Anaïs Mitchell returns to Oxford as part of a small tour with no particular agenda, having no new material to tout, and so formalities are dispensed with at SJE tonight. Rather than playing to a rigid setlist she meanders through her back catalogue, encouraging requests for a large section of the night and connecting one on one with the loyal fans who provide something of a cult following for her music in the UK. Even she seems to be genuinely amused by the depths people are able to plug and the number of calls for tracks from her folk-opera Hadestown, which premiered earlier this year in New York.
She plays solo for the majority of the night, accompanied only by her own guitar. I’ve previously seen it commented that her voice sometimes fails to match the weight of the material she’s delivering, but I couldn’t agree with that this evening. If anything the stripped back delivery illuminates the strength of her songwriting. Early on she plays Why We Build The Wall, a ten year old song which could have been written only days ago in the wake of the presidential election, and the irony isn’t lost on anyone. Two Kids, though now even older, is also as poignant and as she sings the words of Syrian poet Noor al-Din Ba’aj it’s a stark reminder that not much has changed in that time. Even when she breaks into the traditional stuff for the likes of Clyde Waters (which was recorded with Jefferson Hamer on their 2013 collaboration Child Ballads) there is a distinct lack of easy content.
Twice she’s joined by former BBC Young Folk Musician award winner Jarlath Henderson on whistle and backing vocals, adding weight to Young Man In America and Mary And The Soldier. The former album featured heavily the last time she played here, but tonight its stand out tracks (Tailor, Shepherd) are absent, and the set is none the worse for it.