Folk super-group Bonny Light Horseman dropped by The Howard Theatre to regale DC with an evening of beautiful melodies, a remarkable display of guitar and banjo jams, and of course, the mighty lilt of the harmonica.
Opening was folk musician Joan Shelley from Kentucky. She warmed up the growing crowd with an excellent, heartfelt set.
Bonny Light Horsemen performed 16 songs, taking you to a place of comfort, each bringing a different mood. Their music is sometimes feverish in form, other times sweet but powerful where it hits you deep, in spots you barely knew emotions existed.
They went right to work with “Bonny Light Horseman” from their self-titled first album. The name of the song, and the band, comes from the time of the Napoleonic Wars, meaning the most agile and handsome rider in the cavalry. But it is also a lyric taken from a folk song titled “Broken Hearted I Will Wander”. As the gentle notes from strumming guitars (and banjo) wafted through The Howard, smoke permeated from the stage, hanging eerily over the performers like a white cloak. In the initial seconds, if folk music is in your heart, you knew you were in the right place.
Bonny Light Horseman formed in 2018 as a folk powerhouse, with members already well established with other bands and projects. The band is comprised of Anaïs Mitchell (also solo artist and creator of the musical Hadestown), Eric D. Johnson (also of Fruit Bats, and formerly of The Shins), and Josh Kaufman (also of Muzz, and has collaborated with Josh Ritter, Craig Finn and Taylor Swift). Other backing musicians that joined them at The Howard Theatre were JT Bates on drums and Cameron Ralston on bass. Both Anaïs and Eric took lead or shared vocal duties throughout (although Josh sang on one song). Eric also played the banjo and at one point almost stole the show with the harmonica.
They next went to “Exile” from their new second album, Rolling Golden Holy (via 37d03d). It had a smattering of funk in the intro, where everyone (but the drummer) went all in on a guitar jam. Well, jam isn’t quite the right word, maybe guitar mosey fits a little better. The song speaks to being willing to do anything for your partner, not wanting to be cast aside, in exile.
Later came “Fair Annie”, from the new album, a new single written by Josh and Anaïs, where Josh got his lone chance to join Anaïs on vocals.
Occasionally they shared small tidbits, like when they made light of their clothing, ‘looks like we coordinated our outfits, like we’re newlyweds in a cult in Texas.’ But mostly they let the music do the talking, and as evidenced by the faces of the onlookers, they did that quite well. They split the set between their two albums, performing eight from Rolling Golden Holy and seven from their debut album.
They ended the main set with “Cold Rain and Snow”, which has a frenetic, almost chaotic intro. Each note seems to shine bright by itself, but somehow comes together into a forceful storm.
The encore contained a hale three songs, starting with the new “Sweetbread” with its banjo hoedown, and ending with a cover of Sandy Denny and the Strawbs’ “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. They brought back Joan on stage to sing the opening part, taking us even deeper, to an undiscovered pleasant mood. Anaïs and Eric added their vocals later, and as the last notes faded, everyone stood in awed silence for a beat before the inevitable applause could release us from the thrall of what we had just witnessed.
You would do well to watch out for Bonny Light Horseman returning to DC, as catching them live is something we should all experience. Give yourself a sampling by picking up their new album, Rolling Golden Holy.
- Bonny Light Horseman
- Magpie’s Nest
- Fair Annie
- Summer Dream
- Gone by Fall
- The Roving
- Fleur De Lis
- Jane Jane
- Cold Rain and Snow
- Deep In Love
- Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Sandy Denny and the Strawbs cover)