Living in Washington, we can become numb to the myriad of entertainment and cultural opportunities available to us. It is easy to forget that we live in a word-class city with possibilities unmatched for its size. Without the institutions in our amazing city, without the Library of Congress’s musical archives, without Smithsonian Folkways, it wouldn’t be possible for Anna & Elizabeth to enthrall a hushed, rapt crowd with their music.
Anna & Elizabeth, perhaps best known for their NPR Tiny Desk Concert, enchanted a capacity crowd at the beautiful, state-of-the-art Pearl Street Warehouse on Sunday evening with their innovative interpretations of traditional folk and bluegrass music. As Elizabeth said during the show, “none of these songs are new,” and they discussed finding many of their songs in archives, such as the Library of Congress. In a moment of levity, they imitated the scratchiness of old musical cylinders from the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Traditional folk and bluegrass is played with only string instruments — acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, maybe violin. On their latest album, The Invisible Comes to Us, the duo added brass, woodwind, and synths. On Sunday night, they were joined by a multi-instrumentalist who played the saxophone and keyboard.
Listen to The Invisible Comes to Us, the latest album by Anna & Elizabeth, released in March by Smithsonian Folkways on Bandcamp:
The Haunting, traditional harmonies performed by Anna & Elizabeth transported the audience to another time, and exceptional multimedia elements only heightened the experience. As Elizabeth LaPrelle narrated a story they’d collected about one of the singers they’d discovered in archives, Anna Roberts-Gevalt turned a crank on top of a wood frame, and a beautiful, lovingly hand-painted silkscreen panorama scrolled by, illustrating the scene of rural life in a time gone by.
Anna & Elizabeth used this device, which they call a “crankie,” three times in their show. Another of the silkscreen panoramas showed a gentle, rolling shoreline. I leave the final silkscreen panorama as a surprise. They are gorgeous pieces of art, and my description doesn’t do them justice.
Truly demonstrating what music in archives was like, Anna brought a laptop on stage and held it up to the mic, playing an old recording. True enough, the scratching could be heard in the recording but so too could a distinct voice, reaching out to the audience from the past. As the voice on the recording sang, Elizabeth accompanied it on her guitar. I can honestly say it was a unique and very cool presentation.
When they returned for their encore, Anna & Elizabeth played a song by the pioneering female American bluegrass duo Hazel & Alice. Elizabeth explained to the audience the significance of the band, providing the inspiration for their own name as a band. She also explained that Hazel had written this written the song, and Alice had sung it at her funeral.
Anna & Elizabeth provided a wonderful, laidback evening that connected America’s folk traditions with contemporary times. I found it deeply peaceful and relaxing, and the crowd left delighted.