To celebrate the fifth year of the “In the Round” festival at the Camden Roundhouse XS Noize was invited back to hear the best of what the 2020 line up had to offer. With previous outstanding intimate seated performances by The Levellers and Gryff Rhys; the expectations for this fifth rendition are high.
Who is Anaïs Mitchell? To the unsuspecting eye she is just an American woman who is seven months pregnant and despite the visibility of the duration of her pregnancy is still not offered a seat on the subway. In fact, Anaïs has released seven albums. One of these LP’s Hadestown was transformed into a Broadway production winning the 2019 Tony Award for Best Original Score. Hadestown was also performed at the National Theatre in London.
Following support from Chisara Agor; Anaïs Mitchell played her first set with her new band project Bonny Light Horseman. As well as Anaïs, the exciting five-piece includes Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats) and Josh Kaufman (Craig Finn, Josh Ritter and The National). Having just released their debut eponymous LP; the Roundhouse was wowed with this fresh new material.
From the outset, Anaïs’ and Johnson’s harmonies naturally fitted. Johnson looking like a young James Taylor with the vocal range of Neil Young complimented Anaïs’ rich country-folk sound. Describing Bonny Light Horseman’s style beyond folk and country is complex however Bonny Light Horseman truly deserve much more than this generic box and file treatment. The bands which come to mind are Monsters of Folk with a fusion of James Taylor and a dash of Fleet Foxes. Beyond the music itself, what made Bonny Light Horseman’s live presence so spectacular was their collective ease at being comfortable with themselves and each other. From their attire to how the band members positioned themselves on the stage; there were no marketing ploys which won approval at the Roundhouse.
When Anaïs returned to do her solo set with the band, one band member was missing: Eric D. Johnson. It is seldom seen that a main act follows the previous act with fewer band members and instruments. In Johnson’s place was a can of drink that Mitchell opened and began to consume which suspiciously looked like an alcoholic craft beer. There was immediate relief once Anaïs assured the audience that the contents of this can only contained water.
Opening with “Ships” from her 2012 LP Young Man in America, Anaïs instantly proved that there was more to her name than her musical Hadestown. In fact, Mitchell only played three songs from this musical which had evolved from her 2010 LP. The rest of her set comprised of her entire back catalogue showing Anaïs as a rooted and heartfelt artist who refused to solely cash in on Hadestown. Things only improved as Johnson returned to the stage mid-set. Anaïs was part of a five-piece band again.
With the utmost subtlety and discretion, Mitchell addressed political issues. The Roundhouse felt a sense relief that Anaïs understood that Friday 31st January 2020 was “a tough day” rewarding her with passionate applause. Anaïs also spoke of the theme of migration in her songs and how often her material and the material of songs by other artists she associates with were about migration and the necessity to flee one area and find sanctuary in another.
One of the songs that addressed the issues of migration most poignantly was “Why We Build the Wall”, a song Anaïs wrote back in 2006 which has subsequently been covered by artists including Billy Bragg. As well as the emotive lyrics “Who do we call the enemy? The enemy is poverty. And the wall keeps out the enemy. And we build the wall to keep us free. That’s why we build the wall”; Josh Kaufman’s glorious haunting rock solos provided the perfect soundtrack reflecting the global uncertainty presently being experienced.
Even if Anaïs Roundhouse performance does not prompt people to find out more about her musical Hadestown, attend future “In the Round” festival dates or examine the lyrics from “Why We Build the Wall”; it will hopefully prompt people to give up their seat on the train next time a woman who is seven months pregnant gets aboard.