On Thursday night, a socially distanced crowd joined together in their enthusiasm for a unique talent and her circle of musical friends.

After a relatively successful career as a singer-songwriter, Anaïs Mitchell gained big-time recognition when the Broadway hit musical “Hadestown,” for which she wrote the book, lyrics and score, earned multiple awards, including the Tony for best musical in 2019.

When COVID hit, the 40-year-old Mitchell moved from New York City, where she had worked on the musical, back to her native Vermont just in time to have a baby (her second) and compose a bunch of new songs with the intimate feel of a return to her alt-folk/Americana roots.

Now, with a new, self-titled album full of those songs out and a tour underway, she stopped by friendly Portland to play with her backing band as well as in the trio (plus) known as Bonny Light Horseman (the same players form both groups but more traditional material and a more democratic sharing of the vocal duties mark the Horseman configuration).

Mitchell’s vocal tone projects a sort of youthful vulnerability, but she fills that voice with words that reveal a strong poetic vision. “Bright Star” was an early favorite with its insistent evocation of a wandering spirit seeking guidance through “the young and ancient night.”

Backed by Eric D. Johnson (vocals, guitars, banjo, harmonica, piano), Josh Kaufman (vocals, guitars, piano), Michael Lewis (bass, tenor sax, vocals) and JT Bates (drums, percussion, vocals), the Middlebury College grad parked her acoustic guitar and crossed the rather dimly lit stage to the piano for a striking rendition of “Brooklyn Bridge.” The chiming tale of romance coming to life in a taxi has the kind of melodic hook that very much brings the listener along for the ride.


Anaïs Mitchell Photo by Jay Sansone

Mitchell offered a glimpse into the origins of a song and a friendship with “On Your Way (Felix Song).” Elaborating on captured memories of a departed writing partner and friend, the warm lyrics suggest the preciousness of a life in which “you get one take.” Those last words hung in the air as did the final lyrics in several of the singer’s well-crafted arrangements. “Little Big Girl,” for another example, repeated its advice to “hold on” until it spread well into the darkened corners of Merrill.

Mitchell met the expectations of some audience members with a couple of, by comparison, almost too theatrical-sounding songs from “Hadestown.” But the strength of the new material is what carried the crowd into the singer’s new sources of inspiration along the “Backroads” of Vermont that lead to a “Watershed” that can “catch your breath at the sight of it.”

Bonny Light Horseman, with Johnson sharing lead vocals with Mitchell, established the weather-worn harmonies and “spooky” feelings, as Johnson described it, of very old folk tunes. The group’s eponymous song, led by Mitchell’s melancholy refrains about a lover lost to war, is of the sort that plants its Celtic roots deep in the heart of the listener. It created a major moment in the over two-hour concert.

The rich blend of acoustic and electric instruments in the band reached an instrumental peak beginning on “Magpie’s Nest” where the rippling arpeggios and thumping rhythms produced by the group evolved into a modal jam that rocked out very nicely.

But the evening belonged to the world of a singer-songwriter who can both comfort and, occasionally, confront a complex world in a very personal way that nonetheless speaks to many, perhaps especially to those who live in this neck of the woods.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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