Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz of I’m With Her – photo by Alisa B Cherry
There’s nothing quite like the sound of voices blended in harmony, and when those voices belong to three of the most able and engaging young artists performing and recording today, then that combination is all the more alluring. While See You Around, the debut disc from I’m With Her, the sensational supergroup comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, provided an auspicious introduction, it takes the opportunity to see the trio in concert to fully appreciate all they have to offer.
That became evident on Monday, March 12 when the group performed at Knoxville’s historic Bijou Theater with opening act Andrew Combs in tow. Operating solely on their own, without the usual support of a backing band, the three women adeptly shared vocal responsibilities while freely trading instruments between them. Watkins focused primarily on fiddle, her primary tool of choice, while O’Donovan stuck mainly to guitar. That left Jarosz as the most obvious multi-tasker of the three, switching from guitar to banjo to mandolin, and offering some nimble fretwork on all three, both for the leads, and in some cases, as sole musical support. As the youngest of the three — at age 26, she’s a good decade the junior of her two compatriots — she also assumes the role of the musical anchor, standing in the center position during the main set and bracing most of the material throughout.
Still, I’m With Her is a solid three person endeavor in much the same way as Crosby, Stills and Nash and the other ensembles of this sort introduced themselves when so-called super groups first became popular in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Like that threesome, it’s obvious that Jarosz, Watkins and O’Donovan have found a common bond when it comes to both their music and their mantra, which makes their socially charged handle — which, not so coincidentally, borrows from the slogan originally adopted by the Hilary Clinton presidential campaign — all that more auspicious
Nevertheless, given the fact that all three woman have achieved prominence with their own individual efforts — and the fact that they each did so at a relatively early age — provides all the more cause for distinction. That said, when heard live live, just as it is on record, the music is modest in its execution, relatively unadorned and dependent only on the women’s voices and respective instruments to draw the audience in. That they did with considerable aplomb, especially when it came to the tender Ryland (Under the Apple Tree), which, like most of the offerings was culled from the new LP, a riveting take on John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters, heretofore unreleased on record, and another unearthed gem, Jim Croce’s Walkin’ Back to Georgia, which finds Jarosz taking the lead for one of the clear standout selections of the entire show.
Indeed, with only one common album to draw from, their choice of covers was all the more impressive. Adele’s Send My Love (To Your New Lover) took on a new degree of sass and spunk, while two of the three songs that found them huddled together around one mic during the encore — reverent renditions of Hundred Miles by Gillian Welch and and a devout version of Bill Monroe’s Lord Lead Me On — capped the 19 song set on an especially powerful note.
Opening act Andrew Combs, a regular guest for the entirety of the tour, was given the unenviable task of walking out solo to perform a set of songs entirely on his own, much of it culled from last year’s exceptional Canyons of my Mind. To his credit, Combs kept the crowd captivated, adding more than a hint of humor when he referred to his wife, who was holding his newborn in the wings. “We have a seven month old daughter,” he remarked. “I don’t know if you heard her crying.” In fact, several songs were dedicated to his spouse, with one, a tune called Strange Bird, particularly poignant.
“It’s a strange song,” he remarked before beginning. “It’s definitely about my wife.” Presumably she took that with stoic acceptance, especially considering the fact that Comb’s bird whistles provided a lofty crescendo. At any rate, the audience was appreciative; despite the spare setup, Combs managed to attract the crowd’s attention and affect an embrace. Credit Combs for setting the tone for what was to come, the start of an evening that was a cerebral and yet celebratory experience all round.