “MGD” and the speakeasy number “Grace The Day”, and Anais’ quirky croon shines on “Come September” and the wistful finale “When You Fall”. Both singer’s voices are perfectly suited to this old-fashioned style, and the delicate old-timey instrumentation is lovely.

I was not granted permission to share an mp3, but you can hear samples at the links below.

Anais Mitchell Official Site

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