Anaïs Mitchell at The Railway, Winchester (17/02/2014)

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Around the end of Anaïs’s set she opened the floor to requests, and upon playing ‘He Did’ (a heartrending, profound song about coping with the death of her father) and ‘Dyin Day’, she jokingly mused on how, despite feeling like she writes too many sad songs and wants to be able to occupy her set with a fairer share of more light-hearted material, everyone requests “the most fucking depressing songs ever.” She then recounted a moment in a documentary on the great Townes van Zandt, when he was asked by a journalist why he only wrote sad songs. “Well,” asked Townes “aren’t you sad?”

Anaïs has spent her career exploring and consoling that part of our psyches. Her music is deeply introspective and literary, and the sheer emotional depth of her songs on love, loneliness and loss carried through in the most ideal way via the directness achieved by both the cosy venue and by her only being accompanied by her acoustic guitar.

The support act, David Lemaitre, was a promising voice that also managed to deliver an interesting, lively and engaging set out of the very-difficult-to-make-interesting-lively-and-engaging notion of being on stage with just one’s voice and guitar, with finely crafted indie-folk songs of the eternal themes of deep political dissatisfaction and deeper romance.

Through a set that was both career spanning and cohesive, Anaïs maintained an element of understated catharsis. Particular highlights included ‘Cosmic American’ (“I can see forever out the window of a hotel room/I spent a long night with a stranger I gave me body to/Still I miss you”) and ‘Young Man in America’ (the titular track on a concept album about her father), with her acoustic guitar playing, which is both consistently inventive whilst never veering into anything ‘show-off-ey’, formed a brilliant backdrop to her subtle yet emotionally charged singing. The audience was light on sing-alongs but heavy on between-song banter participation (which only added to how, for me at least, each song felt like more of a connection to the performer than anything I’ve felt in a stadium), and in all you came away feeling both emotionally drained and somehow lighter because of it. She balanced her setlist between albums rather than focusing on her recent release, an album of old folk songs called Child Ballads that she won the BBC Folk Music award for Best Traditional Song for only two days after this concert, but when she did play any of these recent releases she displayed the life and individuality she managed to bring to songs that have been played and reinterpreted a myriad times over. Her last request, ‘He Did’, was my favourite moment of the night – her thoughts on living on once her father had passed away (“Who gave you the break of dawn/A pleasure just to look upon. Who gave you a barn to build/And an empty page to fill?”) could have been a incongruous, crushing weight after the charm and light-heartedness of the anecdotes she told between songs, but the sincerity of her performance made sure it was a beautiful, profoundly affecting moment.

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  1. avatar
    David Goudie on

    A really well written review to what was a wonderful set on this evening. I concur with many of the thoughts written here. I had been waiting to see her for a long while and she didn’t disappoint.

    I don’t suppose you have a setlist of what she played on that night – I have been looking around the web for one for ages and had no luck ..

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