Anais Mitchell has famous friends. Ani Difranco and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) to name a few. Though they’re not just friends – collaborators to be more precise. Both Difranco and Vernon were featured on Mitchell’s 2010 folk opera release “Hadestown,” along with a handful of other overly talented musicians including Greg Brown and the Haden Triplets. She sings with famous friends.
(Back up – I feel I should explain the “folk opera” as to not prematurely turn anyone off. It is an entire album devoted to the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and his adventure into hell to save his wife Eurydice, sung in 20 songs with the arrangements to make it feel like the alternative rock we’d expect from a Righteous Babe Records alum, Difranco initially signed Mitchell to the label in 2006. And it is rad. Anais Mitchell is certainly a chameleon of many things, but a storyteller above all. Put your own comparisons to Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell here. )
I wish I could say it was my cutting edge ear for talent that led me to Anais Mitchell, but in truth it was my love for her ever so talented friends (and an excellent cover by Bon Iver of one her tracks, “Coming Down”) that turned me on to her music. A few tracks into her newest album, “Young Man In America,” though and it quickly became apparent that Mitchell has the voice to stand on her own. Her famous friends could probably take a few notes from her, too.
Thrown into the musical obsession I always get for a new artist, in a few days of hearing her I was on her website madly checking the tour schedule for something within 100 miles of the Chi. Lucky for me, she just so happened to book one of the best intimate venues in the Chicagoland area, SPACE in Evanston, and for $24 bucks for a reserved table I was all in.
Whenever seeing someone for the first time, I always have an apprehension, especially if I am still in the deep woods of love with their recorded album, that I might be disappointed. There would be no disappointment this night. An extremely polished and alluring performer, Mitchell has the kind of voice you wish you had every time you sing along to the radio – effortless, clear and just strange enough to exude “cool.” And it is ever more captivating in-person.
She charmed us with a 90-minute set, covering all of her new stuff from “Young Man In America,” plus a handful of “Hadestown” solos, an a capella cover and a sprinkling of throwbacks from her older stuff. In between songs, no one checked their phones, shuffled towards the bathroom or spoke louder than a whisper. She carried the room with light banter (even joking about the irony of singing her lyrics, “I’ve never felt so high, I’ve never felt so high, I think I’m coming down” on 4/20) and a confidence you didn’t want to take your eyes off. Every lyric heard, every note respected and every sentiment fully given way to.
Throughout the entire night, I never felt like I was just watching a performance, but rather a handful of mini-stories unfold, told by that endearing and capable storyteller. As with all good performances, I couldn’t hold onto the minutes and the show slipped away from me too quickly. After leaving the venue and heading back into the city, I sat with that awful feeling, like the first time I saw Missy Higgins at Martyrs, that the next step Anais would be back she would be hidden behind a much larger venue.
I am sure hoping none of this is news to you and not the first time you’re hearing of Anais, but if it is, get on your Pandora and iTunes and Spotify and YouTube, download the songs, let them be the soundtrack of your next few hours and do not miss her the next time she wings through Chicago. She is really that good.
Oh, and try not to be too jealous of her husband. That’s right – married.