The evening after a "sociopath" is declared a leader of the free world (her own measured words), Anaïs Mitchell opens her set with a twelve-year-old song. 'One Good Thing' dates back to George Dubya's re-election, and is of a piece with her early work - politically flustered and grounded in the personal, it asks of a lover " Tell me something 'bout my country - tell me one good thing". She knows there's something good to look for, even if it's found in the past ("Cash and Elvis... King and Malcolm") rather than the gaudily mediated present.
Support is from former winner of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award Jarlath Henderson, riding high in critical acclaim for his current record Hearts Broken, Heads Turned. Proving that the human-plus-guitar formula still has life in it, his voice is well-acquainted enough with its accompaniment that the two pick up each other's resonances, and St John the Evangelist is a gorgeous space to allow it all to reverberate around in. 'You Rambling Boys of Pleasure', is more W B Yeats than Shane MacGowan, and it's great to hear that the County Tyronean Henderson has traced these songs' journeys around a specific region or to a specific family. 'Courting is a Pleasure' builds up a rollicking rhythm to contrast its resigned faint-heart-never-won message, and when he suddenly launches into a uilleann pipe solo and plays like a demon, you wonder what other tricks are up his sleeve! His pedal board box of tricks added some nice effects but just as often got in the way - all the more reason to spin the fantastic album which he's only now trying to recreate solo live.
Anaïs Mitchell has been in the papers recently for her off-Broadway folk-opera Hadestown – basically, Orpheus in the Depression-era deep south – and its resonances with certain wall-building magnates, although it dates back to 2006 when Trump's offspring were busy populating The Apprentice USA. Mitchell insists she and the Donald-elect are drawing from the same mythos. Indeed, her 'Why We Build The Wall' has been an earworm of mine throughout the recent news cycle, and tonight's rendition of its grimly circular, self-perpetuating logic suggests the worm won't leave any time soon.
As a live performer, Mitchell is as engaging as I'd hoped, but even more animated – her guitar is the still point around which limbs shimmy and head recoils, and when it strikes a certain groove her body responds with a mildly electrified line-dance. She is accompanied by Henderson for some songs, including the masterful 'Young Man in America' which challenges for having as many lyrics as Dylan, but is more musically adventurous and maybe more personal than the reluctant Laureate would get. It astonishes me anew tonight, and shows that myth is a lens through which sung social comment and autobiography very naturally refract.
Ending the set with a few requests is risky – especially when the crowd's final demand is for 'Tam Lin', unrelenting seven-minute Scottish ballad of human/fairy hanky-panky, sacrifice and mutation. It's less wild than Fairport Convention's famous prog-leaning version, and more deceptively calm and balanced like Pentangle's 'Willy O'Winsbury'. She does require some audience help near the denouement to remind her which of many animals the Fairy King's about to morph into. I don't make my request for 'Wedding Band' as original vocalist Bon Iver isn't present, and those are some tough shoes to fill. But it's great to see headline and support so simpatico, fun to realise the couple across the aisle from me are Mitchell's Vermont-based parents – and it's about time you discovered these artists, and kept an eye on what experiences Empty Room Promotions are cooking up next.