Americana heroes Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz kicked off Women’s History Month at the Fitzgerald Theater with a literate brassiness that virtually defines “public radio listener.”
The trio walked onto a stage that was bare, with the exception of the acoustic and electric tools of their trade, and without fanfare played all of their fantastic debut full-length, See You Around, along with some choice covers.
With crystalline harmonies and a pulse built around the group’s instrumental mastery, the album’s title track set a defiant tone for the night. O’Donovan, best known for her work with the string band Crooked Still, carried the lead vocals of “Crescent City” as Watkins, of that most NPR of NPR American acts Nickel Creek, switched to violin. Afterward, they had nice things to say about the Fitzgerald, and then, for “Walkin’ Back to Georgia,” Jarosz took over main vocals. But no matter who carried the song… those harmonies!
“Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” was an early show-stopper. O’Donovan led the vocals, but it was the music that pushed this relationship meditation to the rafters. As Watkins’ violin haunted the corners of the song, Jarosz and O’Donovan provided a dramatic canvas for the lyrics with twangy and clean vibrato guitars (respectively).
The apocalyptic beauty of the break-up song “Pangea” played like Southern Gothic. O’Donovan almost rushed the lyrics to “Little Lies” to great effect, fitting the fake-it-to-make-it lyrics, and the song found its elegant release with the closing lyric “I’ll be all right…”
“Overland,” another high-water mark, was the first time Jarosz deployed her banjo, and this wistful elegy was a notable display of just how utterly effortlessly I’m With Her plays and sings. “Overland” was just an extension of themselves. The nimble instrumental “Waitsfield” highlighted Watkins’ fluid violin and Jarosz’s playful mandolin. By song’s end, all that was missing was a washboard player.
The Massachusetts-bred O’Donovan recalled getting together with her bandmates in Vermont early on to unexpected cheers from the crowd. “Are there Vermonters out there?” she asked, and, as yelps ensued, she began having trouble with her in-ear monitor, saying that it sounded like it got unplugged. “It is!” Watkins replied, rushing to her bandmate to plug it back in.
“We help each other out… I’m with her.” Watkins said with a smile.
Watkins supplied a greasy electric guitar backbone to the edgy kiss off of “I-89” before launching into the John Hiatt cover of “Crossing Muddy Waters.” Then, as Jarosz tuned up in the background, Watkins told O’Donovan, “You have a good voice for public radio, Aoife.” We learned that O’Donovan’s father is a radio announcer, though she doesn’t have his Irish accent, she pointed out. “They have American accents, too,” Watkins said.
I’m With Her introduced Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” as an “old song” and “an English folk tale,” and their version upped the almost Haim-like structure of the original. The main set ended with “Game to Lose.” O’Donovan sang lead with some sneaky harmonies, plucked violin, and down-note hits.
I’m With Her returned to the stage as cries of “We love you!” rang through the theater. The group followed their own “Hundred Miles” with a reverent a cappella version of Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband” for which they recreated the original’s spare foot tap/clap accompaniment.
I’m With Her came back for a second encore of a Tom Brosseau song, “Today is a Bright New Day,” and even though it was 10:30 at night it felt like it was a bright new day. Being in the presence of three virtuoso musicians and songwriters will do that to you.
See You Around
Ain’t That Fine
Walkin’ Back to Georgia
Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)
Lord, Lead Me On (Bill Monroe cover)
Crossing Muddy Waters (John Hiatt cover)
Close it Down
Send My Love (To Your New Lover) (Adele cover)
Game to Lose
Be My Husband (Nina Simone cover)
Today is a Bright New Day (Tom Brosseau cover)
About the opener: Andrew Combs was funny throughout his hushed, unadorned opening set. He’s an earnest musician who told his tales with, as the saying goes, three chords and the truth. There’s something admirable about anyone willing to stand up alone, essentially naked, on a stage in front of people there to see another group, and Combs pulled it off with wit and a genuine control of his own voice at very low volume—no small feat.
The crowd: Minnesota Public Radio chic through and through.
Overheard in the crowd: “Compared to that guy [Andrew Combs], I’m With Her is going to sound like Motorhead.”
Random notebook dump: There have got to be a lot of “I’m With Her” bumper stickers on this audience’s cars—Hillary stickers, the band’s stickers, probably both.