I’m With Her
Trio pleases with inventive strings and vocals
Folk music fandom is alive and well, judging by the enthusiastic audience at the sold-out concert Friday night in the 1,000-seat Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, where the Celebrity Series of Boston presented the three-woman ensemble I’m With Her.
Rooted in Celtic and Appalachian music and crossing alt-country, contemporary folk, Americana and bluegrass genres, the trio captivated its audience with a program that showcased their instrumental and vocal interplay as well as the distinct character of their individual gifts.
I’m With Her members are fiddler Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz on multiple string instruments and Aoife O’Donovan on guitar. Each an artist with a strong career on her own, they formed their trio in 2014 after an impromptu performance together at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado.
Despite their name — a pro-Hillary slogan during the 2016 presidential campaign — no political message surfaced during the concert. Back in March 2016, however, Watkins was on the Sanders stage for another Celebrity Series concert, joining folk stars Patty Griffin and Anaïs Mitchell for a vote-rallying “Use Your Voice” concert tour.
An array of talents
At the Sanders Theatre, dressed in casual tops, black tapered pants and platform shoes, the women stood together, close enough to unite their voices in tight harmonies and engage in easy exchange, such as a sizzling duo with Watkins on her fiddle and Jarosz on banjo.
Behind the women stood an array of string instruments. Most were there for Jarosz, a nimble multi-instrumentalist, who took turns on a mandolin, octave mandolin and guitar during the show. A 2017 double-Grammy-winner for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Performance, Jarosz is gifted also with a strong, plain voice.
Watkins stuck to her fiddle, which she played with high spirit and energy. Formerly a member of the Grammy-winning progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek, Watkins has an alluring voice with a plaintive quality that gives whatever she sings emotional authority.
Leading the trio in soaring harmonies with her mellow vocals was Aoife O’Donovan, vocalist of the Boston-based progressive string band Crooked Still and a featured singer on the Grammy-winning bluegrass album by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.”
In the course of about an hour-and-a-half, including their encore, the women sang a repertoire mainly of their own songs in treatments that skirted sweetness in favor of inventiveness.
At times, with their tight harmonies and quirky arrangements, I’m With Her resembled an earlier trio in the genre, the Roche sisters, denizens of Greenwich Village whose trio The Roches gained a devoted following in the 1970s and ’80s, with tour stops that included the University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square. The ensemble also called to mind a fine local trio, the Lula Wiles band, who perform at local clubs and on July 6 will appear at both the Boston Public Library and later, at a pop-up beer garden in Allston. How satisfying it would be to experience I’m With Her at such close range, the better to appreciate the intricacy of their artistry and to better hear their lyrics.
One of I’m With Her’s finest moments came during the encore, in which they let loose with a lyric-free piece that drew the audience into the euphoric magic of an old-time string band.
The group’s warm-up act, and a good one, was singer and acoustic guitarist Andrew Combs. In its simplicity, his solo performance suited the grand theater better: all he gave out with voice and guitar could reach every seat. Combs, 28, draws on his Texas roots and Nashville country traditions with an unadorned and affecting style of his own and strong vocals that occasionally rose into the high, lonesome sound of trills. He introduced songs with low-key humor and brief comments about his family and musician friends such as Joe, John Denver’s cowboy, whose ode to a woman had an infectious, danceable rhythm. By the time his half-hour set was over, Combs had won a fan club for himself, his 7-month-old daughter and eccentric wife — the muse of his best songs.