Considering I’m With Her performed at the Bush Hall and Union Chapel when they toured the UK back in 2018, the choice of venue this evening could be interpreted as a measure of this trio’s ambition, or is perhaps a testament to their burgeoning popularity, or maybe it’s just a desire to play in arguably the most attractive venue in London – or it could be a combination of all three.
On first sight, the Hackney Empire looks an imposing prospect for this aptly named supergroup – even more so the case for their support act, solo performer John Smith, seeing as the large stage contained a mere 6 instruments arrayed around two tables and a single microphone, but more of him later. But there is one other very good reason for hosting a show in the magnificently opulent surrounds of the turn of the twentieth century Empire with its Moorish, rococo and Gothic motifs: the virtually pitch perfect acoustics afforded by the venue – even up in the lofty heights of the upper circle where Marie Lloyd is supposed to have sung “to the boy up in the gallery” well over a hundred years ago. The stunning acoustics are all thanks to the foresight of the venue’s architect, Frank Matcham. And it’s not as though I’m With Her need much encouragement where delivery of a flawless perfect acoustic sounding set is concerned.
Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan are rightly renowned for the sonorous quality of their vocal harmonising and don’t disappoint in a 90 minute set drawn largely from their debut release, ‘See You Around’ – interspersed with some adroitly chosen covers. ‘Crescent City’ sets the template from the off, with the three of them initially singing in perfect unison before fanning out into separate parts. Watkins leads from the front on ‘Ain’t That Fine’ (they often jokingly refer to themselves by surname alone), one of the standouts from their debut, although in truth such is their alchemical power that even more middling songs from that record transmute from baser metal into gold in a live setting. The rollicking ‘Waitsfield,’ with mandolin and fiddle featuring, reaches a pitch of instrumental intensity at its end which explains the collective sigh of relief they share at its conclusion on the album – although it’s met with whoops and cheers by the audience tonight.
As evidence that their bluegrass roots are never far from mind, they include a three song, mid-show segment, which comprise Bill Monroe’s ‘Toy Heart,’ Dolly Parton’s ‘Marry Me’ and finishes with the traditional ‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan.’ There was also the opportunity for each of them to showcase their own material, the highlight probably being Sara Watkins’ version of ‘You and Me’ from her 2012 solo album. Meanwhile, ‘See You Around’ demonstrates for the umpteenth time how well their vocals blend together, while affording each member the opportunity to showcase the strengths of their individual voices.
Other expertly judged covers included Jim Croce’s ‘Walkin’ Back to Georgia’ and a particular highlight was their version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Carey,’ with each of the performers taking turns to carry (no pun intended) a verse before chiming in with harmony vocals on the chorus. One of the usual difficulties encountered with cover versions is whether an act can genuinely bring a truly unique aspect to a later rendition. It’s no exaggeration to say that Joni Mitchell couldn’t have brought more joy to this reviewer’s ears than I’m With Her managed tonight. Their version of John Hiatt’s ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’ was delivered with similar aplomb, and it’s clear how much pleasure they also took in performing George Harrison’s ‘Behind That Locked Door,’ while Sarah Jarosz excelled on vocals for their interpretation of Vampire Weekend’s ‘Hannah Hunt.’
There was some lovely audience participation for ‘Overland,’ their tale of migration from Chicago to the West Coast in search of a better life. One of this apparently simple song’s virtues is an absence. In its lyrical charting of the progress of the protagonist’s journey it has the coda: “This country’s growing / And I’m bound for San Francisco,” your ear anticipating some further lyrics after ‘San Francisco’ but that’s not revealed until the final two choruses with an added,“…Where a new life waits for me.” Quite magnificent.
If one were to judge each of these artists individually then perhaps on conclusion of the set tonight you may be inclined to declare a technical knockout for Sara Watkins based on her combined vocal and fiddle contributions, however, the boxing analogy is a wholly inappropriate one. I’m With Her gained a certain reputation following Hillary Clinton’s use of their name during her election campaigning. But useless neo-liberal politicians on both sides of the Atlantic don’t appreciate what I’m With Her intuitively understand, which is the realisation that sharing is caring – all three of them are equals in this collective project. We live in a world of interdependence and connections – and one which always well works best where there is true solidarity. This evening’s performance showed again why three really is a magic number. Together their sound has an ethereal beauty, complemented by superb musicianship and tender vocals.
John Smith was midway through his opening number, the title song from his debut album, ‘Hummingbird,’ displaying his dextrous finger picking style when this reviewer arrived at the Empire. It’s my third time out with Smith and he just keeps getting better and better: great songs allied to a nicely dry sense of humour. Drawing on older folk traditions Smith is also capable of updating his material in a modern idiom, sounding not unlike Ray LaMontagne when he really stretches out vocally on the likes of ‘Axe Mountain’ and ‘Have A Little Faith.’ Before the song ‘Save My Life’ he says, “If this doesn’t bring you down nothing will,” although in truth the song is in no way downbeat. Signing off with ‘Salty and Sweet,’ “Another song about Devon,” he’s set for greater success in the future if there’s any justice.