Friday, March 22, 2013

Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer – Green Frog – Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer at The Green Frog

Friday, March 22nd

A standing room only crowd at the Green Frog, silent, reverent, anticipatory. On stage, opener Misty Flowers is in the middle of a plaintive haiku set, six string meditations echoing Joni Mitchell, an almost spiritual presence for the evening.

James Hardesty introduces two of his most favorite performers, Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer. Unassuming and natural onstage, they begin with a song from their recently released CD, Child Ballads. What strikes one immediately is Anais’ voice: unique in timbre and tone, paradoxically delicate and strong, a thing beautiful and ancient, what you imagine the seer Cassandra to have sounded like. Jefferson harmonizes around Anais, at times in an even higher register, then right there beside her. Together they enrapture the crowd into a religious silence. Their musical compatibility reminds me of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, singing inside each other wounds and laughter.

The Child Ballads are from a collection of traditional English and Scottish popular folk ballads from the Francis James Child collection. Anais and Jefferson adapted seven of them for two guitars. The result is haunting and sublime. Their guitars braid melodic lines through each other; unusual tunings evoking English Renaissance compositions; images of stone taverns on dark nights; these ballads having been spun out of ancient myth and legend.

In between each song, Jefferson sets the theme of the ballad for the crowd, telling about witches and jealous mothers, curses and wax babies, sister maidens beguiling young travelers, sailing ships and lost loves. All the characters seem simultaneously strange and familiar. Ghosts from fairy tales and archetypes from dreams.

They break from the Child Ballads to play a handful of their own songs, Jefferson playing his elegiac, The Ragged World We Spanned, building it before the crowd like a quiet cathedral: “We set out for allegory on a ship of the damned.” And Anais played the stunning, Young Man in America:

There's a hollow in my bones
Make me cry and carry on
Make the foam fly from my tongue
Make me want what I want
Another wayward son
Waiting on oblivion

After hearing the Child Ballads, much of the imagery of their earlier work is more accessible, the traditional songs providing a thematic bridge back into each of their catalogues. Young Man in America feels less disquieting and more familiar, the language suddenly translated through the new/old context.

The crowd, now a true audience - all of us - is deeply appreciative and respectful. It is one of those shows that marries performer to space in the most harmonious manner possible. Anais and Jefferson return for an a cappella encore, standing off to the side of the microphones, singing together, purely, quietly and intimately. The music dances there amidst the hushed presence of the room, reminding us all of  why it exists in the first place.

This review originally appeared in What's Up!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Zach Zinn at the Cavity Club: A Human Wire Suspension Masterpiece - January 13, 2012

Zach Zinn at the Cavity Club: A Human Wire Suspension Masterpiece

January 13, 2012

An invitation to a new club. More like a burned-out house off of Texas Street. Set-up in the basement. Only Zach Zinn would play a gig like this. I walk in and am drowned in consecutive waves of thick incense and disturbing ambient sound. There are a few signs leading you through the house and down into the basement where there are about 30 people standing around – everyone looking like they are ready to run. Electric weird vibe. Dark anticipation. The odor of humans starting to worry. Across the room is a black plastic sheet. The occasional shudder as those working behind it move around. 15 minutes pass. A few people wander away. Then the ambient music stops and a girl comes out to pull the black plastic down from where it was nailed into the ceiling. And everyone has a hard time figuring out what exactly is it that they are seeing there on the other side.

At first, it looks like Zach Zinn is floating there in mid-air like some sort of absent magician’s trick. But then, you see that he is suspended by a multitude of wires which are hooked into his body. Tiny rivulets of blood trickle over his skin. After an initial inward gasp, a collective murmuring of concern starts to rise in volume. Zach slowly raises and arm and plucks one of the strings. A deep bass note trembles through the room. The crowd shuts up. Then he plucks another string and another until each is resonating and rising through manipulated tonalities, fading over long moments, swirling like water down a drain, suddenly going quiet, always a distant thunder sounding. Zach twists in obvious pain to reach some of the strings. And it dawns on me that he has made himself into a human stringed instrument and he is playing an ambient adagio of his own pain. It is brilliant and disturbing and no one could stop watching and listening for the duration of the 45 minute performance.

It is a rare artist that is willing to endure such agony for their own creation. I bow down to Zach Zinn and his willingness to push the boundaries and show the world something that has not been witnessed before.

Originally appeared in What's Up! Magazine