Left Speechless by Sierra Hull at The Heath
There are a few ways a person can find themselves walking into seeing an artist live for the first time. There’s planning for a first ever live show, there’s discovering a show at the last minute by an artist one already knows and likes, and, there’s going into a show with no pre-existent knowledge of the artist whatsoever. Ideally, regardless of the reasons that bring someone into an audience, the aspiration is that everyone leaves happy and wanting to relive the experience.
Occasionally though, there’s a combination of circumstances that mix together, leaving an impression so strong, and so positive, that there are almost no words to explain what one just witnessed, even if they walked in knowing to some extent that it was going to be a good show. That very kind of concert was the one put on by Sierra Hull (mandolin), Ethan Jodziewicz (double bass), and Justin Moses (mandolin, banjo, Dobro, backing vocals), last night at The Heath within The McKittrick Hotel in New York City.
The only stop in New York state along a lengthy string of tour dates before returning for the Grey Fox Festival in July, Hull will be traveling across the United States through September for an assortment of gigs that span the hectic energy of festivals like Red Wing, Telluride, Four Corners, and more, to the downright intimate, like what listeners got to experience courtesy of The Heath.
No matter the size of the room or audience though, Hull, Moses, and Jodziewicz play with a blend of poise and ferocity that makes even a small venue like The Heath boast the same energy of the biggest festival-hosting fields in the country. Despite being a Tuesday night show in a venue that one almost has to know they’re looking for in order to find it – unsurprising given The Heath’s 1920s, speakeasy-style flair – Hull and her trusted bandmates played a behemoth set of more than 15 songs; more than some Saturday night city jams. Weaving their way through tracks from her new record, Weighted Mind (Rounder Records, 2016), previous album Daybreak (Rounder Records, 2011), some super nimble bluegrass cuts, and even a dash of Baroque repertoire (“Invention No. 6 in E Major”, BWV 777 by J.S. Bach), this performance was inarguably, an extreme display of not only Hull’s skill but the versatility of the mandolin itself as well.
Playing on a stage that was more a low platform, being only a few inches high, the audience was treated to a concert that fit right in with The Heath’s built in atmosphere. Every table and booth in the room is oriented to face the barely-off-the-ground stage in the very front and center, much like a cabaret-style layout. The ambient setting was only enhanced by yellow lights that were strung up against the ceiling so as to sit like stars and, paired with the faintest scent of old fashioned wood from the furniture. The minimalist approach taken by Hull with Weighted Mind was truly reflected live, as only a few single microphones were placed – one for each vocal and one to boost each instrument – nothing more. In fact, some songs heard the three artists sharing space around only one microphone, with not a single ounce of sound lost in the air between them.
The night went straight into the title track from Hull’s newest record. Going forward thereafter, the movement of the whole set flowed between bursts of many consecutive songs and varied anecdotes of touring and composing. (The anecdote and subsequent pun attached to Moses’s original instrumental composition, “She’s Crazy,” that was born from a previous show in Wisconsin, is going to be most difficult to forget!) All of it was laced with sudden explosions in audience cheer – often mid-piece – that would most likely make fellow mandolinist, and live applause advocate, Chris Thile, very happy.
Even going into this evening already having heard the impressive results of Weighted Mind, Hull’s live delivery went so far past the already engaging and praiseworthy level of those recordings that it was impossible not to get sucked into the moment and at times, feel nothing but pure awe. Just to say, “The live performance gave more,” isn’t enough. Hull’s stage presence is one of a relaxed soul who has a fun and free connection with both her mandolins – reflecting not only her degree of technical comfort but also her artistic sincerity – which links with the lyrical sincerity of her music perfectly.
Top it all off with Hull’s natural southern charm when engaging with the audience (There’s no debating with Hull that, it is in fact nearly impossible to find parking in New York City.), honesty about the emotional places from where many of her songs were born (a tear-filled cathartic musical release; a stint of admittedly selfish, self-pity; a spontaneous moment of humor in the parking lot of a Best Buy store, among others), and the group’s ability to take their performance up a few extra tempo brackets on the fly. It becomes clear attending a Sierra Hull show is not to be compared to anything – even to her own work. It is a completely separate spectacle that probably couldn’t even be justly captured with the best live recording equipment out there. The show is meant to be lived as a complete experience and each of the elements united, ought to leave quite a few people immediately needing to know when and where Hull’s next show will be.