The Darkness Rings

Sarah Harmer

Schuba's - Chicago

February 16, 2001

First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2001, Volume 8, #3

Written by John Metzger

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Since the release of her poetic U.S. debut You Were Here, Sarah Harmer has been quietly picking up steam for her solo career. And justifiably so. Her songwriting is first-rate, nuanced with emotion, and quietly introspective. Her lyrics mine the fertile ground of broken relationships, but she never allows her songs to fully sink into the darkness, instead keeping them afloat on a bed of warm melodies.

You Were Here is unquestionably one of last year's true treasures. It's the type of album that ages well, and it's one that quickly becomes a long-lost friend. It's also full of the sort of music that lends itself to small, intimate concert settings, such as Schuba's. It's only fitting then that on February 16, Harmer took the stage at this Chicago institution for an exquisite evening of confessional folk-rock.

Performing as a trio with Kevin Fox alternating between bass and cello and Johnny Obercian on percussion and the occasional electric guitar lead Harmer quickly established a commanding presence. Opening with The Hideout, she shed the sadness of a lost love by embracing the comforting melody of the song. Subsequently on Around This Corner, Fox and Obercian united in a lock-step rhythmic march as Harmer defiantly refused to succumb to the anger ensconced in her lyrics.

However, while Harmer's greatest strength may be her talent as a songwriter, her emotion-clad vocal style closely follows suit. Her voice imbued the fragility of her relationship in Everytime, and she filled Don't Get Your Back Up with strength in the face of her exhaustion. Further, on a chilling rendition of You Were Here, each ethereal, wispy refrain she sang seemed to grasp at the air in quiet desolation. Added to this was Fox's haunting, penetrating cello accompaniment, which created a musical environment worthy of Beatles' producer George Martin.

Then, there is Harmer's secret weapon: her guitar skills. Freed from the denser sound of her studio recording, there were plenty of opportunities to display her talent. She embellished Uniform Grey with a rolling country-style, finger-picking technique; gently underscored the folksy ballad In the Road; and added a feisty fury to Weakened State.

Most notable, however, was the atmospheric set-closer Lodestar. The song tells the tale of two lovers setting sail and being absorbed by the darkness of night. As the boat left the shore, Harmer's guitar reflected the rippling effect of the oars hitting the water. Concurrently, Fox's cello emulated a chorus of insects and later, as the craft drifted further from land, it became a bellowing foghorn. By the time the story had reached its climax, the three-piece band had pierced the threshold of ecstasy, crashing wave upon wave of kaleidoscopic sound.

Yes, indeed, Sarah Harmer is that rare performer who has not only made a stunning debut, but also can deliver in a live setting. Whether she was probing the depths of death and rebirth as on the mournful Dogs and Thunder or simply paying tribute to a horticultural project as on the novelty tune Oleander, Harmer's words and music collided to stir emotion. Sometimes it was feelings of joy. Sometimes it was feelings of sadness. Sometimes it was love. It could also be anger, disappointment, or frustration. The best songs, albums, and performers all make the listener feel passionate about something. And Sarah Harmer's music rings through the darkness to do just that.

The Steph Turner Overdrive opened the show with a 35-minute set that offered an alternative spin on '70s pop and '80s rock. Too often, however, the group's music was delivered with a sugar-sweet gloss, making it fairly enjoyable, but largely forgettable.

You Were Here is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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Ratings

1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!

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Copyright 2001 The Music Box