A sold-out gig at Lafayette, one of several relatively new venues within a short distance from Kings Cross which serve to make the area a vibrant night-time music hub, to see Sarah Jarosz. And such is the pull of this artist that the venue was close to capacity long before the support, Dietrich Strause, took to the stage. It was the kind of rammed vibe that screams “bigger venue needed next time.” In the future we’ll doubtless be looking at appearances here, and out of town at the likes of Cambridge Junction 2, as being relatively intimate gigs. Sarah Jarosz is pretty darn great – and an ever growing recognition is truly deserved. And for anyone who wrings their hands about where the future audience for Americana is coming from well, again, rest easy – Sarah Jarosz pulls in an age-diverse crowd too.
And it’s easy to see why. Taking the stage with her band – Mike Robinson on acoustic and electric guitar, John Fatum on drums and Dave Speranza on both upright and electric bass – and launching into ‘I’ll Be Gone‘ Jarosz showed that we were in for an evening of Americana perfection with the interplay of instruments perfectly framing the exquisite vocals that were painting a picture of a woman living a desperate life and looking for a way out. A subject picked up on a feisty ‘Maggie‘ where the titular character drives “across the desert in a blue Ford Escape / Hopefully this car will live up to its name” a chorus line that when sung evokes Laura Veirs or Suzanne Vega – a thought that crossed the mind on more than one occasion during the gig. Occasionally there is just a hint of David Crosby in an arrangement, again no real surprise since Crosby lauded Sarah Jarosz and she was also one of the last people to record with him. There was an affinity and it is lovely to hear.
Jarosz’s vocals were just perfect throughout the night as she switched between different styles, at turns the delicate singer-songwriter as on the delicate and hopeful ‘Blue Heron‘, a song inspired by her mother’s recent illness , and at other times the brash good time country rocker as on the new song ‘Runaway Train‘ which revelled in its brash almost honky-tonking delivery. What a contrast to the other new song ‘ The Way It Is Now‘ which again demonstrated a well of Vega-isms with light and floating guitar accompaniment as Jarosz reflects on changes “it’s a hard time / but it’s our time / and someday we’ll be looking back / missing the way it is now.” It has, perhaps, the saddest coda you’ll hear this year: “long walks/ sunshine / clouds in my mind“, such an effective summation of the downside of change and conveying a deep sense of loss. You could lose yourself in the sombre depths of this reflection on love. There is, Jarosz informed us, more new music coming…soon…but she’s not quite able to tell us all about it yet.
Jarosz switched between guitar and octave mandolin through the night, and when it came time for the banjo section of the evening there was a perfect demonstration of the versatility of the instrument. ‘Lost Dog‘ could not be more full of pathos as Jarosz admits, saying “It’s banjo time – it’s very sad banjo time” – before singing of a hurt and abandoned animal no longer able to trust, which could of course be literal or more likely a metaphorical reaching out to another person “I don’t know if I want to know where you’ve been / but lost dog maybe I’ll let you in.” It’s an effectively eerie evocation of a tentative wish to get involved in healing a hurt that perhaps is beyond healing and the associated risks such a reaching out can bring. This beautifully down mood was flipped on an audaciously folk-rocking adaptation of Poe’s ‘Annabelle Lee‘ which powers along at a pace with a melody line reminiscent of The Pentangle’s version of ‘Cruel Sister.’ Not for nothing did Jarosz describe it as “the rockiest banjo we know.”
Sarah Jarosz has no lack of great songs of her own but she also has a knack for a great cover and her solo spot demonstrated this to wonderful effect – has Paul Simon’s “Schoolboy Poetry” ever sounded better than on Jarosz’s take on ‘Kathy’s Song‘? It reveals all the longing of the song – romantic, unrequited longing perhaps, but there’s real emotion to it. Beautiful. There’d be another fine cover as the encore – Dylan’s ‘Ring Them Bells‘ revelling in gorgeous imagery when shorn of Dylan’s gruff vocal delivery. Before that though there was the complete powerhouse of a closer in the form of ‘House Of Mercy‘, a song that rocks through the changes of extended instrumental breaks, with Mike Robinson taking things higher and yet it has a true bluegrass heart beating through it. So cool.
It had been quite the set – Jarosz dazzles with her playing and singing and is good in so many different folk and rock-influenced styles. The band are accomplished and, even better, they are clearly all four having a great time. Can’t wait for the next tour – even if it will inevitably require a larger London venue.
Dietrich Strause was an engaging solo opener with a set drawing mostly from last year’s release ‘You and I Must Be Out Of My Mind’. He’s an accomplished player in the folk acoustic mode with a couple of songs featuring rivers as metaphors for yearning to be away and also as symbols of regret for what has been lost along the way, just flowing out of sight to the sea. There are so many happy chords in ‘How to be Invisible‘ that they almost disguise that this is a song listing ways to undermine oneself and prevent chances of happiness or personal success. Another engaging singer, who laughs off his own name with a “I know what you’re thinking, this guy isn’t German…” He’s based in London now, so there should be plenty more opportunities to catch him playing live.