Watch for “the wiggle”. That was one thing we learnt from the Q&A session with which the Vermont-raised singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell prefaced this delightfully one-off solo set, promoting Young Man in America, her excellent new band record. Sure enough, when she stood with her acoustic guitar and began singing, her legs twitched and her heels swivelled in the “involuntary dance” she had promised. Cute.
Seeing her perform in a library was apt – even if the shelves behind me were filled with the reports of parliamentary select committees rather than improving fiction. As shown on Hadestown, her accomplished “folk opera” of 2010, which relocated Orpheus and Eurydice to the America of the Great Depression, Mitchell is a literary being to the tips of her toes. She must get that sensibility from her father, since we heard that a novel Don Mitchell wrote in his youth, The Souls of Lambs, is a big influence on her latest album, particularly the fable-like “Shepherd”.
Mitchell also said that a phrase her dad used to comfort her after she lost a family pet made it into “Dyin’ Day”. When, during the Q&A, she suddenly sang the track to illustrate, it was a perfect example of how art, and the power of song, can transform the merely anecdotal into something almost mythic. Not at all mawkish, it was lump-in-the-throat stuff.
On stage proper, “Venus” went with a jazzy, Joni Mitchell-like fluency. The two songs she played, by request, from her back catalogue, “Orion” and “Old-Fashioned Hat”, were both well-crafted but more confessional in style than her recent work, which has grown into its allusiveness. Yet the audience of 100 or so was half-hearted in offering the “tribal wordless harmony” that Mitchell called for on “Wilderland”. The culture of “quiet please” in libraries runs deep.
Filial themes occupy Young Man in America, as does the question of the compact between the generations. Mitchell’s girlish vocal – shades of Joanna Newsom and, to my ears, Dolly Parton (maybe it was the twang in the way she sang “daddy”) – suited these songs’ emotional intensity. “Ships”, meanwhile, blending stoicism and censure, had the ballad-like quality to which Mitchell aspires in her writing.
The gig finished with “Tailor”, whose bereaved protagonist laments, “There isn’t anyone to say if I’m a diamond or a dime a dozen.” Nobody here can have been left in any doubt that Mitchell is the former.