GIG REVIEW: I’m With Her – Live At Hackney Empire, London

This was my third I’m With Her show in a little over a year and it was the best. Not that the previous two were wanting in any respect, but this one felt the most complete. As well as their own material this time they explored their roots a bit more and the performance seemed just more relaxed. Maybe that’s because the group has been touring almost constantly for all that time.

I’m With Her are Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan. All have released solo albums to widespread acclaim, Watkins and O’Donovan have played in other bands and all three have featured in the annual highlight of Americana set up and organised by Jerry Douglas that is the Transatlantic Sessions. I’m With Her began with an impromptu set five years ago at the Telluride Festival, they released their debut album See You Around a year ago with singles before and since. Being dubbed an Americana ‘super group’ might seem a heavy burden but having blended their individual vocal and instrumental expertise so perfectly these three carry such a load lightly and deservedly.

So why was this show so special? After all there is a big overlap between setlists, each having been based around the album. Common to each was the simplicity of their cascading harmonies and playing that ran throughout the show. But this time I’m With Her seemed to invite the audience into not just what they have done together, but they also delved into who has inspired them and their individual work. The result made for a more rounded show having got to know this group better.

The Hackney Empire is a beautiful venue, built as a music hall whose looks and purpose have changed little over a century later. It combines grandeur with intimacy, perhaps ideal for a super group to present their personal touch. The stage contained only six instruments and a couple of tables around a single old style mic. Onto this sparse set Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan entered to warm applause. They were certainly among friends. And that’s how they performed. The mic not only amplified the sound but acted almost as a fulcrum around which the three orbited under the light of a single spot.

This was music making stripped to its bare essentials. Most memorable were the perfect harmonies as three voices ebbed and flowed into one without a superfluous word or note.

See You Around dominated. The album defines I’m with Her’s distinctive sound. ‘Crescent City’ was a well selected opener, its rapid changes of pace and pitch seemed to allow both performers and listeners to reach the same wavelength. Watkins led ‘Ain’t That Fine’, a rueful look back at how things might have turned out better, then all chorused, “I’ve got a story, a dotted line/ I have my sins, I’ve done my time/ Nothing special, ain’t that fine, ain’t that fine”. That sparse lyric accompanied by no more than a gentle trio of guitars typified the potency of I’m With Her. ‘Waitsfield’ was a quirky instrumental scamper for mandolin and fiddle, while softly led respectively by Watkins and Jarosz, ‘Wild One’ and ‘Close it Down’ surged into the group’s trademark three-way harmony.

I’m With Her are never far from bluegrass, “Jarosz and I grew up with this” admitted Watkins. Their versions of Bill Monroe’s ‘Toy Heart’, Dolly Parton’s ‘Marry Me’ and the traditional ‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan’ proved they had learned well. After the concentrated perfection of their own compositions, the group seemed to let their collective hair down with these classics (to which O’Donovan and Jarosz added how good a job a local hairdresser had made of Watkins that afternoon).

Covers on a setlist also provide insight into the artist’s influences and musical loves. I’m With Her’s were no exception. With ‘Walkin’ Back to Georgia’ they did immense justice to Jim Croce. Jarosz sang with a warmth to match the sun beating down on “that hot dusty Georgia road”. Joni Mitchell’s ‘Carey’ was made for these three as each took a turn with a verse then in the chorus all three continued the single voice. ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’ had all of John Hiatt’s soul, demure fiddle and banjo from Watkins and Jarosz alongside O’Donovan’s opening to this deeply moving lament, “Left me in my tears to drown/ She left a baby daughter/ Now the water’s wide and deep and brown/ She’s crossing muddy waters”.

Providing further insight into I’m With Her was how Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan each performed their solo material, respectively; ‘You and Me’, ‘Still Life’ and ‘Thursday’s Child’. It felt like taking apart something like a beautifully crafted watch. Fortunately it all went back together again with, in this listener’s opinion, the evening’s best. ‘Overland’ from the album is a heart wrenching tale of Depression adversity. Again Watkins took the lead then all chorused, “Goodbye brother, hello railroad/ So long, Chicago/ All these years, thought I was where I ought to be/ But times are changing/ This country’s growing/ And I’m bound for San Francisco/ Where a new life waits for me”. If Americana needs a definition, this is a hot contender.

I’m With Her signed off with Vampire Weekend’s ‘Hannah Hunt’ which perfectly encapsulated their versatility and depth. The ovation that followed said it all.

Lyndon Bolton