Oct 31, 2023

Review of Jenny Mitchell and the Mitchell Twins

Jenny Mitchell & The Mitchell Twins

29th October 2023
ToiToi, Hastings, New Zealand.

Review by Rob Harbers, (originally published via Ambient Light) photography by Andrew Caldwell.

For the fifth year in a row, it falls to me to chronicle the closing act in the two-week cultural cavalcade that is the Hawkes Bay Arts Festival. These have, by their very nature, tended to be somewhat bittersweet affairs – the demise of the event for another year offset by the promise of next year’s delights. As such, it’s not everyone who can do this slot justice – but if anyone can, it’s the three Mitchell sisters, with their divine harmonies and familial manaakitanga the perfect salve for any feelings of regret!

The first part of the night featured the Mitchell Twins, Nicola and Maegan, with their beautiful songs radiating love, both the upsides and the downsides. Their opening number, “Mihi” forms a powerful welcoming powhiri, as they acknowledge their whakapapa back to Tainui, and forward to Hokonui maunga. A cover of fellow Southerners Into The East’s “How Could I Know” further acknowledged their current place in time, while sharing the limelight by suggesting the audience check the other band out, if not already familiar.

Their caring spirit is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in “Margaret’s Song”, giving voice to an auntie in her slow sad decline into dementia, and at the same time donating a share of the royalties to Dementia NZ. This ability to capture the essence of another’s feelings is further exemplified by their “Find A River”, inspired by, and a tribute to, another more famous (for now, at least) pair of Aotearoan twin performing sisters.

Maegen revealed that their process of establishing a setlist often occurs just a short time before taking the stage, and contains the rule of a ‘non-negotiable cover version’ for each of them, and in this instance that slot was taken by the Cole Porter classic “Don’t Fence Me In”, a number they grew up hearing, and have taken to heart. Their chronicling of the downsides of love took the form of a brace of songs, “Reasons” and “Glad to be Alone”, the second of which was initially written as a version 2.0 of the first, both detailing the let-downs inflicted by the opposite sex. That was until Auntie Tami came on board, pointing out that ‘boys shouldn’t get all the best songs’ – leading to a refocus of the lyrics towards celebrating the virtues of singlehood! Having set the scene, the twins then departed, to return after a period of intermission.

Coming on to a soundtrack of bird calls, they returned with big sister Jenny, and band, in tow, to perform a set that Jenny said they’d “been waiting all year for”. With such a period of anticipation on their part, it was no surprise that this built on the atmosphere of care and community already established. The trio, with the addition of violinist Jess Hindin, bassist Aron Stewart and Joe McCallum on drums, proceeded to charm the audience with their sororal interplay and glorious harmonising.

Perhaps the best illustration of the warmth with which Jenny clearly regards her fellow humans is the fact that she asked for the houselights to be raised sufficiently for her to be able to see the audience, recognising that there are real people out there and we’re all in this together! Familial attachment came through in “Ends of the Earth”, the tale of the sisters’ grandparents and their departure from Ireland to start a new life on the other side of the world, and was continued in the song inspired by Jenny’s care and concern for the twins as they took their place in the world, “Snakes In The Grass”.

This love overflows to people outside of the family circle also, as evinced by “Somehow”, a song about, and aiming to help, a friend going through tough times, given added weight by the repeated mantra ‘Darkness Is A Woman, bathed in Frankincense’ – a sentiment that will resonate with many who have heard, and sometimes been drawn in by her siren call!

“The Bush and the Birds” brought family back in focus, being inspired by Grandad Bruce (and receiving the ultimate accolade from its subject, being described as ‘pretty good’) and also continued the theme introduced by the twins, that of sharing the love (in monetary form) – this song resulting in a contribution of around $2.5k to Forest and Bird. Such caring people all around – a spirit given yet more weight by Jenny’s gifting, to a randomly selected audience member, of one of her own bespoke journals.

A rendition of “Purua Nei” by the sisters was purely sublime, before Auntie Tami returned to the scene via a cover of her “King of Country Music” (‘what it’s all about’, in Jenny’s words), and also Jenny’s own “Trouble Finds A Girl”, co-written with Tami and inspired once more by Jenny’s care for the twins. This song comprised the end of the main set, the encore consisting of a cover of “Harper Valley PTA”, and a snippet of a song so new that it hasn’t yet taken final shape, “Heart Like A Home”.

Having shared their hearts full of love with the crowd, in a region that can do with all the love it can get, these three beautiful souls (or six, counting the band, who one assumes are similarly beautiful by virtue of the company they keep!) departed, drawing the curtain down on another successful Hawke's Bay Arts Festival, one which has brought hope and joy to many in an area so badly in need of these qualities. Ngā Mihi to all involved in this venture, and may there be many more!

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