Review: Bonny Light Horseman at Union Chapel

Long-time fan Paul Lewis is riding high after attending Bonny Light Horseman’s gig on Thursday February 8. He shares his thoughts…

There could be no more perfect setting to see Bonny Light Horseman than the Union Chapel. The combination made for a truly memorable evening, one of those concerts that just left you wanting more.

Bonny Light Horseman play Union Chapel
Union Chapel was the perfect setting for Bonny Light Horseman. Photo Paul Lewis

This was, in fact, their second night here and, had I been there the previous day, I would
have gone to almost any lengths to get a ticket for the second night. Adding to that, in what
seem relatively unusual these days, their set varied substantially from day-to-day.

Bonny Light Horseman are a kind of Americana/folk “supergroup” – Anais Mitchell, best
known for her Tony award winning Broadway show, Hadestown; Eric D Johnson, of the
group Fruit Bats; and Josh Kaufman, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer,
composer, arranger and engineer, who has played with artists such as Dawn Landes and
Josh Ritter, and with Taylor Swift on her Folklore, Evermore and Red (Taylor’s Version)

It seems almost surreal now, that my own musical journey with Anais goes back some 15
years, to an afternoon in my sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s house in Barnes. With two
critically acclaimed albums but still relatively unknown, Anais played a house concert for
their family and friends. She did that twice more over the ensuing years, the 3 rd time with
her full band (who were all staying in their friend’s house too – quite an undertaking for a
family with young kids at the time!).

Lighting up the stage at Union Chapel
Sharing a love of ancient folk songs – Bonny Light Horseman.
Photo Paul Lewis

That trip was primarily for a date at the Union Chapel, to perform an “Americana musical”
Anais had written and recorded, which at the time was virtually unknown outside her home
state of Vermont. Based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, it was performed as a
concert, with a cast of British “folk royalty” alongside her; including Martin Carthy, Thea
Gilmore, Jim Moray, Jim Causley & Jackie Leven.

It was a memorable night, although I’m not sure any of us imagined that it would next be
seen here, seven years later, in an acclaimed production at the National Theatre, subsequently
transferring to Broadway, and winning eight Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Alongside this, Anais somehow finds time for an incredible variety of other work. She’s
released three further solo albums, most recently 2022’s self-titled “Anais Mitchell”; an
album of the 19th century “Child Ballads” with Jefferson Harmer (performed in London at the
“home of English traditional music”, Cecil Sharp House) and, now, two albums with Bonny
Light Horseman, the latest “Rolling Golden Holy” released late last year.

Bonny Light Horseman is very much not just Anais’ band. It is an equal combination of the
three members, who came together through a shared love of ancient folk songs. Their aim
was to revisit these standards, in some cases centuries old, and reimagine them today.

The reimagining, as heard on their self-titled 2020 debut album, is not some dramatically
modern musical styling, but a restaging of the songs themselves to feel contemporary but still traditional, with a great deal of flexibility to combine elements of different songs into
new ones, updating lyrics in places, and overall making the album feel like music for today,
not some ancient revival. It was a beautiful piece of work, earning them a Grammy
Nomination for Best Folk Album.

Rolling Gold Holy
Rolling Golden Holy – contemporary stories, folk tradition

For 2022’s Rolling Golden Holy, they took a different tack: a set of entirely new songs
written by the three of them, songs telling contemporary stories but still very much rooted
in that folk tradition. It is still feels of a piece with that first album, and all the better for it.
Some of these songs could easily pass as standards, long in existence, too.

So to the Union Chapel, packed out for two successive nights, Anais, Eric & Joshua on vocals,
guitars and banjo, accompanied by bass & drums. The musicianship is stunning, the
harmonies perfect. Mitchell and Johnson’s vocals blend beautifully, often sharing lead on a
song. And Kaufman’s superb guitar, more distinctive here than it is on the albums, adds a
powerful edge, taking the songs into a distinctly contemporary setting. At times, his
contribution made the show reminiscent of the great Richard Thompson, and how he can
meld folk and electric guitar into a seamless whole. And when Kaufman really cuts loose,
most notably towards the end of set, there is a positively Neil Young & Crazy Horse vibe.

Check out Exile via YouTube

It’s almost impossible to pick highlights, but “Exile” was the perfect opener, “California” a
stunning example of Mitchell & Johnson’s beautiful harmonies and Kaufman’s guitar. Sam
Amidon, who had supported earlier in the evening, returned to add some terrific fiddle to
the end of the set. And they sent us home wanting more, with a perfect closing combination
of “Sweetbreads”, an absolute highlight of the “Rolling Golden Holy” album, and the song
which gave then their name, “Bonny Light Horseman”. That song perhaps sums them up
best of all: originally a 19th century lament for a soldier killed during the Napoleonic Wars,
it’s reset to feel as relevant today as it would have 200 years ago, with a stunning musical
setting to match.

Sadly, they have now completed their UK tour. They are back in Europe in June for 3
Americana festivals in Scandinavia, so perhaps we might see them here again then, although
nothing is announced. Meanwhile, the albums, and several standalone singles, are, of
course, available on all the usual streaming services. I can’t recommend them enough.
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