Bonny Light Horseman are a different class at Union Chapel

Anaïs Mitchell, Josh Kaufman and Eric D. Johnson stun their Islington congregation with unmatched musicianship

The concept of a supergroup feels a bit at odds with the everyman tales of traditional folk music, but it’s hard to deny Bonny Light Horseman the title. They are, after all, a multi-instrumentalist trio formed of Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson, Josh Kaufman (who has worked with everyone from Taylor Swift to The Grateful Dead) and Tony-winner Anaïs Mitchell, also of her own decorated folk fame. The three friends got together in the late 2010s, bonding over an excitement for unearthing traditional and predominantly British folk songs, and their self-titled debut, released at the turn of 2020, was immediately considered for a Grammy. The sequel was our album of the month back in October.

For all of their talent, Johnson, Kaufman and Mitchell are an endearingly down-to-earth looking bunch, as their incongruous appearance while walking on stage for the first of two nights at London’s Union Chapel suggests. But immediately a sense of next-level musicianship is palpable, as Mitchell’s voice pierces through the hushed acoustic strokes of ‘Blackwater Slide’, a traditional Irish folk song full of betrayal and heartbreak.

Though many of their songs originate from the British Isles, the country twang of Mitchell and Johnson’s voices, which often alternate pleasingly between verses, makes this collection of songs feel sort of universal. When support act Sam Amidon re-joins the stage later to help lend the group’s namesake tune an especially country cadence, it doesn’t feel out of place in the gothic surroundings of this Congregational church.

A pop sensibility comes to light with the trio on stage too, perhaps thanks to the trilling of their voices – which they seem to command physically as Johnson’s hands follow the heights of his range and Mitchell draws her melodies in the air. There’s an equal ear for both melody and harmony here too, which the likes of ‘Deep In Love’ and ‘The Roving’ make wonderfully clear.

Kaufman’s guitar work is just as elite, at times quietly complimenting the bigger picture, at others ripping and wailing: first in glimpses to make ‘Comrade Sweetheart’ even more bittersweet, before finally unshackling with a grizzled edge on set closer ‘Cold Rain and Snow’.

Huddled together and stepping back from the mic on an almost a capella rendition of ‘Bright Morning Stars’, Bonny Light Horseman finish by reminding us of these songs’ traditions. Heads continue to shake in awe as the lights come up.

Photos by Tatiana Gorilovsky