To culminate one last sweet-toothed caloric intake of the Chocolate Festival, I attended Carnegie’s concert of singer/songwriter ANAIS MITCHELL and opening band CUDDLE MAGIC.
I found the 6-piece opening ensemble to be a bit of a slightly robotic breath of fresh air, if those two descriptions can possibly match in one’s mind. The stage and its sonorous air was laden with keyboards, xylophones, an upright bass (wearing a shirt: the bass as well as its player), the ever-enigmatic bass clarinet, guitars, banjos, drums, and the really perfect sound of a trumpet well-played. They were quirky, to say the least. With songs both melodic and mechanical, I was struck by the intelligence of their harmonies and intervals and ideas. They did surreal songs about hippies on the moon as well as the more poetic “Pretty Thing” (beginning with the line “Once I was pretty, or so they told me…”), sung by the lovely Kristen (sorry, I didn’t catch her last name), whose voice reminded me slightly of Elena Fremmerman from Hot Club of Cowtown, though the genres of musical styles were worlds apart.
Their was a youthful freshness of experimentation in the writings of this group. It reminded me of early days spent singing dissonant intervals with my fellow music majors in tiny practice rooms. We had the whole musical world ahead of us, and this was the feeling I got from Cuddle Magic. I imagined them as young mad scientists, harmonizing and creating inside the only lit room in the near-ruins of an ancient manor. Perhaps they are wearing lab coats with bubbling test tubes and zinging electronics filling their realm. Their harmonies were flawless and odd. They mentioned recording a CD with a “virtuoso toy pianist”. It lifted my spirit to know such things go on.
Then, Anais Mitchell took the stage. And with only slight personnel changes, the familiar opening group re-grouped and joined her. Again, there were perfect harmonies throughout, thanks to Ben Davis, Noah Hahn, and Mitchell’s long-time collaborator Rachel Ries, whose piano playing was lovely. (note: for sale at the merch table was Rachel’s own home-made marmalade.) There was alluring and seductive space in the music, and sometimes that brings to light what is important melodically.
While touring to promote her newest CD,“Young Man in America”, supposedly from the mostly male viewpoint, this virile perspective was slightly hard to substantiate, being rendered from this ultra-feminine baby-voiced singer-songwriter. Her voice was reminiscent of Carla Sciaky or at times, Jonatha Brooks from The Story. I felt like no matter how contentious the words were, when a line was thrown in like “It’s a lonely, lonely world for a yellow-haired girl…” , I’m thinking, well, not so much.
But don’t get me wrong. This woman is a poet. When I read her words later I was mesmerized
by some of her phrases. And I was quite moved by several songs. I found some of her
paean compositions to be slightly self-indulgent, but that’s how it often is for true poets. I don’t fault anyone for that kind of inspiration. And speaking of a deep inspiration from some dark place, Mitchell had written a mythologically-based folk opera called Hadestown, a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth, which showed a bit of a glimpse into the portal of the underworld, while humanizing the gods and goddesses. From this came “Wedding Song”, an allegory between Eurydice and Orpheus. She asks who will make the wedding bed “times being what they are”, and he reassures her with the idyllic “Lover, when I sing my song, All the birds gonna sing along, And they’ll come flying round to me, To lay their feathers at my feet…the birds gonna make the wedding bed…”
Another song that caught my heart was called “Shepherd”, and was based on the first chapter of a novel Mitchell’s father had written when he was her age. It was a bit of heartbreak, an homage (in my mind, anyway) to the traditional death ballad so prevalent in Appalachian musical culture. It’s the story of a farmer whose enduringly selfless wife dies in childbirth while he tends to the fields. It’s a song of the dilemma of choice and duty and the cruel passing of time. Fate prevails and lessons are learned. “And the shepherd’s work is never done.”
The song “Old-Fashioned Hat” impressed me with its sketch of a night out with the familiar significant other, watching him (or her) from across the room, where memories flood back and all is strange and familiar at once. The sighing resignation of a not-so-easy here-and-now, and a not-so-exciting what’s-to-come are combined in the portrait of the occasional night out with someone with whom you have found the comfort of every-day existence. “You look like a stranger in that old-fashioned hat…” Sometimes you just want to hear your song on a jukebox in a bar somewhere between what was and what’s to come.
The evening was well-spent and was a good way to end a beautiful Saturday. You can access the words, music, and tour dates of Anais Mitchell on www.anaismitchell.com . Absolute poetry set to music. And Cuddle Magic’s views on life and music can be found on www.cuddle-magic.com . The musical life is always stimulating… makes for sweet dreams.
– Susanna Robinson Kenga