Sarah Jarosz at Rams Head On Stage, March 12, 2014

I had the pleasure of seeing Sarah Jarosz perform at Rams Head On Stage on March 12th, 2014.

Though her most recent album, Build Me Up From Bones, features a moderate range of instrumentation, Jarosz does most of her touring with only a trio consisting of herself on banjo/guitar/mandolin, Nathaniel Smith on cello and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle.

The trios’ arrangements of Jarosz’s repertoire were superbly balanced, each musician lending the right ammount of simplicity or density to the ensemble at every moment. Basically speaking, the more instruments on stage, the more varying combinations of color, volume, texture and blend I expect a band to posses. However small, Jarosz’s trio was able to imply much wider contrasts in these respects than are possible by the average trio. These subtleties were heard in the progression of form within each song as well as the progression of the set from song to song. For example, when Jarosz accompanies herself on solo guitar for a few tunes, or is accompanied by lone cello on another, the same dramatic intimacy is achieved that you might expect if the singer of a 10 piece band had just stepped into the spotlight for a solo number.

Jarosz and Hargreaves performed their instruments confidently but stuck close to traditional bluegrass techniques. In fact, all of the band members perforformances, particulary their solos, felt comfortably rehearsed but never giving off the feeling of coldness.

Smith on cello did much to bring this instrumentation to life though he never unbalanced the groups dynamic. I figured a cello would stand out for its novel use in a bluegrass band but I was impressed at the uniquely tailored approach Smith brought to the ensemble. He has mastered the ability to replicate and replace the stylistic traits of other bluegrass instruments, some of which not even present in the lineup. At times he played it like a violin, often like a bass, and most impressively, like a guitar. It never felt like he was a cellist in a bluegrass band. He was an entity of his own, not an instrument, but a deliverer of stylistic function. His furious bowing kept him busy as he perfectly gave his instrument the same phrasing as a rhythm guitar going “chick-chicka-chicka-chicka.” He extends his guitar bowings to fiddle riffs, sneaking in dark, warm pizzicato tones, creating the illusion that they are not missing the presence of an upright bass. Smith streamed in and out of these various playing styles, even many times within the confines of a single musical phrase. I was impressed.

Sarah Jarosz surprised me with her ability to finger pick bluegrass licks on all the instruments she played. Even if she had only played rhythm guitar, I would have commended her for her stellar pocket. As for her singing style and personality, they were both invitingly plain.

I highly recommend checking out this trio if they perform near you.