Every so often you encounter a young performer who displays an uncanny onstage maturity in stark contrast to their bubbly personality offstage. Sarah Jarosz, only 18 years old and looking even younger than that, displayed just such intense musical gravitas March 22 at the Morris Center as part of the Savannah Music Festival.
As young as she is, the Austin native and Grammy nominee was actually the oldest performer onstage during her all-too-brief set. Accompanied by Oregon fiddle prodigy Alex Hargreaves, freshly 18 as of a few days ago, and 16-year-old (!) cellist Nathaniel Smith, Jarosz's already richly multilayered voice became even more evocative surrounded by the dark and lush instrumentation.
Being equally adept at mandolin, clawhammer banjo, and guitar would seem to be enough for anyone, and even a purely instrumental set by Jarosz would in and of itself be a fantastic show (indeed, her Grammy nod was for an instrumental, the intense and rollicking "Mansinneedof," which garnered its own standing ovation this night).
But the aspect of the concert that had the packed audience rapturously appreciative was the killer combination of Jarosz's robust blues-and-bluegrass tinged voice -- filling every nook and rafter of the Morris Center -- and her nimble, gripping songwriting, which conjures as many images from '60s and indie rock as it does of the Appalachian backcountry.
Performing a series of originals from her debut CD Songs Up in Her Head -- the only covers of the evening were a Tom Waits and a Bob Dylan tune -- Jarosz showed an almost preternatural gift for transporting the audience, through timbre, dynamics, lyrics and creative arrangements, to a completely different place and time.
Such a gift makes you feel lucky enough when you have the opportunity to experience it from an old master. But coming from one so young -- Jarosz had to fit this gig in around her college spring break -- makes the experience doubly uplifting.
(While I've made much of her musical maturity, please note that I never said Jarosz sounds old. There's a difference. She may sing like a person with much more real-life experience than she actually has, but she sounds anything but jaded -- a youthful confidence is never far from the surface.)
Jarosz's job was made much easier by her accompanying musicians, both of whom also show musical wisdom beyond their years. Hargreaves isn't the flashy bluegrass wizard you'd expect; he's actually a very sensitive and subtle fidder, who never once tried to upstage Jarosz.
As for Smith, he showed once again why the cello should be a part of more pop/folk ensembles. Because of its enormous range, a well-tended cello can simultaneously make a bass player irrelevant and act as a second guitar. Why more groups don't use a cello is beyond me; a shortage of available talent, maybe?
Opening for Jarosz was another young performer, 20-year-old Canadian fiddler/singer/songwriter Sierra Noble of Winnipeg. With a show that was part Canadian fiddle exposition and indie rock showcase, Noble and her two-piece accompanying band overcame a couple of clearly underrehearsed numbers by way of her thoroughly engaging personality and amazing fiddle chops.