Anais Mitchell: Freight & Salvage, Berkeley, CA 4/4/2012

Photo Credit: Joan Bowlen

There are certain singer-songwriters who once they hit upon a certain style or sound stay situated in that world for the majority of their career. And for many that’s in no way a bad thing, as it plays to their strengths. For a rarer few, however, metamorphosis and taking risks is imperative to their artistic journey, and while this can lead to potential failure, it also has the opportunity to open up avenues of intense aesthetic excellence.

One of those artists is Anaïs Mitchell, who over the course of the last ten years has released four superlative records that mine the depths of the folk tradition, while exploring the ways in which British and American rock and blues can inject a brawniness and sensuality that so many folksters constantly fail to achieve. Her latest album is a loosely-drawn concept album on the role of ontological masculinity in America, which because of its somewhat separation from Mitchell herself has allowed her to step into these songs’ roles with powerful intention.

The majority of Young Man in America was played the other night in Berkeley, when Mitchell, joined by the outstanding “Young Man” band (which featured multi-instrumentalist Ben Davis, bassist Noah Hahn and keyboard/guitarist Rachel Ries), graced the stage of the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse. But unlike her last Bay Area show at Slim’s last July, where these songs were cast in a 70’s acid rock, edgy and high-impact form, the Berkeley show this week took on a wholly different appearance. Rather than reveal the husky muscularity of songs like “Wilderland/Young Man in America” in a way that highlights the rawness of the piece, or kick into the drum-led groove of “Dyin Day,” Mitchell and her band aired on the side of a more Appalachian-inspired, restrained and hushed version of these songs. While it may sound like doing so would be boring and even tedious, it was thrilling to see different faces put on songs that are still relatively fresh and new, all things considered.

Starting with the album’s closing ballad “Ships,” Mitchell immediately announced her intention with the show, which was not to be a rabble-rousing barn-stomper of an evening, but rather 90 minutes that focused on the breadth and weight of the new material. “Ships” is one of those songs that can often get lost because it’s tagged onto the end of the record, and after ten tracks preceding it, it can often lose to one’s lack of patience. Therefore, by playing it first, Mitchell grabbed the audience’s attention as she spanned the seven minutes epic, and with the nuanced embellishments from the Young Man band, it really came alive. But it was the third song, “Cosmic American,” which was the only selection from 2004’s Hymns for the Exiled, that really got a new pair of clothes. Mitchell often performs this solo, but this new version was made rich with Rachel Ries’ excellent harmonies, sharp and angular electric guitar chords and Rhodes piano line. It was one of those concert moments where you hear a song you really never expected to hear, and its done with such potent force and beauty that you’re rendered speechless.

“Coming Down” has been retrofitted, following Todd Sickafoose’s minimal, piano-anchored studio version. It used to be a fuller, more upbeat country-licked ballad, but now it’s a hushed, fragile and utterly haunting work. The album version is vastly superior, so it’s nice to see Mitchell favor that, rather than the original. But it was the next three songs that really showed off her chops as a songwriter, from new ballad “Shepherd” to solo workings of Hadestown’s “Wedding Song” and The Brightness’ “Shenandoah.” On the first, she was joined by Ben Davis on banjo, which gave the already tragic piece a ghostly sound that injected even more yearning and melancholy into the devastating song. “Wedding Song” was spry and lithe, but the choice of “Shenandoah” was incredibly apt. Mitchell’s voice has aged beautifully, and mellowed considerably since her debut, and to match that with her agile guitar finger-picking on one of her best songs was a real treat for the audience.

While it’s sad the band didn’t end up playing more from her older albums, especially Hadestown, the set was a solid presentation of Mitchell both in flux and stasis. She’s written an amazing album with Young Man in America, and so it’s fantastic that they’re putting such emphasis on that work, but the choice to recast so much of the material in new clothes demonstrates her desire to explore new musical territories and worlds. And backed by a band of such high caliber, watching Mitchell do this while on stage is a pleasure not to be missed– because if her career is any indication, this may be your only chance to catch these songs in these distinct forms before they transform into entirely new beings.

Photo Credit: Joan Bowlen

Photo Credit: Joan Bowlen


Dyin Day
Cosmic American
Young Man In America
Coming Down
Wedding Song [solo]
Shenandoah [solo]
O My Star!
You Are Forgiven

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