Monday, March 19, 2012
Tupelo Music Hall, Londonderry, NH
It’s finally here—a concise show recap. This will not be a 2,000+ word blog post. (Okay, it is, but you can stop reading after this paragraph). Do you know about Sarah Jarosz? How about Lera Lynn? No? Now you do. You’re welcome. Click on the links, listen to their music, and see them live. They are both fantastic. I didn’t realize how let down I’d been after so many recent big name shows until this magical night unfolded. I had a giant smile on my face the whole time, well—except when the show ended. Then I was sad it was over. It was by far the best show I’ve seen in 2012—so, the best of 12 so far. I keep trying not to see a show a week like last year, but I’m doing exactly that. And I’ve skipped more than half of the shows that have come across my radar. I am so glad that I didn’t miss this one, though. It was more than worth the 5+ hour roundtrip drive.
I picked up Erin after school on Monday—I have known her since she was a fifth grader and I was her camp counselor. We went to Greece on a school trip together, I ended up being her teacher her senior year of high school for a semester, and now we’re still close even though she goes to Colby Schmolby. She was home on break, so the timing was perfect. We decided to have dinner at our favorite place in Portsmouth, The Friendly Toast. I had a pineapple banana smoothie that hit the spot since I was still feeling pretty crappy with whatever virus I couldn’t kick over the weekend.
We made it to Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry just before doors opened, and there was already a line. We found two seats on the aisle in the second row, although there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. Tupelo has a little bit of an old barn feel, though modernized. It’s really a lovely venue and I’m always happy to see a show there.
Lera Lynn and guitarist Ben Lewis took the stage. Before they opened their mouths, I was a bit taken aback by just how lovely they were to look at. Lera has full lips and long brown hair, and wore a simple sundress and boots with fringe. Ben looked sharp in his button up shirt and cowboy boots. Then they played, which was the real treat. Lera has a clear, textured voice. They harmonized well and Ben’s guitar parts complimented Lera’s playing really well.
Lera said she was from Athens, Georgia. I would call her music decidedly country. She told us that she’d filmed a music video for “Bobby, Baby” where she got to attack someone with a shovel—clearly out of character for this sweet southern gal. Ben interjected that Lera had won first place in the country division of the 2011 Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at MerleFest in North Carolina. She humbly accepted the praise. I really like the song, too. “Bobby, Baby” is powerful. The percussion had me swaying, but the lyrics are serious—“There’s a bump on the hill/Where your body lies/There’s a stone in the ground/Reads “This man did try”/If you look to the east/You see your estate/Weathered and hollowed out by your mistakes.” Lera’s vocal wailing—the “ahs” towards the end of the song—are haunting and just perfect. [Lera has become one of the most popular artists I've written about. People are often directed here who are in search of information about her. Check out her set from June 2012 on Mountain Stage.]
This was day three of their seven-day tour around New England with Sarah Jarosz. They are well suited to play on the same stage. Lera is also playing with Joan Osborne and Band of Heathens. There was a cute moment during one of the songs where one of the strings on Ben’s guitar was clearly out of tune—he made an adorable “oops” face and fixed it swiftly, without missing a beat. He picked up a mandolin, and they closed their set (which was over all too soon) with an impressive cover of TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me.” You could have heard a pin drop. They were fabulous and commanded our attention and we were also a very attentive audience. No wonder artists want to play at Tupelo and keep coming back.
Erin and I gave each other a knowing glance as Lera and Ben finished their set and immediately got up to go buy whatever they had to sell. We both picked up her 2011 debut solo album Have You Met Lera Lynn?We got to chat briefly with Lera, who was very sweet, and she told us where they were playing next on tour. They’d never been that far north before. She said they were playing in Cambridge, and I said, “oh, at Club Passim?” She asked me to say it again. She’d be saying it really wrong. It was adorable and I was glad to help a southern girl out!
I’ve listened to Lera’s album so many times since being introduced to her that night. I like “Whiskey” with it’s simple country twang—“I don’t know if I’m coming or going/I just keep the whiskey flowing.” Only one song on the album is over three and a half minutes long—so they are short, simple, and I bet also autobiographical. “Gasoline” carries a clever insult—“You’re so good with gasoline/I’ve never seen a lie burn so clean/Now that I’ve gone up in flames/You’ve found a new friend.” The album is great from beginning to end and I highly recommend checking it out.
I like to think that I “discover” musicians before they get too famous, and I think I’m just ahead of the curve with Lera Lynn. She and Ben recorded a great cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” for American Songwriter (so she is clearly on track to be famous, which she deserves to be) and if you like learning about musicians like I do, check out her interview with American Songwriter, too. I so hope she’ll come back to New England again soon. I also wish Johnny Cash were alive so she could open a show for him. They would have been a perfect fit.
I LOVE NPR Music, and many of the musicians I grow to love I’m introduced to there. I first learned about Sarah Jarosz on May 1, 2011 when NPR Music’s “First Listen” featured Jarosz’s sophomore album Follow Me Down. I listened and was moved—I became an instant fan. I did some research about Sarah and was shocked to find out that her 2009 debut album, Song Up In Her Head, came out when she was in her senior year of high school, and she wrote all but two of the songs herself. It honestly made me wonder what I’ve accomplished at almost 32, and made me really regret my decision to quit violin in the third grade. A June 14, 2009 interview on NPR Music titled “A Bluegrass Debutante, A High School Graduate” summed the awe I have for Sarah up quite well—“In the past three weeks, Sarah Jarosz has hit some big milestones. She turned 18. She graduated from high school. And her debut album, Song Up In Her Head, got reviewed in Rolling Stone, where she was dubbed ‘a contemporary-bluegrass prodigy.’” More than that, Sarah was accepted to New England Conservatory in Boston, was invited to perform at Bonnaroo and on Austin City Limits, and earned a Grammy nomination at about the same time. Just wow.
Song Up In Her Head is fantastic. I particularly like “Tell Me True” (especially the line “Do you hear my name in the chorus of your song?”) and “I Can’t Love You Now.” Sarah also covers The Decemberists’ murder ballad “Shankill Butchers” and Tom Waits’ “Come On Up To The House” on the album. Not only does she have a gorgeous voice, but Sarah also plays many instruments flawlessly. I had to do a Google search to figure out what two of the instruments are called, actually. She plays mandolin and guitar (I figured those out all by myself), but also octave mandolin and clawhammer banjo. They give her music a classic, old-time feel.
In May of 2011, Sarah released her sophomore album, Follow Me Down, which coincided with the end of her sophomore year of college. I think it says a lot about Sarah’s talent that musicians like Bela Fleck, Punch Brothers, and Shawn Colvin all performed on the album. She covered two diverse songs, too—Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” and Radiohead’s “The Tourist.” Something I thought was precious from the biography portion of Sarah’s website is that following the release of Follow Me Down was “a whirlwind tour packed into summer break. Since neither Sarah nor her musicians, Nathaniel Smith (cello) and Alex Hargreaves (violin) were old enough to rent a car, it became the tour of planes, trains and automobiles driven by whoever could be pressed into service.” The idea that such talented, accomplished musicians were able to create award-winning music but weren’t old enough to rent a car for their tour is laughable.
Oops. I’ve done that thing I sometimes do when I’m so enthusiastic about an artist that I end up writing a mini-biography and forget to talk about the show. But really, isn’t Sarah Jarosz cool? I think knowing about her background makes her that much more impressive. Back to the show, though.
Sarah, Alex Hargreaves, and Nathaniel Smith took the stage. I was immediately struck by their youth. They opened with one of my favorites, “Tell Me True,” then did “Left Home,” which really showcases their playing abilities. I’ve been writing a lot lately about how little artists I’ve seen lately have been engaging with the audience, but Sarah talked to us and was very sweet. She was grateful that we’d all gathered in rural New Hampshire for the show. She gets extra points because one of the first things she talked about was that someone had Tweeted to her that they were driving 5 hours roundtrip to see her that night. It was me—and I was pumped to get a shout out. I think it was closer to 6 hours, actually, and well worth it.
They played “Run Away”—which has the great line “I buried my heart in a willow tree/You came along/Gave it back to me.” You should check out the video of “Run Away” featuring Sarah with special guests Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas. They did “Come Around”next, which has such great instrumental interplay.
Sarah chatted more with the shockingly not quite sold out crowd. I suspect the days of not selling out a show will soon be a thing of the past—even in relatively rural New Hampshire on a Monday night. She introduced us to the band. She is originally from Wimberley, Texas (just outside of Austin), is a student in Boston at NEC, and this was their “Spring Break” tour. Violinist Alex Hargreaves is from Corvallis, Oregon and is a student at Berklee in Boston. Cellist Nathaniel Smith of Brandon, Mississippi, has toured with Natalie MacMaster. I doubt if any of them is even 21 years old. Sarah took the time to promote both of her trio-mates’ solo albums, which shows a lot of class.
Sarah introduced “Gypsy” and told us that she’d written it about a woman she’d seen on the subway in New York City. They’d played it at Joe’s Pub in The Village in New York City a few days before and during this particular song the subway appropriately rattled the ground as it traveled beneath the venue. I loved their covers of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” and Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right-On.” One of the things I noticed in between songs is that no one needed to use a tuner. It must be nice to have such a good ear!
Something I haven’t tried yet because I really prefer to see music live is Concert Window. It’s a website connected to some of the venues I like (Club Passim, One Longfellow Square, Tupelo, etc) where you can pay a few dollars and live stream concerts going on each night. Sarah’s concert was on Concert Window that night. She said her parents were watching and dedicated a song to them. I thought that was very sweet.
Sarah wrapped up her set with her adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s final poem “Annabelle Lee” and the title track from her debut album, “Song Up In Her Head,” where Alex switched to mandolin (I am so jealous of these multi-instrumentalists!) which sounded beautiful.
We cheered for an encore (I’ve started to wonder where the tradition of encores came from—stay tuned for more information), and the trio came back and played Tom Waits’ “Come On Up To The House” which involved some audience participation on the chorus. Sarah even had us sing one of the choruses without her help, and we sounded okay. It was such a nice way to end such an intimate show, and gave me some needed energy for my three hour drive home. I SO hope to see Sarah and Lera again in New England soon. I would love to have them come up to Maine, too. There’s definitely a lot of bluegrass/country/Americana music followers who’d love to see you both up here!