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Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer

The small cosy Library Theatre in the heart of Sheffield's theatre land played host to one of the best kept secrets on the international folk music scene tonight as Anaïs Mitchell attracted a very close to sold-out audience at the theatre, appearing with her CHILD BALLADS collaborator Jefferson Hamer. From the start, Anaïs reminded us all of the reason we were there 'in case we didn't get the memo', and that most of tonight's concert would centre around the songs from that project. Announcing the twenty-week mark of her Pregnancy, the radiant singer addressed the audience whilst crouching down at the front of the stage, gathering wires and leads, the venue and organisers adopting the current trend of not bothering to introduce the acts, rather going for the casual and unshowbizzy DIY approach.

Opening with Sir Patrick Spens, the duo performed as if they've been performing these songs together for several years rather than less than a year. With exceptional harmonies and well-crafted arrangements, together with two guitars that were obviously made for one another, the ancient ballads came thick and fast throughout the set. Singing the songs together throughout with a mixture of both harmony and unison singing, the duo performed sensitively without faltering once, apart from the beginning of the gorgeous Willie of Winsbury, for which Anaïs chastised herself for being unprofessional, failing to realise her guitar was still D-tuned from the previous song. A forgivable glitch in an otherwise note perfect set. This duo certainly know their songs well before they start singing.

With a slightly annoying and unfeasibly loud wolf whistle from the front row after each and every song, the musicians enjoyed a good rapport with the audience throughout the concert. After five ballads from the collection of James Francis Child, the American collector whose songs were being celebrated tonight, the duo treated the audience to some 'older' songs, including Wedding Song from the Hadestown folk opera and Jefferson's This Ragged World We Spanned. Recalling the beautiful hymn The Old Churchyard, famously performed by both The Watersons and Waterson:Carthy, the duo presented a varied programme of songs during their ninety-minute set. With Ashley Hutchings in the audience (he even got the obligatory wolf whistle) the duo performed Tam Lin, one of the Child ballads famously recorded by Fairport Convention for their seminal English Folk Rock album Liege and Lief, which Hutchings played an enormous part in developing back in the late 1960s.

Concluding with Child Ballad number 209, Geordie, the album was effectively performed in full with all seven ballads included in the set. The duo returned for a couple of encores, the title song from Anaïs' current solo album Wilderland/Young Man in America and a fitting unplugged nod towards Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris with Hearts on Fire, a song famously recorded by the duo in the early 1970s, with Jefferson playing guitar whilst Anaïs hugged a mug, both singing as sweet as Gram and Emmylou did four decades ago.

Opening for the duo, the first of four concerts in this tour, was Stockton-on-Tees trio The Young'uns who were in good voice as they treated the audience to some of their inimitable songs and banter. With Sean Cooney, Dave Eagle and Michael Hughes recalling the days when their grandfathers said no, the songs performed either unaccompanied or with the aid of guitar and accordion, the trio not only warmed up the audience for what was to follow, but provided a highly contrasting opening performance, which resulted in a night certainly to remember.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky