As a kid, my dad used to have an old cassette-tape boombox where he’d play the classic masters of folk music: Ian & Sylvia, Simon & Garfunkel, the Kingston Trio, James Taylor, Peter, Paul and Mary and Peter Rowan. In later years, I took a shine to this genre, and what I love about that kind of music is the diversity not just of sound but of topics.
There’s folksy bluegrass. Songs with country twang or breathy, reedy projection and compositions with traditional European and sometimes African influences. Some have bright, sunny vocals and others have more melodic, wistful auras best suited for sitting around a bonfire. Others draw on rich maritime history, such as sea shanties or the Down-Easter ballads of Gordon Bok and his groupmates Ann Mayo Muir and Ed Trickett later on.
On Friday, I discovered another star in the celestium of folk music, singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell as she descended on The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, MD, for a night of folksy tunes, friendly banter and fancy guitarwork.
Born in Vermont in the early 1980s, Mitchell had an under-the-radar career for some time, collaborating with artists like Ani DiFranco and Bon Iver and playing her own brand of folk music. Over time, she’s gained popularity, crisscrossing the country, working on her own blend of alternative rock and traditional guitar folk, drawing strongly on themes of family, nature and growing up. She penned the music for “Hadestown,” now a runaway hit on Broadway, which certainly contributed to the large crowd who came out to see her on Friday.
Opening the show was the Bonny Light Horsemen, a supergroup composed of Mitchell; the professorial record producer and epic guitar picker Josh Kaufman; and Eric D. Johnson, an alum of The Shins and The Fruit Bats (and an earlier member of Califone!). Along with friendly banter and self-deprecating jokes about their age, they played together, each artist rotating instruments and lead vocals.
The band had a very familial relationship, obvious both in their banter and the way they complement one another’s music. At times, Mitchell stood back and let Johnson belt out some tunes and strum his banjo or play his harmonica; likewise, Kaufman stepped up and wowed us with his electric guitar prowess. They played a good number of original songs as well as a few traditional tracks and a handful of covers, spending the interludes poking fun at one another and talking about their experiences on tour.
The second part of the act featured more of Mitchell herself, taking center stage and performing tracks from her own solo albums as well as some numbers made famous by her Broadway success with “Hadestown.” She was joined by some of her Bonny Light Horsemen co-stars in supporting roles. In this way, I think Mitchell comes into her own, dialing down the banter and showing us her true style: a low-key, soft and polished presentation drawing on her Yankee upbringing near the Canadian border.
Vocally, I feel Mitchell combines the wholesome energy of Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer fame, then dials it back, melding it with the sultry voice of Alanis Morrisette. Mitchell’s voice is the Vaseline applied to the lens of folk music, combining that sunny, hopeful tenor of Nash and then softening it with a dose of maturity into a perfect evocation of her homeland of Vermont, reminiscent of the woods and waters and rich dark soil. She’ll shift between songs about her music career (“On Your Way”) to her hometown in Vermont (“Watershed”) to complex family dynamics (“Little Big Girl”).
Listening to her music is like growing up on your ancestor’s lands, of green hills and lush valleys and blue sky, listening to music sitting around the campfire. She’s well worth a listen and I look forward to seeing what’s next for this Green Mountain State songstress.
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