Monday, 4 August 2014

Sarah Jarosz - St John's the Evangelist Church, Oxford Thursday 31st July 2014

Picture courtesy of Mike Trotman of Empty Rooms 
There is really something quite special about live roots music in a church setting. Around a couple of years ago the Good Lovelies excelled in the heavenly acoustic surrounding of a venue in Ross-on-Wye and Sarah Jarosz did likewise on this Oxford date in the final throes of her latest UK tour. The pro-activity of the St. John’s the Evangelist Church events team and South Midlands based promoter Empty Rooms ensured a very healthy turnout of around 250 to witness a young performer who has left prodigy status behind and is now firmly established as one of America’s premier roots artists. Whether the label ‘new grass’ sticks is irrelevant and it could quite possibly be replaced with the simple word ‘quality’ as Sarah epitomizes this simple understated word in musical terms.

Raised in Texas, schooled in Boston and no doubt now utilising the musical facilities of Nashville, Sarah is using this tour to promote her latest acclaimed and third album BUILD ME UP FROM BONES. Not unexpected, a fair proportion of the album was reflected in her pair of roughly 45 minute sets which simmered for a while before exploding into a concoction of acoustic revelry. For this tour Sarah is joined by Nathaniel Smith on cello and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle both playing fantastic supporting roles alongside the vocals, guitar, banjo and mandolin playing of Sarah.

Although a budding young song writer in her own capacity, Sarah is keen to expand on the works of others with a keen ear for a song which will respond well to her style of musical delivery. Whether playing a scintillating version of the Bela Fleck instrumental ‘Puddle Dancer’ to interpreting the songs of Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel, there is a familiar stamp of Sarah Jarosz quality on each of them. Dylan’s ‘Ring Them Bells’ proved highly popular to this Oxford audience  but I thought this was shaded by her take on his ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ which was one of the second set’s early songs and played with a beautiful solo accompaniment from Nathanial on cello.

Before we leave the covers behind, it is worth commending her version of The Decemberists’ ‘Shankhill Butchers’ which was recorded on her 2009 debut album. The expected and atmospheric audience participation was exclusive to two other songs of external origin with Martha Scanlon’s ‘Hallelujah’ and Tom Waites ‘Come on Up to the House’, both being sung rigorously by many in an appropriate location. All these and a fine balance of original material were beautifully delivered by Sarah, although the vocals were slightly eclipsed by the fabulous musicianship of all three performers.

This is Sarah’s second UK visit this year having been an integral invited member of the Transatlantic Sessions in February. The original song ‘Run Away’ was performed live in their shows around the country and was also one of the standout numbers from this evening’s concert. The new album is also packed with superb tunes and three of the finest duly entertained an appreciative Oxford audience, namely ‘Mile on the Moon’, ‘Fuel the Fire’ and ‘Over the Edge’. Having enthusiastically reviewed and enjoyed this release, there is nothing better than being present when it’s being sung live and even more evocative, in a lovely church setting.

With an inextricable link between roots music and church venues, the case for expanding their harmony is a strong one. St John’s the Evangelist Church and Sarah Jarosz were a perfect match and both contributed to a delightful evening of music composed straight from the heart and designed to satisfy the ear. 

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