Remember when Mary Travers told Peter and Paul, “To hell with this, I’m through with this crap. Jerry gave me a call and I’m going to go sing with the Grateful Dead“? Bonny Light Horseman surely do, and they brought that alternate reality to fruition in The Lexington for their first ever headlining gig in London. They are a side project band for Anais Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson (of Fruit Bats) and Josh Kaufman, supported by JT Bates on drums and Michael Libramento on bass. Their recently released album has been garnering rave reviews – deservedly – making this sold out gig in the intimate Lexington an unmissable prospect.
And it was magical from the start, with ‘10,000 Miles’ shining afresh over a shuffling beat with first Anais Mitchell’s golden intonation and then Eric Johnson’s stridently pure and clear vocals, pulling out acres of melancholic emotion from a line as simple as “my own true love stay a while with me / if I’ve had a friend on this earth, you’ve been a friend to me.” It’s high and achy in the same way that Fleet Foxes were at first before they over-complicated things.
Bonny Light Horseman, as so many others before them, are somewhat enraptured by Anne Briggs – ‘Blackwaterside’ was a gorgeous and dreamy duet between Mitchell and Johnson, with Mitchell both gently accusatory and wearily accepting when she sings of her betrayal, “there’s not a girl in the whole wide world more easily led than me / when the fishes they fly and the seas run dry it’s then that he’ll marry me”. And this is given a dramatic flourish by some inspired drumming. There’s more Anne Briggs on ‘Go Your Way (my Love)’ which the band had originally thought was a traditional song. Bonny Light Horseman do a great job of making it their own simply by avoiding the mistake of trying to sound like Anne Briggs – few drank or smoked as much as Anne Briggs, and no-one has ever been as skinny or as embued with that youthful and arrogant insouciance as Anne Briggs. Josh Kaufman’s guitar was, as all through the gig, elegant and exciting and restrained with bursts of wild abandon – a mix of little precise melodic runs, then maybe a much faster solo with plenty of application of vibrato. Perfect, in other words. As the whole band was – it’s pretty rare to see a band so in synch, so careful of each other’s playing and yet not seeming stilted or studious. Everything flowed just as it should do – that everyone on the stage was clearly getting a kick out of what they were doing was doubtless no small part of the reason why.
‘Lowlands’ is so darned well constructed, the interplay of the rhythm section and Johnson’s harmonica and banjo, makes the song into a wistful song of patience, as a sailor’s voyages are recounted by Mitchell. It’s faster than it’s often sung, and fundamentally more optimistic: in this version nobody drowns. ‘Mountain Rain’ is something of an exception in the set in that it’s a retelling of the John Henry story and so is a definitively American folk creation. Inevitably this was never going to be an overly long gig – Bonny Light Horseman only have the one album to which they added just a few additional songs but even so it flew by in a blink. The encore was an abbreviated ‘Bright Morning Stars’, a gospely folk song sung by just the main three band members. Beautiful, if brief.
Bonny Light Horseman are really doing what the Beatles and The Stones initially did – bringing music back to the place where it originated from in the first place and finding a new audience who are keen to hear what they actually already had, if they’d just taken the time to find it. That is emphatically not a criticism, both those bands did a pretty good job of reminding the USA about Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker and Bonny Light Horseman’s reshaping and reinvention of hundreds of years old folksongs mostly from the British Isles surely does the same. They make them sound fresh and relevant again. And, like Offa Rex a few years ago, this is a side project inspired by love of the source, and like Offa Rex there must be a good chance that it will be a short lived side project. Which means that if the chance arises to see them then seize that chance with both hands and go.
Sam Airey, who opened the evening, is a young folk singer who showed a lot of promise. His self-deprecating remarks between songs, mostly about how depressing they were, helped to keep his set engaging as he played songs of loneliness and solitude on either electric or acoustic guitar. In his songs, Airey finds himself alone out at sea, or alone on the shore looking at an endless empty Atlantic. Stars are cold and distant or are the remembered Sol of summer in the blue-black winter. Sometimes his words just trip out disjointedly – he may find himself amongst “devils, dreamers and lost ballerinas” which is the kind of alliterative imagery that on reflection makes little sense. Although he was solo it was almost possible to hear a plinking piano accompaniment on this Coldplay-folk. He even, at times, sounds a little like Chris Martin. It’ll be interesting to see what he does in the future with less gloom and a wider palette of metaphor.