Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, Misty Flowers: March 22 at Green Frog

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.