When people hear I’m With Her they usually think of Hilary Clintons campaign slogan for the last Presidential election, but it’s also the name of a folk super group made up of Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz. All three are well known on the American country and roots music scene in their own rights, but when the three of them combine it’s something altogether different and very special.
The venue for their visit to Belfast as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival is First Presbyterian Church nestled on Rosemary Street in Belfast, and despite the gloomy rainy start to Friday, by the time we are all filing in through the heavy wood doors the sun is out. Once inside and ensconced on the pews I notice the light filtering through the beautiful stained glass windows.
Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan make their way to the front of the church without fanfare and take their places around one microphone. Kicking off proceedings with the title track of their album, See You Around, their melodious voices echo around the high-ceilinged building. It is a truly inspired choice for such a gig and the sound is perfect.
O’Donovan takes centre stage on this song and while it would be pretty with just her voice, the voices of Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins add depth and layers elevating it beyond that. Watkins plays the fiddle, and Jarosz, the mandolin, which are both stars in this song themselves. The same can be said of ‘Game To Lose’ which is a multi-faceted affair with a change in tempo at the bridge and a plaintive fiddle solo.
Throughout the show they change places around the mic, instruments and vocal harmonies are interchangeable and it’s impressively done with such ease. On ‘Wild One’ Sara Watkins takes lead vocals and her voice is as clear as crystal and ethereally backed up by the other two. Their voices are all different timbres but complement each other in such a beautiful way. Watkins stays on lead vocals for ‘Ain’t That Fine’ and prefaces it by telling us it is sometimes hard to find happiness in life, but the small things count, and this shines through in the lyrics ‘Some folks have it better but oh, we’ve got it good’.
The first cover of the night is a version of Jim Croces’ ‘Walking Back to Georgia’ and it loses none of the charm of the original. They follow this with an original, ‘Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)’ with its soaring melody and violin vibrato. The highlight of the set is ‘Pangaea’ which is the standout song from See You Around. Starting out a cappella and slowly introducing the guitar and violin, as O’Donovan said herself ‘this is what church is for’. It is atmospheric and you could hear the proverbial pin drop, as the audience are captivated by the beauty of the song.
After they take it up a gear with O’Donovan asking if we are ‘ready for the banjo in all its glory?’ and it’s a collective yes. All three change instruments again with Jarosz on banjo duties as they play ‘I-89’, which Martin tells us was written about getting stuck on an icy road in Vermont while they were making the album. The show is peppered with anecdotes about the writing and recording process, and the women have an easy camaraderie with each other, giving credit where credit is due.
Another spine tingling moment follows with ‘100 Miles’ and again they make hairs stand on end singing a cappella with Watkins taking lead vocal duties, Jarosz and O’Donovans voices melding together seamlessly. To be honest I haven’t heard harmonising this good outside of musical families, their voices gel so well. The set shifts up a gear with their cover of Tom Brosseaus’ ‘Today Is A Bright New Day’ which is an upbeat cheery song, although their take is slightly slower than the original and more leisurely.
Following this is an instrumental piece which shows off their technical ability on the guitar, mandolin and violin. The piece evolves from a slow waltz to a full on bluegrass barnstormer. Next out of the mixed bag is ‘Lord Lead Me On’, a folk standard by Bill Monroe, and we are instantly transported to a gospel church in the Deep South of America, and not a Presbyterian church in Belfast.
Throughout the set their timing is impeccable and especially on this tune. ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’ is another highlight of the set for me, and shows that the trio can put their own spin on anyone’s song with the latter being a John Hiatt song.
All too soon the show is over and with thanks to the festival, I’m With Her leave the front of the church. The audience are on their feet clapping and cheering for more, so the exit is short-lived, and soon, the three are back for an encore. Sarah Jarosz asks if we would join in and sing along with the last song, then laughs and says ‘well we are in Ireland’, so obviously our reputation precedes us as a vocal audience.
I’m sure it helps also that O’Donovan is an Irish American who spent her summers in Cork singing with family. But I digress. We duly oblige and sing along with ‘Overland’ which is the final song of the night, and again we are on our feet showing our appreciation for such fine musicians. Thanking us all, and promising to return in the future, I’m With Her are all too quickly gone, and I’m left equal measures, impressed and relaxed by the phenomenal performance I’ve just witnessed.
Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival have excelled themselves with the bookings again. More of this please.