The last thing many would expect from Anaïs Mitchell would be a foray into psychedelic folk rock. After releasing two beautifully intimate and stripped-down albums (2004’s Hymns for the Exiled and 2007’s The Brightness) and a fleshed-out, boisterous and sensational modern-day opera (2010’s Hadestown), electric guitar forward and 1970’s LA-inspired surrealism doesn’t seem like the logical next step for Anaïs Mitchell. Where are the tender, heart-breaking ballads about unrequited love, aging and loss? Where’s the wistful nostalgia of “Out of Pawn?” The raucous joy of “Our Lady of the Underground?”
None of these shades of Mitchell’s aesthetic are in fact gone, thankfully. However, at her recent show at San Francisco’s bar Slim’s, she did present a side of herself that has certainly been hinted at but never indulged: an experimental, band-driven rock. Perhaps it’s not as controversial as Bob Dylan’s 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance, where he played with a fully amplified rock band, but Mitchell’s set was definitely intriguing in much the same way.
Starting off with new song “Comin’ Down,” Anaïs eased the crowd into her show with a piece that focuses intently on harmonies. Jefferson Hamer and Rachel Ries sang with just the right subtlety, creating a lovely blend with Anaïs. The song’s intro line actually recalls other new work “The Shepherd’s Song,” but then bursts into a wall of voices. Next was another new song, “Ships,” which was slower and less urgent, but with a very pretty chord structure below her trademark image-heavy storytelling. Still, it felt somewhat incomplete, but maybe that’s the rambling nature of the arrangement. She followed with Hadestown highlight “Wedding Song,” which on the album is sung with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as Orpheus, but Anaïs played both parts (including Eurydice) in a mellower take on the piece.
It was Hadestown's “Why We Build The Wall” that really changed the pace and tenor of the evening, though. It’s a versatile track that lends itself well to solo renditions, big orchestration or quartet interpretation. In this version, though, Mitchell zoomed in on the sinister, menacing side of Hades’ dogmatic justification for his Underworld despotism. In fact, she darn near channeled Stevie Nicks during one of Fleetwood Mac’s early 1980’s epic cocaine-fueled performances of “Gold Dust Woman,” in the melding between Hamer and Ries’ hauntingly eerie harmonies and her own cathartic intonation. This led beautifully into “Wilder/Young Man,” an eight-minute long Doors-ian trip. Anaïs calls out to “Mother Shelter” and “Father Shepherd” to shield them from the wild winds, giving the lyrics a poetic and mythical nature. Rather than finger-picked acoustic, she relied heavily on the band to propel the song. Sam Cooper’s drums provided a muscly rhythmic backdrop, while Jefferson Hamer’s electric guitar toed the line between restraint and explosion. It’s a song wholly different for Mitchell’s catalogue, which made it both entrancing and bewildering. Either she’s been spending a lot of time surrounded by early 1970s vinyl from LA rock bands, or there’s some powerful black magic in her tea concoctions, because this sprawling, heaving song was nothing short of Herculean.
After a brief pause for “O My Star” from Mitchell and Ries’ collaborative Country EP, the band descended into the bluesy swagger of “Dyin’ Day,” another unreleased song that showed off this newfound rock-and-roll dark goddess. Again, Cooper’s drumming held the right percussive pace, but this time it was Mitchell’s abrupt finger-picking style that gave the most sneer. Important to note, however, is that while these are certainly new musical clothes for Mitchell, they work because the same intense aesthetic approach for which Anaïs has made a name for herself is present and driving these songs.
Next was a short solo section, beginning with new track “He Did,” which is more akin to the Anaïs Mitchell heard on her first two records. When an artist performs solo, they need to make their voice even more of an instrument, because the intimacy and exposure is so acute. This is clearly where Mitchell gained such traction as a rising star in the folk world. The immediacy and potency of her solo performances is rivaled by few of her contemporaries, which makes her stand out even more. “Shenandoah,” the second song of this sadly abbreviated set on her own really was the highlight of the evening, though. It’s already an arrestingly heart-breaking song on record, but when Mitchell pulled it out of somewhat obscurity for this show it not only deepened the emotional weight of the song but it revealed a growing maturity with which Mitchell approaches her playing.
Jefferson came back to join Anaïs in a spectacular rendition of traditional folk ballad “Willie O’Winsbury,” from their forthcoming collaboration unearthing English and Scottish ballads and reworking them into new arrangements. “Willie” is certainly their most adventurous and in-depth of those that they’ve played recently, and Hamer’s playing and harmonizing was perfectly in sync with Mitchell-- a balance they’ve definitely struggled achieving in the past couple of years. In fact, one of the main issues for Mitchell has been learning to command the stage as the lead voice. Perhaps it was an insecurity about the strength of her songwriting or the validity of her aesthetic, but she often yielded to the other musicians with whom she worked rather than really assert herself when playing her own material. It’s been frustrating to watch, because as she continues to write music it becomes clearer and clearer that she is (and should be) a defining voice of her generation. It wasn’t until this tour that it became evident that she’s truly coming into her own and establishing herself as the driving force on her stage. It’s this shift in dynamic that has had fantastic results with her bandmates, because they’re able to complement Mitchell’s artistry with their own flourishes, but do so in a considerate, thoughtful manner.
The rest of the show was fairly conventional, with Anaïs choosing “Your Fonder Heart” and “Out of Pawn” from The Brightness, and then a rousing, but decisively bluesy, take on “Way Down Hadestown,” followed by an uninspired and odd encore choice of Levon Helm’s “Golden Bird.” A slightly disappointing end to the evening, but after the rollercoaster that was this show, there was a bit of solace in the orthodoxy. Going from blisteringly funky, brawny psychedelia and slinky, spirited rock-and-roll to archaic texts and heart-wrenching ballads, it was a wild blend of genre, but always rooted in Mitchell’s continually evolving musicianship. A show like this is unequivocal in its indication of what’s to come, because the hints were fully-formed, hard-hitting and forceful songs full of drama, narrative and intrigue. The many different artistic roads Anaïs is embarking upon may in turn lose some effectiveness from a divided mind, but so far there’s no evidence of that. Instead, this transition period yet again signals that Anaïs Mitchell is not only a voice to watch out for, but to actively pursue.
Setlist: Comin' Down [new song] Ships [new song] Wedding Song Why We Build The Wall Wilderland/Young Man [new song] O My Star Dyin Day [new song] --- He Did (solo) [new song] Shenandoah (solo) Willie O'Winsbury --- Out of Pawn Your Fonder Heart You Are Forgiven [new song] Way Down Hadestown