- Sunday Times
- The Guardian
- Q Magazine
- Village Voice
by Laura Leebove
Anaïs Mitchell and the Hadestown Orchestra
(le) poisson rouge
Sunday, November 20
Better than: Watching Occupy Wall Street protesters on TV.
Anaïs Mitchell’s show on Sunday night began on a crowded stage at (le) poisson rouge and ended in a singalong-propelled march to nearby Washington Square Park. First on the docket was a performance of Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown, a powerful—and extremely relevant—telling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hades’s Underworld that takes place in an post-economic-apocalypse American town. Hadestown (presented last night as a “radio novella concert”) incorporates Americana, sultry jazz, old-time show tunes and contemporary folk, and it was released in recorded form last year; the album was unfortunately overlooked, despite assists from the likes of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (Orpheus), The Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller (Hermes), Ani DiFranco (Persephone) and Greg Brown (Hades).
The tale begins with the young lovers Orpheus (Sean Hayes) and Eurydice (Mitchell) wondering how they’ll pay for their wedding: “Lover, tell me when we’re wed/ Who’s gonna make the wedding bed/ Times being what they are/ Hard and getting harder all the time.” Eurydice dies on their wedding day and is transported to the Underworld, where the king, Hades (Tim Gearan), has built a wall to keep out the poor; Orpheus attempts to find and rescue her, although Hades fears that in helping one person, Orpheus, the underclasses will take over. In “Hey, Little Songbird” he sings about having “walls to build” and “riots to quell,” imagery that brings to mind the barricade of police officers who surrounded Zuccotti Park late last week and the entire foundation of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was chilling to hear the 15-plus musicians on stage and most of the audience singing the words to “Why We Build the Wall”: “And the war is never won/ The enemy is poverty/ And the wall keeps out the enemy.”
Last night DiFranco reprised her role of Persephone, who tries to convince her husband Hades to help Orpheus return to Eurydice. She’s known as “our lady of the underground,” which echoes her real-world status as a notoriously political, expectation-bucking artist. Others who have been instrumental in the production’s early success were on board, too: Ben Matchstick, who staged the theatrical version of Hadestown, was the harmonica-playing “hobo-guy poet” Hermes; Michael Chorney, who wrote the phenomenal instrumental arrangements, provided the guitar foundation; and Todd Sickafoose, who produced the record, played piano. And then, of course, there’s Mitchell, the creator of and driving force behind the entire production, and who sang double-edged lyrics like “Mr. Hades is a mighty king/ Must be making some mighty big deals/ Seems like he owns everything/ Kinda makes you wonder how it feels.”
Hadestown tells a dark story that doesn’t end well, but moments of optimism hold it together: “The darkest hour of the darkest night/ Comes right before the dawn,” Eurydice reminds Orpheus during “Doubt Comes In.” After the story’s end, the group returned to the stage for a rowdy singalong of DiFranco’s update of Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On?”, then gathered in the middle of the venue’s floor to sing a few songs—Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” and “This Land is Your Land,” Art Garfunkel’s “Woyaya.” Then it was off to Washington Square; outside, Matchstick announced, “And now, a message from Mr. Hades, the 1 percent,” before leading the crowd in a passionate, viola-backed reprise of Hadestown’s “Why We Build the Wall,” which seemed even more utterly suited to the cries of the 99 percent.
Critical bias: Huge Ani DiFranco fan; third time seeing Hadestown performed in full with an orchestra.
Overheard: “They’re gonna bring Ani out here. It’d be funny if no one knew who she was.”
Random notebook dump: Why isn’t “Why We Build the Wall” an Occupy Wall Street anthem?
What the Press Say
“The most engaging, and in some ways, most original artist currently working in the field of new American ‘folk’ music” INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
“Terrific….Mitchell is a skilled storyteller..and her delivery gives an emotional complexity that welcomes and even demands repeated listens.” PITCHFORK
“Music of rare boldness and reach. A sensational album” CD of the Week, THE SUNDAY TIMES
“A remarkable, genre-defying album” 4* UNCUT
“A true American original” 4* Q
“Mitchell has done herself proud” 4* THE GUARDIAN
“Nothing short of incredible” 9/10 NME
“Beautifully original, bristling with savage melancholy” 4* THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
“A brilliant, highly original album” THE OBSERVER
“An epic tale of American becoming. Marvellous” THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
“A captivating collection of songs, ensuring that Ms Mitchell continues to snap at the heels of PJ Harvey in the female singer songwriter stakes” 8/10 CLASH
“A fierce, melodic affirmation of sadness and grief, love and lust, attachments formed both strong and precarious, Young Man in America is a marvel of a record from start to finish”. BBC MUSIC
“A perfect example of how art, and the power of song, can transform the merely anecdotal into something almost mythic” 4* THE FINANCIAL TIMES
“Mitchell has created a deeply affecting album which preserves everything that was so marvellous about her beloved folk-opera, and ultimately performs a very handsome job of keeping out of its vast shadow”. 8/10 DROWNED IN SOUND
“The sheer breadth of the composition makes the album one to treasure…Mitchell displays a mastery of her material” 5* THE IRISH INDEPENDENT
“A phenomenal concept album, perfectly executed…already one of the albums of 2012” 4* ROLLING STONE
“Her voice is sweet, her message is potent….Young Man In America is about a gender and a generation abandoned and exposed.”—NPR “On Point”
Anaïs Mitchell is first and foremost a storyteller. As a Vermont-based singer-songwriter, Mitchell recorded for Ani Difranco’s Righteous Babe Records for several years before starting her own Wilderland label in 2012. Among her recorded works are five full-length albums, including 2010’s sensationally-reviewed Hadestown– a folk opera based on the Orpheus myth– and 2012’s Young Man in America, which was described by the UK’s Independent as ‘an epic tale of American becoming’ and for which she received a BBC Radio Two Folk Award nomination for Best Original Song. Mitchell has headlined worldwide as well as supporting tours for Bon Iver, Ani Difranco, The Low Anthem (all of whom appear as guest singers on Hadestown), Richard Thompson, Josh Ritter and Punch Brothers. Her 2013 release, Child Ballads, a collaboration with Jefferson Hamer, is a collection of traditional Celtic and British Isles ballads. It won a 2014 BBC Radio Two Folk Award for Best Traditional Song, as well as finding itself on many ‘best of’ lists in international publications. In fall 2014, Mitchell releases ‘xoa'; a fifteen track solo collection including re-recorded songs spanning her ten year career, as well as a few completely new and previously unrecorded songs. If there’s a common thread in Mitchell’s work– from her earliest acoustic records, to the Hadestown opera, to this new chapter– it’s that she’s as interested in the world around her as the one inside her. She has a way of tackling big themes with the same emotional intimacy most artists use to describe their inner lives. “That’s why,” as one journalist put it, “even in her most intimate moments, she never sounds like a confessional songwriter.”