There’s a lightness that comes with acoustic folk music. Sounds ring out, fade naturally, and often have an openness to them that makes the whole style feel more breathable. Add this sentiment to the sprightly and delicate songs jointly composed by Aoife O’Donovan (guitar, vocals), Sarah Jarosz (guitar, mandolin, banjo, vocals), and Sara Watkins (ukulele, fiddle, guitar, vocals) – now known as the folk supergroup I’m With Her – and it’s hard not to suddenly pine quite hard for the warmth and emotional brightness that comes with summer’s arrival. Well, despite winter still officially having around 27 or so days left to go, the unseasonal and practically balmy temperatures hovering around Brooklyn all day yesterday were the perfect mood setter for the short but sweet set I’m With Her gave at Rough Trade NYC in the early evening.
This weeknight show marking the first night of an extensive tour supporting the band’s new debut, See You Around (Rounder Records, 2018), wherein the three women will touring “well, for a long time,” as Watkins casually put it while getting set to play between songs. The crowd in attendance made sure to savor the significance of this inaugural realization with a particularly loud first cheer. The warehouse-esque room in Rough Trade NYC’s venue half is large enough to pack in several hundred people, but given the right conditions, can be made to feel extremely up close and personal, as was such last night. The trio’s smorgasbord of stringed instruments resting on stands behind them, the women opting to stand around a single vocal microphone, and really nothing else adorning the stage beyond some neon marking tape and a few water bottles, made the whole performance feel like an impromptu occasion; a quick jam for friends rather than a choreographed or scripted spectacle.
Not unexpected with casual shows or impromptu performances, there were a few go-with-the-flow moments to match the setting. “This is what you do when you’re in a band,” Watkins explained to the audience as she had to briefly take a moment to help O’Donovan with a minor shirt and pin situation just before music got underway. Working their way through a little more than half of the songs on See You Around, those thoughts of summer really hit with full force when O’Donovan chatted a bit before starting “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree),” a song by folk peer and former tour mate Julian Lage, to which I’m With Her composed lyrics for the studio recording.
“It’s so warm out today. I’m definitely going to get an ice cream cone after the show,” she said, to an immediate response of laughter by the crowd. No ice cream parlors are next door to the record shop but one would think a lazy midday nap and maybe some apple desserts would come to mind after hearing the laid-back and rather flirtatious serenade. This song coming early in the set, the trio dovetailed that newly relaxed atmosphere with an injection of some musical momentum and some great musician synchronicity by way of “Waitsfield,” the one instrumental, and increasingly upbeat, track on See You Around. Following that renewed sense of outward energy in the room, humor reappeared thanks to a group discussion considering what’s to be first city after the band leaves New York.
“Our first stop will be in Downers Grove, Illinois!” Watkins declared, to a surprise cheer of appreciation from a segment of the crowd.
“Oh, we’ve got some, fans of Downers Grove here.” O’Donovan chimed in.
“What a downer. Like, first stop on the tour, and it’s a downer,” Watkins’ wordplay realization led to Jarosz openly contemplating if there was a counterpart to the town.
“Is there an Uppers Grove?” she asks, to which no one in the room felt compelled to look up on their smartphones and shout out in reply – a sign of just how much the audience valued who and what they were getting to be witness to last night.
All the talk of opposites made the subsequent introduction of “Close It Down” feel just a tad off, as it only seemed right that the song should in that moment have been titled, “Close it Up,” which the trio amusingly noted. Winding down with the single “Overland,” a flawless, clap and stomp a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s soulful tune, “Be My Husband,” and a cover of Adele’s “Send My Love” as their encore, I’m With Her’s performance started and ended just as quickly as the teasing warmth of approaching spring fell upon, and left, Brooklyn in one day. This show flew by all too fast for how good it was but just like the weather was a sign of seasonal things to come, this primer in Rough Trade NYC is just the beginning of what’s sure to be months of musical memories for the band and their worldwide audiences alike.