bonny light horseman @ thalia hall

@colekincart (pictures)

Despite being merely six years and three albums old, Bonny Light Horseman has the sound and calm confidence of a much more developed band. Perhaps it’s not that surprising when considering the conglomerated resume of members Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kauffman. Said resume includes indie cult classics Fruit Bats, The Shins, and The National, along with the Broadway Musical Hadestown. (Not to mention they were introduced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver– I’ve concluded Justin Vernon is no more than 3 degrees of separation from every artist I’ve ever liked.)

Bonny Light Horseman’s history is rich and textured. Formed in 2018, the band quickly garnered attention for their self-titled debut album, which featured reimagined folk songs and original compositions. Their sophomore album, “Rolling Golden Holy,” continued this tradition, blending historical folk elements with modern influences. What I love about these albums is how timeless they feel, yet they still manage to push the envelope forward for folk music with their sound. Their honeyed performances, combined with incredible instrumentation and warm, refined vocals, make each song a masterclass in modern folk.

Photos by Cole Kincart

This deep history is what makes the trio work: none of them need this band, they’ve had their own successful careers independently of each other. But they’re here, brought together by friendship and a shared love of old folk, to support and shape this talent-bursting project.

Last Thursday, they brought these talents over to Thalia Hall for a stunning performance, and a homecoming for Eric Johnson. 

Photos by Cole Kincart

Opening with the traditional cover of “Backwaterside” set an apt expectation of the folk trio for anyone unfamiliar. Mitchell led off, powering the song with her earthy vocals. Johnson soon joined, his familiar nasal blending into the twang, and together the two engaged in a call-and-response routine that effortlessly turned to harmonies. This continued throughout the show; Mitchell would sometimes take the lead on vocals with Johnson providing backing, the reverse happening just as often, both their voices warbling clear through the instrumentation of Kauffman, Drummer JT Bates, and occasional Saxophone work from Bon Iver collaborator, and Alpha Consumer member Micheal Lewis.

The set wove through all three of their albums, despite being just on the heels of the release of their newest, “Keep Me on Your Mind/See You Free,” a double album that was released this past June on Jagjaguwar. For a third album, a double-album approach is ambitious, but man, did they hit the mark. There’s an ease on this record that hasn’t been found on their previous two–an untapped feeling of homeyness. 

Photos by Cole Kincart

Unconventional seems to be a good word to describe the band and the recording of this album was no different. Anaïs Mitchell and the crew were enamored with the century-old Irish pub Levis Corner House in Ballydehob, County Cork. They decided to record the album there, setting up in its cozy confines, which added a warm, intimate atmosphere filled with ambient sounds of conversations, coughs, and applause.

Their songs are littered with Easter eggs of traditional folk lyrics, creating a playful game for listeners to pick apart. For example, Mitchell sings, “When I was younger, I used to seek pleasure / When I was younger, I used to drink wine,” from a traditional ballad of Texas Gladden (and later Nina Simone), adding her own twist with, “Now that I’m older, I’m rocking a cradle / Rocking a baby, who’s always crying,” transforming the song into a reflection on her own motherhood. The chorus of “Jane Jane” contains the tune and lyrics of “Children Go Where I Send Thee”, a traditional spiritual that originated from an English Folk Song. It takes not only deep knowledge but musical ingenuity to weave these snippets as effortlessly as they do. 

Photos by Cole Kincart

Likewise, there’s something unique about the latter half of the album (songs 11-20). Not filled with any of the leading singles from the album, it’s more of an emotional crevice. “The Clover” resets the scene, one we’re familiar with, as we soar alongside Mitchell and Johnson’s vocals. It’s an album that doesn’t actually feel like a double album—neither daunting nor overwhelming. “See You Free” is somewhat of an epic love song, a fitting end to an epic album that was even more powerful live. 

The show ended with a warm rendition of the Grammy-winning “Deep in Love.” It was the first of three encore songs. Afterward, they played one of my favorites from their newest album, “I Know That You Know,” before topping the night off with their self-titled track, featuring a special appearance by Alpha Consumer bassist and vocalist Jeremy Ylvisaker.

It’s clear that Bonny Light Horseman isn’t just a side project for its members; it’s a heartfelt collaboration that breathes new life into traditional folk music while adding a modern twist. As they continue to evolve and explore new musical landscapes, one can only anticipate the continued growth of this remarkable trio.


Photos by Cole Kincart

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