Thursday, February 24, 2011


Okay, last weekend I did one of the coolest things I've ever done. I performed the role of one of the three fates in Anais Mitchell's "Hadestown". Anais is one of the best singer-songwriters working today. She is a stunningly poetic, honest, intricate lyricist, and sings with fierce emotion and perfect intonation.

Over the past few years, Anais wrote a set of songs based on the Orpheus myth. In the original myth, Eurydice, Orpheus' lover, gets bitten by a snake and taken to the underworld. Orpheus, being a musician, sings so beautifully and mournfully that the gods take pity on him and let him go to Hades to try and rescue her. Hades tells Orpheus that he can bring Eurydice back, as long as he walks out of Hades with her following behind, and doesn't look back to see if she's there. Orpheus fails, and Eurydice is gone forever.

In Anais' adaptation, Hadestown is a "post-apocalyptic American depression-era company town", ruled by Hades, who is basically a greedy CEO/dictator. Above ground, America lives in abject poverty, and below ground, Hadestown has a mine and a wall to build. It is ugly and sad, but there is work. Orpheus and Eurydice are living in poverty, and Hades convinces Eurydice to join him in Hadestown, so that she will have work and won't starve. Orpheus later goes to rescue her, and fails.

Meanwhile, we are entertained by multiple peripheral characters. Persephone, Hades' wife, runs a speakeasy in the underworld that sells above-ground luxuries to the sad, sunlight-deprived populace ("I got the wind right here in a jar, I got the rain on tap at the bar..."). Hermes is a fly-by-night hobo, who counsels Orpheus on how to sneak into Hadestown to rescue Eurydice "the river Styx is high and wide, with cinder bricks and razor wire, walls of iron and concrete, and hound dogs howlin' round the gate". The fates are a trio of yes-women, who represent the status quo, first talking Eurydice into abandoning Orpheus to find work in Hadestown ("You can have your principles/when you've got a bellyful/but hunger has a way with you/there's no telling what you're gonna do, when the chips are down."), and later talk Orpheus into leaving her there ("Why the struggle, why the strain? Why make trouble, why makes scenes? Why go against the grain? Why swim upstream?)

All told, it's an impeccably written set of songs, and a beautiful adaptation of a timeless, heartbreaking story. As she did in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Glasgow, London and California before, Anais brought together a group of musicians from the region (previously unknown to one another), had them learn their respective parts, and put on a set of shows, performing the opera from start to finish.

Anais, Jesse and Paul rehearsing, on the day of the first show (the first time any of us sang together!)

This is an unprecedented idea, to my knowledge, and it was outstandingly fun.

Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri, two of my other favorite songwriters, played the parts of the lovers. Anais herself took on the role of Persephone. Louis Ledford, originally from Richmond, played an absolutely chilling Hades. Jesse Elliot, lead singer of the asskicking band These United States, played Hermes. Myself and two lovely singer/songwriters from central VA, Jackie Stem and Carleigh Nesbit, played the three fates. We were backed up by a great band, led by Michael Chorney.

The fates, being... fately.

While we weren't performing, we hung out with each other, played songs, drank wine, and sat in a hot tub under the stars, in Luray VA, singing gospel songs in rounds. It was lovely, and it left me nostalgic.

Devon and Paul falling asleep following aforementioned wine and singing.

If Hadestown ever comes through your state: take a half day, drop the kids off with Grandma, and bring everybody you know.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


I haven't blogged since I was driving west from Iowa, and now I'm back in Philadelphia, sitting in my favorite chair, reminiscing and recovering from a whirlwind month. Here are a few highlights.

The mesmerizing, breathtaking, awe-inspiring beauty of the American west. Utah, Wyoming, California, Arizona, New Mexico. I'd seen pictures, but I hadn't fathomed the greatness or the gorgeousness. What an absolute privilege.

The kindness of strangers. This guy, for instance, is a retired cop in Vancouver, BC. He spends his mornings pouring coffee for strangers, for free, in a place that serves $3 breakfast. They call him "The Cofficer".

The goodness (musical and personal) of the crowd I run with. WOW! I just can't believe my luck, most of the time. The west coast tour included nine shows with the Wood Brothers, and like always, I was floored by their talent, their kindness, their humor, and their sweet little hearts. A few of their crowd (Christian, John Medeski, and two of my dearest friends) are pictured above eating raw oysters, straight from the ocean, in Marshall, California, on the sunniest, warmest, gorgeousest February day in history.

New Orleans. I'm not sure how to describe my feelings about this place, but let me attempt. New Orleans is steeped in my favorite kind of magic: mournful, musical, dirty, hedonist magic. Billie Holiday magic, nightmare magic, voodoo and Carson McCullers and Jenkins Orphanage Band magic. It's a city on the edge of an abyss, ready at any moment to be dumped into the sea. Yet it's just vibrating with beauty, delicious food, heartbreakingly excellent music, and strange, sad, joyful people. The fictional quality of the city is so palpable, it's hard not to look for the man behind the curtain: oblivion hissing as the gate, and everybody dancing, singing, eating their way merrily towards it.

I want to live there, I want to die there, I want a small apartment there to write in on the off months. Who's in?