Anaïs Mitchell & Bonny Light Horseman played Webster Hall, covered Dire Straits (pics, video, review)
Bonny Light Horseman's self-titled debut album was released in January of 2020 and had a slow rise. They supported it with a short tour that included a Brooklyn show in February of that year at the now-closed Williamsburg location of Rough Trade NYC, and they caught a lot more people's attention when they played three songs on CBS This Morning that same month. As Bonny Light Horseman -- the indie folk rock supergroup of Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats), and Josh Kaufman -- started to seem less like a side project and more like a force that rivaled the members' core projects, COVID-19 swept across the globe and put a stop to live music, and life, as we knew it. For me and presumably some others, Bonny Light Horseman were the soundtrack to those early, confusing months of lockdown, so seeing them last night (2/14) at their first semi-headlining NYC show since playing Rough Trade two years earlier felt like an experience that was a long time coming, and a reminder that -- though things still aren't like they were before March of 2020 -- we've all come a long way. (Bonny Light Horseman did also open for Dawes in Central Park this past September.)
Last night's Valentine's Day show was at Webster Hall, a much larger venue than Rough Trade, and it was a family affair, co-headlining with the group's own Anaïs Mitchell, who just released her own self-titled album. In addition to the group's core three members, they were joined by drummer JT Bates (Bon Iver, Taylor Swift) and bassist/saxophonist Michael Lewis (Bon Iver, Andrew Bird), who were also the rhythm section on both the Bonny Light Horseman album and the new Anaïs Mitchell album, and that five-piece lineup was the band for both of last night's sets. Anaïs, who is most famous for her album-turned-Broadway-musical Hadestown, did bring the bigger crowd (who cheered extra loud for the Hadestown songs), but if you only showed up for Anaïs' set, you missed out. The whole night felt like one very special, unforgettable evening.
Bonny Light Horseman kicked things off at 8 PM with "Deep In Love," and they sounded terrific off the bat. They were in great spirits, cracking jokes throughout the night about how Valentine's Day-appropriate their songs are (their debut album is largely made up of reworked versions of traditional songs, many of which only touch on love to convey tragedy), and each song sounded as stunning as the next. Anaïs and Eric traded lead vocals throughout the night, and switched between playing acoustic guitar or just singing (Eric also played harmonica and banjo). Though Josh Kaufman's only vocals were backing harmonies, he reminded the crowd during both sets how crucial he is to the sound of the Bonny Light Horseman album and the new Anaïs Mitchell album. He's an inventive guitar wiz who had a variety of unique axes lined up, and he alone was responsible for so many of the layers and textures that make these songs feel special.
Bonny Light Horseman played a ton of favorites from their debut album ("The Roving," "Jane Jane," "Magpie's Nest," "Bonny Light Horseman," etc), material from their Green/Green single, and they played a new song from their upcoming sophomore album, which Eric said "we're gonna unleash on you very soon." They mentioned on stage that the new album is all original material, and the new song they played sounded great. Stay tuned for more on that.
After taking a 25-minute break, Anaïs, Josh, JT, and Michael returned for the Anaïs Mitchell portion of the night, kicking off with a series of songs from Anaïs' new album, with Anaïs switching between guitar and piano. Comparing her new album to Hadestown, she said in a recent interview that this one "isn’t larger than life, it is life-sized," and it seemed clear last night that Anaïs was was thrilled to be doing something a little more intimate. She seemed very grateful for Hadestown's success and also shouted out one of the show's longtime cast members who was in the audience, but it seemed like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders when she was given the chance to play these more stripped-back, more personal songs.
She did do some material off Hadestown, with Eric returning to the stage to assume the role of Orpheus (voiced by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon on the 2010 album version), and those were the songs that got the most applause, but for the most part, this show gave Anaïs the chance to step out from Hadestown's shadow and do something totally new, and it was a treat to see it. She touched on a bit of her 2012 album Young Man in America too, and one of the big standouts of the night was that album's title track. It was a climactic moment in an otherwise more toned-down setlist.
For the encore, Anaïs first came out for a solo acoustic song, and then Eric and Josh joined her to cover Dire Straits' classic "Romeo and Juliet," the trio's first-ever time covering the song. They sounded great (video below). Then, JT and Michael came back out and they wrapped up with "10,000 Miles," the closing track from Bonny Light Horseman's album, and the night had come full circle.