With the new year comes the unveiling of two new MeadowGrass Festival headliners. But if only one of their names sounds familiar, you're not alone, even among indie-music devotees.
Blitzen Trapper, of course, has been flying well above the radar for a while now. The group dates its "reluctant success" as far back as 2007, when critics who longed for Wilco's pre-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot days became enamored with the Portland, Ore., group's sound. Pitchfork gave a "Best New Music" nod to Blitzen Trapper's Wild Mountain Nation album, by which point the band had already signed to indie powerhouse label Sub Pop. The subsequent Fur album led to a Conan O'Brien appearance as well as Rolling Stone naming the title track its No. 4 single of 2008.
But who, you may ask, is Anaïs Mitchell?
It's no secret that some of the most interesting musicians have always been found out on the margins of mainstream culture. Granted, those boundaries have become a lot more permeable in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of streaming media and, ironically enough, depressed sales figures that make it easier for less-well-known acts to have their moment at the top of the charts. But there will always be a stratum of musicians producing excellent work in relative obscurity.
All of which means that Anaïs Mitchell may be the surprise hit of MeadowGrass, much as Chubby Carrier & the Zydeco Swamp Band were back in 2010.
Mitchell, who released three albums on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label, is far from your standard-issue indie-folk strummer. With a true gift for melody and a voice that could be compared to the likes of Billie Holiday and Tift Merritt, she's as ambitious as she is unique. Just listen to 2010's Hadestown, in which she reimagines the Orpheus and Eurydice legend as a folk opera set in an economically depressed America, with herself and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) singing the title roles.
"I am just awed by the ambition behind her different projects," says MeadowGrass booker Steve Harris. "She puts a lot of thought and research into what she is creating."
Mitchell, whose latest project is a collection of super-obscure traditional songs from the British Isles, will be the Sunday night headliner at the Memorial Day weekend event, which is now entering its fifth year. Blitzen Trapper will close the Friday night lineup. Saturday night's headliner, as previously announced, will be Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh.
"I have seen many of the artists that I book for MeadowGrass in concert before," says Harris, who first caught Hersh back in 1992. "But part of the fun for me is also bringing bands on my bucket list to town. Both Anaïs and Blitzen Trapper are on that list."
Meanwhile, for those who need something in the less-distant future to look forward to, problem solved: Father John Misty will be playing the Black Sheep this coming Saturday. For those who haven't noticed the name on year-end Top 10 critics' lists across the country, Father John Misty is the latest alter-ego of Fleet Foxes' eccentric Josh Tillman.
You can read my interview with the bizarrely entertaining musician — in which he talks about the downside of his celebrated past and the perverse pleasures of alienation — at tinyurl.com/fatherjohnmisty.
Factor in opening sets from Magic Trick (a side project from Tim Cohen of San Francisco's brilliant Fresh & Onlys) and local legends El Toro de la Muerte, and this show is a welcome respite from the traditional winter drought, one that's pretty much guaranteed to please from start to finish.