Expectations were high for the arrival of the I’m With Her tour in London, so it was no surprise that on a sunny but cold evening in Highbury, the queue outside the Union Chapel formed early and eventually snaked around the block.
I’m With Her is Sarah Jarosz, recently Grammy nominated for Build Me Up From Bones, Nickel Creek stalwart and solo artist Sara Watkins, and ex-Crooked Still now solo artist (the Tucker Martine produced debut Fossils) Aoife O’Donovan. They are old road acquaintances, their paths crossing many times over the years at festivals, so it must have seemed natural to join forces if only their diaries would allow it. We’ve been lucky they have. Two hours before they’re due on stage, the Chapel is two-thirds full.
Which is great for Sussex-born Samuel Ford. At this stage of the evening it’s entirely possible only a handful of people in the Chapel know who Samuel Ford is, but he walks confidently to the mic stand and does his best in the next thirty minutes to stand the evening on its head. An accomplished cello player in his mid-teens before concentrating on guitar, Ford draws on early inspirations like John Martyn and Leonard Cohen for a series of songs that balance innovative modern techniques with an ear for a good tune. For Her immediately marks Ford out as a rare guitar talent as he coaxes a sound deliciously close to that of Matthew Jay from his six string and Buckley junior from his mouth – yes, that good. There’s more dynamic in his opener than some artists have in their entire set.
He follows it, the crowd still working out what’s going on, by sitting and playing his acoustic in the traditional lap steel position, but not with a slide. Instead, he taps out a rhythm on the body and side and attacks the strings with his fingers as if they’re beaters tenderising meat. The Storm builds, drops, feints and falls away before coming back into view, much like the titular weather.
For London, he switches to electric and sets loose a squally strum that fizzes from the walls and stained glass. Feel This Love showcases a vocal on the edge of cutting loose but restrained, as if releasing it in full would be too much, for him and us. De-tuning for Ballet – ‘I did this in Wales and broke a string; the result was the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollock’ – he once again attacks the strings with chop-stick fingers and they chime in response. The song rises from the start on a warm melody before diving into a frantic, Wedding Present strum at the end.
It’s a remarkably composed support. Ford’s experiments with sound and delivery never gets in the way of the songs and he’s an engaging presence on stage, acknowledging the opportunity to play in such a great venue and quickly winning the audience over. In conversation later, he’s polite, passionate and excited about his soon-to-be-released EP. You can pre-order it now.
Only rarely has the early bird feasted so well, but it’s amazing what you can make space for.
The buzz in the room is palpable and the reception hearty for the three ladies walking to the mics. The evening will combine material from their various pasts, together with some carefully chosen covers, the first of which is Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters. O’Donovan’s voice is the right side of bass-warm and the harmonies are spot on from the word go. Sara takes the lead for Tom Brosseau’s Today Is A Bright New Day, Sarah for Jim Croce’s Walking Back To Georgia. As opening statements go, this trio of roots songs not only whets our appetite for the evening ahead, they are a clear indication that this tour is not simply one of convenience – the friendship and respect on show is evident in the unity of purpose, movement and minds on stage; ‘we’re a band’ it says.
We will be treated to Bill Monroe (Lord, Lead Me On), Gillian Welch (100 Miles), the bluegrass stomp of Fire On The Mountain (featuring Watkins fine fiddle playing) and John Hartford (a swampy On A Long Hot Summer’s Day) before the evening is over, but some of the best moments arrive with their own compositions. O’Donovan’s Captain’s Clock and Bee Keeper, both from Fossils, are given three-part vocals to die for. Watkins The Ward Accord is a vehicle for her fiddle and Jarosz’s mandolin. Jarosz wisely picks the choice cuts from Build Me Up From Bones, including the sultry Fuel The Fire, Dark Road and the glorious title track, just her and O’Donovan n stage, the latter’s backing vocal giving the song an new angle.
Sublime moments comes and go with increasing regularity and the danger that such a broad set list would feel disjointed is soon forgotten, the music coherent, originals and covers given equal weight. All three share an easy friendship on stage, Watkins regularly turning into the other two with her fiddle, a half-smile on her lips as the sounds unfold. O’Donovan is more vocal, letting the occasional whoop of delight at the crowd response go and smiling fit to burst. Jarosz feeds off both, clearly delighted to part of it. O’Donovan’s Red And White And Blue And Gold is superb, a wistful slice of wish fulfilment that leaves all three ladies smiling and the crowd breathless. If they’d walked after that I suspect the majority would consider their money well spent, but we’re barely halfway through the set and though Jarosz is struck by how well behaved we are, Watkins is about to take the evening to another level.
Introducing All This Time, she recalls the recording of the album and asks us to welcome the producer to the stage to help her out. If you’d canvassed the crowd in the queue beforehand, not many would have guessed that John Paul Jones would be part of the evening, but here he is, looking relaxed and well and standing with Jarosz to provide backing vocals, before borrowing her guitar to accompany Watkins on the aforementioned Hartford tune. When the roar dies and Jones walks off stage, Watkins shrugs ‘No big deal’ to laughter from the pews.
We’ve been thoroughly spoilt by the time they segue out of another Hartford track (Squirrel Hunters) into the a-capella Be My Husband. Slower than their recorded version, the steady foot-stomp and handclap beat is a metronomic guide for the blue, and Bluesy, melody line, a three-part harmony of exquisite quality that fills the room and expands the heart. It’s an incredible piece of music performed with grace and a solemnity befitting the setting, and makes the obligatory encore of Emmylou’s The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn almost superfluous. There are thinly-veiled rumours of an album, and though none of them will confirm it post-gig, it’s hard to believe it won’t happen. Diaries permitting of course.
Review by: Paul Woodgate