Harmer and Case
The first time I ever heard Sarah Harmer was when she opened for Billy Bragg at First Ave in 2002. Frankly, and with apologies to Bragg partisans, she blew him away. I picked up her solo debut You Were Here at the show, and it didn't leave my CD player for months. Harmer sings with quiet force, and her flourishes, when she has them, aren't American Idol-style posturing; it sounds as though she's performing and playing to please herself, to figure out what she can do. She can do a lot. You Were Here plays like a guided tour of heartbreaks and little blisses, from the jaunty been-cheated-on earworm "Around This Corner" to the intimate tidal build of "Lodestar." There's not a bad song on it. The album had actually come out in 2000; she didn't stop touring it until 2003, so I had another chance to see her, this time at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. She and her band were the whole show, and in the small auditorium where we all had to sit politely it was almost like being in church, only with a petite Canadian with a knockout voice and a rather silly sense of humor at the pulpit. She was great, and I bought up the backlist of albums put out by her previous band, Weeping Tile, as well as her tour de force Songs For Clem, a collection of covers and standards originally recorded as a gift for her father but later released as part of her record deal. It's got wonderful interpretations of "Stormy Weather," "Black Coffee," "Tennessee Waltz," Nanci Griffith's "Trouble in the Fields"--I could go on forever. In a way, the next album didn't seem all that long in coming.
All of Our Names isn't quite the masterpiece that You Were Here is; although there are individual heartbreakers, the overall ebb and flow just isn't there. Still, songs like "Dandelions in Bullet Holes" and "Greeting Card Aisle" have a smoky, regretful feel, and her voice and her knack for blending jazz, country, folk, klezmer, polka, bluegrass--you name it--are intact.
Now, though, with I'm a Mountain, Harmer has produced an equal to her debut, a blend of meditative and whimsical, with quiet musical daring throughout. Wednesday night at Schubas she and her band brought it to Chicago. Toronto songster Royal Wood opened, and while his one-man folk-pop act was affable enough, Harmer wiped him off the map. The room was set up with several rows of chairs in the front, but by the end of the evening all the space behind it was packed as well. Backed by most of the folks who helped her record I'm a Mountain, Harmer scattered the new songs throughout a selection of older gems; "Coffee Stain," "The Hideout," and "Pendulums," as well as the aforementioned "Around This Corner," "Dandelions in Bullet Holes," "Greeting Card Aisle." (Song I most wish she'd played that she didn't: "Basement Apartment.") She introduced "Salamandre" with a wonderfully geeky story (Hannah, you would have loved it) about doing salamander counts on her parents' farm in Ontario, how they all came out of hibernation on the same night in spring and made an incredible racket and how a gravel company had bought up the land behind them but they decided to try and find out if a particular endangered salamander was on their land and they set up coffee cans and tarps to catch them and they finally found out that yes, they were living there and they were going to get the land designated as a sanctuary so that--she told us before the next song, "Escarpment Blues"--the company that was trying to blast out the escarpment behind them for gravel wouldn't be able to. (She also referred to herself as a "nature nerd.") Before playing "Will He Be Waiting For Me?" she told a story about getting a fax on Valentine's Day from Dolly Parton, who said she had heard the cover and she thought it was amazing. (It is.) Basically, she was just having a great time, as was the band, as were we. She closed with "Lodestar," and it was quite literally entrancing; when she ducked behind the drum kit (the only time it was used in the entire show) to kick into the closing third of the song, I missed it because my eyes were closed to better feel the music. And there was still the encore to go; they did "I'm a Mountain" while we all clapped the beat, and then they went completely acoustic for "How Deep In the Valley" and it was liking being at a revival, I'm telling you.
I'm in love with her. (OK, for reference, in the past week I have been in love with Ardal O'Hanlon, Katie West, Leslie Grossman, Brian Michael Bendis, Marika Dominczyk, Seymour Cassel (watch "Heist," you people!), Sigrid Undset, and if you're reading this, probably you too.) Seriously, though, buy her albums, and go see her live if you can.
Tonight? Neko Case at the Vic. Oh yeah. If you don't know who Neko is, you need to listen to this.