It was my first visit to Saxapahaw. I listed to I’m With Her on Spotify for the entirety of the 45-minute drive to the small North Carolina town. I knew I was in for a small town experience as I pulled into the main drag and was greeted by a sign that read, “Please park in the meadow.”
As I rounded the corner and pulled down the gravel drive to the parking area, I discovered that the word “meadow” wasn’t being used as a metaphor. It was a bonafide meadow. Grass swayed in the late afternoon sun, cows were lowing in a neighboring field.
A short jaunt back up the gravel drive and across the highway and I was at the venue: the charming Haw River Ballroom. A former river mill, the Ballroom is now host to a concert venue, a coffee shop, and various shops and restaurants. The building reinforced the small town charm with plenty of brick and architecture built with reclaimed materials from the original mill.
As I approached, I joined a line forming at the doors and waited patiently for what was sure to be a wonderful evening.
The moment the doors opened, a small crowed pressed up against the stage of the intimate Haw River Ballroom, waiting in eager anticipation for the start of the show. The interior of the venue was even more impressive than the exterior. The room was lined with gorgeous exposed brick on the walls and hardwoods on the floors. The setting sun shed light on the steel trusses that held up the roof. At the end of the venue stood a grand stage, warmly lit and lined with a classic velvet curtain.
I took advantage of the pre-show time to mingle with some fellow concert-goers – a local couple who was seeing the band for the sixth time, a couple from Wilmington, NC whose uncle had taught Sarah Jarosz banjo lessons years ago in Texas. Others sat in place at the foot of the stage, diligently guarding their space for the show.
It was obvious that I’m With Her fans aren’t casually engaged; they’re loyal.
My conversations were quickly cut short when the curtains rustled and the band emerged from backstage. They entered without pomp and circumstance, taking the stage and donning their instruments as the crowd cheered in support.
As they began to play, however, the audience quickly grew silent, captivated by the bands performance of Little Lies, an off-label 2017 single. While Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz strummed their guitars, Sara Watkins drew a long, haunting bow of her violin.
It was the kind of environment where I felt self-conscious with the occasional click-click of my shutter piercing the quiet stillness in the air as the warm sound of acoustic instruments filled the room.
As the show progressed, the band demonstrated that they were each remarkable multi-instrumentalists. I counted three acoustic guitars, two electric guitars, a violin, a banjo, a ukulele, and a violin being swapped among the band throughout the show. Sara Watkins, who has been playing violin for most of her life, drew deep, smooth tones out of her instrument. Aoife stuck predominantly to her guitar, while Sarah Jarosz alternated between guitar, banjo, and mandolin.
As talented as they are with their instruments, however, the band’s primary instrument – perhaps the heart and soul of their music – isn’t in an instrument made of wood, but their voices.
As talented as they are with their instruments, however, the band’s primary instrument – perhaps the heart and soul of their music – isn’t in an instrument made of wood, but their voices. The first time that I heard Aoife and Sarah was in a Chris Thile workshop entitled How to Sing With Others, and there are no more qualified instructors than the women who make up I’m With Her.
The trio’s voices blend seamlessly into a single chord without missing a note. Louder, softer, faster, slower. The melody, the tenor, the high baritone, each vocalist following the other with the types of harmonies that cause the hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end.
I’ve heard great harmony singers, but the way I’m With Her sings together puts them into a league of their own. To get an idea for what I mean, check out their cover of Adele’s Send My Love (To Your New Lover) below.
The entire show was captivating, and there were too many great details to recount here. I’m With Her hooked their audience from the start and swept them up in a river of beautiful melodies, ebbing and flowing as the evening rolled on. Each time the band would draw a song to a close, the audience would hang on for just a moment in enthralled silence before bursting out in a roar of applause and cheering.
There were, however, a few moments that stood out among the others.
One of my personal favorites from I’m With Her is 1-89, a song that the band says was inspired by a wild ride down a Vermont highway. If you haven’t experienced Sara Watkins playing a heavy electric guitar riff while Sarah Jarosz plays a melodic clawhammer banjo, you haven’t truly lived.
The previously mentioned Adele cover, Send Your Love (To Your New Lover) was also crowd favorite. This song highlights just how tight the group’s vocal harmonies can be and breaks out of the group’s somewhat serious style to have a bit of fun with the crowd.
As a bluegrass mandolin player, I particularly enjoyed when Sara and Sarah showed a bit of their bluegrass roots with the fiddle tune-inspired Waitsfield.
As a bluegrass mandolin player, I particularly enjoyed when Sara and Sarah showed a bit of their bluegrass roots with the fiddle tune-inspired Waitsfield, a fun, peppy instrumental that the Bluegrass Situation describes as “a whimsical mandolin/fiddle dialogue that lopes and waltzes and dashes about.”
Like the smooth finish of a fine whiskey, though, the best part of the show, in my opinion, was when the band closed the show with an encore performance of their rendition of Nina Simone’s 1965 song, Be My Husband. Hot on the heels of the peppy Waitsfield, the trio stepped forward in front of their microphones as the crowd cheered enthusiastically, perhaps thinking they were about to take a bow to bring the evening to an end.
Instead, they started to lay down some syncopated percussion, slowly and rhythmically marching in place and clapping their hands. At first, some in the back of the house didn’t notice, still cheering the band on, until an urgent shushing redirected their attention to the stage.
I’m With Her’s version of Be My Husband is magical. No instruments – only the tap of their feet and their enchanting, harmonized vocals that I can’t even begin to describe in words.
Where to see with I’m With Her live
I’m With Her continues their Overland Tour with an intense tour schedule, with multiple dates across the U.S. and the U.K. Check their website for a tour date near you, and be sure to snag your tickets early as they can sell out quickly.
- Little Lies
- Walkin’ Back to Georgia (Jim Croce cover)
- Ain’t That Fine
- Game to Lose
- Wild One
- See You Around
- Apple Tree
- Chinky Pin
- Lord Lead Me On
- Close It Down
- Send Your Love (To Your New Lover)
- Crossing Muddy
- Be My Husband