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Sarah Harmer - Bush Hall, Shepherd's Bush on 31 March 2004
Last summer, I completely fell for the honest, instantly adorable music of the charming treasure of a singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer upon belatedly hearing her near perfect 2000 release. However, I began to fear that the Canadian would never honour us with another album nor grace our shores with a live performance. I am happy to say that both fears were unfounded. She will soon be releasing All of Our Names, a brilliant follow-up to what Time magazine named as the Debut Album of the Year in 2000, and the very thick, chocolate icing on that dreamy cake was that she was scheduled to perform in Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush. Little did I know that the latter joy would give me the slightly surreal privilege of hearing Sarah’s wistful voice singing such sensitive songs live beneath two-tiered crystal candelabra chandeliers in a lushly carpeted, elegant former ballroom lined with ornate cornices. The intimate venue and artist were surprisingly well suited, and the crowd of mostly 30-something North Americans was so relaxed, warm and appreciative that the experience seemed to fall just short of a hippie love-in.
After polishing off an adequate Thai meal whilst seated near a table of several of Sarah’s entourage, we entered nearby Bush Hall. In doing so, we stepped back in time to find not only a small stage set up in an unbelievably decorative ballroom, where the original portraits had been replaced with artsy black and white details of band instruments and amplifier leads, but a venue full of friendly, welcoming staff with eventually about 300 people mostly seated on the wall-to-wall carpeting, with a few standing in the back, leaning on the unused grand piano. Smoking was not allowed in the performance room, which was a heavenly bonus, and we were allowed to watch the concert without a staff chaperone, yet everyone behaved beautifully. We remained seated on the floor all evening, which was a happy surprise for those ageing and exhausted of us, and we didn’t crowd into each other’s space, spill drinks, block the view of those behind us, talk or sing through the performance, or curse those taking photographs. I can’t think the last time I went to a concert without being irritated by someone or frustrated by the staff demanding that I hand over my bottle of water or my threatening umbrella…how lovely just to go and concentrate on Sarah’s incredibly catchy music. That, after all, is why we were there.
But first, a tall, gangly long-faced young Australian man wandered onto the tiny stage area at one end of the room, looking like a young Dylan with a high disarray of curls, a guitar dangling from his shoulder and a harmonica holder strapped around his neck. He had been billed as ‘Horse Stories’ and, as often happens, I had scarcely given that CD a look as I shelled out money for Sarah’s new one (complete with free poster of her) on the way in, and yet pretty soon could think of little more than rushing out to buy a Horse Stories CD before they sold out. Another first on this evening came in the form of every person quietly and attentively listening to the opening act, but it was difficult not to be captivated by him. We were all transfixed by his harmoniously bleating, highly emotive and powerful voice full of anxious, secluded melancholy as it filled the room. Sounding at times like Radiohead with moments of Bono, but with a more intriguing, individual style and some decent in-between song banter, Toby Burke, the front man of Los Angeles-based Horse Stories, can be added to my ever-lengthening list of People Who Should Be Hugely Famous But Aren’t. I have no idea if Sarah personally chose this man to warm-up her audience, but she has excellent taste, if so. But then we knew that.
About 20 minutes later, at 9.10pm, a band full of longish-haired young men with long sideburns emerged from the door by the stage, along with two women. One was bright, blonde Julie MacDonald, who placed herself behind the electric keyboards, and the other was an almost smoker-thin Sarah Harmer, wearing a tight black t-shirt with a transparent back and asymmetrical v-neck over low-slung well-worn jeans. Her wavy, shoulder-length flyaway hair hid her face whenever she looked down, which seemed to suit her fine.
Without a word of introduction, Sarah and her band began the concert with the first song on her new album, Pendulums. Her voice was unfalteringly sweet, dancing over the light tune, apparently singing of her farmhouse in Canada surrounded by snow. She took the last verse on her own, with her guitar accompanying her faultless voice before the band joined in again, the guitarist adding backing vocals. They sang of distant lights ‘twinkling’—a word she seemed to be fond of on this album—and ended with the enviable line, ‘I’m sleeping in,’ whilst looking to the bassist in an apparent cue to wind up the song. Not a bolt of an opening but something that eased us into the fine repertoire to come.
She then subtly pulled out of her pocket what I assumed to be a big setlist and looked at it for the only time all night. ‘Wow, it’s really nice to play in a—you know,’ she said, looking about the room and trying to grasp a suitable word for the unusual surroundings, able only to come up with ‘—room.’ She laughed, then added ‘…that’s above ground and not smoky.’ Precisely my point before; here is a fine venue that surely is the only intimate one in town that isn’t a tightly cramped basement full of future lung disease. Since the room was smokeless, Sarah said that ‘we’re gonna get smoking on this one,’ as she, on acoustic guitar, and Mike O’Neill on electric guitar played the introduction to the next song. Eventually the bass added to the smoky sound before the others joined in.
Clearly not yet ready to venture from lyrics about twinkling, she played us Greeting Card Aisle from the new album, which starts ‘Icy twinkling in the window.’ On this song, Sarah’s soft vocals sounded incredibly like Suzanne Vega whilst the electric guitar had a dark, twangy western feel to it. The song’s apparent fantastic concept of cutting the line of someone who kept turning to her as his old stand-by was beautifully delivered in the chorus, ‘Have you got me in your bleeding heart file next to Lady Luck? / Well, this Light of your Life has drawn the blind.’ During the brief instrumental parts, Sarah was still drawn to the mike and moaned quietly to the mesmerising music. Her voice, whilst not quite as powerful as Pavarotti or weepy as opener Toby Burke, was note-perfect; not once throughout the night did it crack, go flat, hit the wrong note or fail any of us in any way. She seemed never to have to worry about it or try very hard, but no doubt that’s the beauty of her talents—making it look easy.
Next, the band seemed to play musical chairs but without the chairs. Sarah strapped on an electric guitar and handed her acoustic guitar to the person standing in O’Neill’s spot; he had moved to the keyboards, and the person who took the acoustic guitar was keyboardist Julie, who reminded me a lot of Talking Head Tina Weymouth, but with cropped hair. Pretty soon, Mike was plucking out on the keyboard the notes so familiarly played by a beautiful clarinet on You Were Here and the band struck up the booming, bopping pavement-pounding beat of Around This Corner.
This song is utterly fantastic and could be a radio hit just for its melody and arrangement. I particularly love its mix of despairing lyrics—the possibility of bumping into the man who broke her heart and worrying that she’ll make a fool of herself by bursting into tears—with an outstandingly catchy, upbeat tune, a technique so often employed by Neil Finn. The tune makes me want to leap up and dance whilst shouting bitterly at some man on the street; that’s the power of the song and its execution.
The live rendition was true to the CD but more exhilarating—Sarah didn’t try to alter it to make it more interesting for the band to churn out umpteen times; she just gave the people what they wanted. Julie’s subtle but sumptuous backing vocals blended on this song and throughout the evening with Sarah’s as though they were angels who had made a pact to recreate heaven on earth. During what became the piano solo, as there was no clarinet, Sarah turned her back to the audience and faced the smiley, dark drummer, Dean Stone, who sported a George Michael-type fuzzy shadow on his face and would probably be considered a looker by many (who liked that type). The entire band was beaming almost as much as we were. Sarah absolutely belted out the marvellous bridge that begins ‘How can you forgive that fast?’
The one puzzle of this song for me is that the first line of the chorus is, according to the CD booklet, ‘Knowing that you’ve been bad / is one of the worst feelings I ever had’, which makes perfect sense. However, Sarah seems to be singing clearly on the album, ‘Knowing me, you’ve been bad’, which makes less sense. At the concert, I tried to watch her lips to see if it were a matter of a Canadian accent twisting the tone or something, but she really did seem to be singing it the latter way. How confusing for simple ones like me. Never mind, this performance was an astonishing accomplishment and it earned huge cheers from the delighted, yet still seated, audience.
As Sarah paused to introduce her band, who seemed to be mates all of a similar age, she managed to knock over the electric guitar that she had placed on the stand behind her. It made a huge clattering thud, prompting her to comment, ‘Oh s**t’. Her guitarist, Mike, who had now returned to his place beside Sarah, tried to calm us all with a light-hearted, ‘It’s okay, it’s a rental’, but a slightly Sarah pointed out that it wasn’t.
She then chatted a bit about her new album, saying dubiously that she’d heard it was in the shops already. I got the impression that some record suits had told her the release date had passed and Sarah had wondered why she hadn’t found any in record stores, but the official release date in this country wasn’t for another week (5 April). Fortunately, to keep us salivating, four marvellous songs were available for listening on her website along with the video for what presumably will be the North American single, Almost. Perhaps because Sarah took her time in releasing a follow-up to an impeccable album rather than rushing something out to meet commercial demand, these songs had had time to mature like good wine. Possibly my favourite of the samples on the website was New Enemy, and that’s what the band played next.
As its immediately gripping, catchy and memorable tune filled the room, Sarah, playing acoustic guitar, almost sang in a little girl voice, injecting into the song a sense of innocence and fun. Again, Julie’s backing vocals and harmonies, which she focused on whilst standing behind the keyboard usually with her hands idle, blended splendidly. Happy, long-haired and exceptionally skilled bassist Maury Lafoy, who, as bassists often are, seemed so terribly laid back that he made me think of an Australian surfer, also joined in with his subtle voice on this number. The busy layers of vocals achieved a dazzling sound that filled the room exquisitely, a perfect, intriguing re-creation of the recorded version. Again, Sarah has written a bright, upbeat tune with less than cheerful lyrics, starting and ending with a sarcastic remark by a boyfriend about her finding a new enemy to replace him, spoken ‘with almost all the love gone.’
Although we all adored that performance, we remained seated on the floor as we applauded enthusiastically. I know the way audiences in England remain calm and seated often throws overseas visitors, though I hope the fact that Sarah has played these shores before meant that she knew what to expect rather than take our calm immobility as a lack of integration with the music. ‘Wow, you guys are very polite!’ she told us as we continued to behave respectably. She then referred to a previous visit to London and thanked the person who had given her a ‘nice’ flowering cabbage plant (I half expected her to say cabbage patch doll). ‘I took it on the plane and it actually lived—for a couple more days,’ she said, ‘so thanks.’ Such simple words delivered so positively had the room chuckling. I’m glad she apparently flew into her home country rather than America, as presumably we Yanks would have thrown her into prison for the terrible offence of cabbage plant smuggling. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to declare to customs the apple I’d forgotten to eat on the plane.
Barely pausing after expressing her gratitude to the anonymous flora fairy, Sarah launched into the poignant Coffee Stain from her first solo album, and that of several others judging by the smattering of applause upon recognition of the first line—which gives away the title. Like poems of yesteryear, Sarah’s song titles frequently come from the first line or first verse and thus could harm her single sales if she ever got the radio play here that she deserved, since people would have no idea what to ask for in a record shop as the more memorable chorus of the songs rarely have anything to do with the title.
Sarah started the song with just her sad vocals and acoustic guitar, with bass added later, then brushes on the snare drum. Her voice sounded so innocent and crushed, singing heartbreaking lines such as ‘Everything changed from being okay the night that you came home so late’. She ended the superb song with a nod to the band who then stopped on cue, and then looked startled by the intense applause they received.
It seemed they had been poised to move straight into the next song without pausing, but they were forced to freeze in place briefly to let us get some clapping out of our systems, and then they quickly began the next song, Silver Road from the new album. Sarah’s voice switched from innocent to prettily powerful as she belted out the first, catchy lines. The bassist beamed throughout the song, and during the electric guitar solo by O’Neill, Sarah let her head drop to one side, then the other in a sort of slow, subdued sway to the infectious beat.
Bespectacled Mike O’Neill looked to me like his REM namesake, Mike Mills—not the alleged ‘aeroplane adventurer’, but the one who used to seem all sweet and boy-next-door-ish but now has a terrifying growth of fur on his chin and bizarrely dyed blonde long curls (looking almost like a bearded Christina Aguilera these days, and that can’t be a good thing). Fortunately, Sarah’s Mike had more goatee sense in that he had none, and he looked more like the affable Mills of old than the current scary incarnation.
Perhaps because Silver Road was new to us and we weren’t certain how it ended, its initial fading was met with an uncertain applause that then quickly grew to enthusiastic cheers when the end was clear.
Sarah then picked up the electric guitar that she had previously knocked over and wondered aloud about its condition, then laughed and said that she could be doing Shakespeare up there, calling out dramatically, ‘How doth she fare after her fall?’ To kill time as she checked out her instrument and tuned it, she asked Mike to entertain us by talking to us about any bird species he had noticed around lately, so I assumed he was a twitcher. Mike replied that he’d seen a few magpies. As magpies are probably the bird we see most next to pigeons and seagulls, the audience didn’t react with much excitement. ‘Everyone here know what a magpie looks like?’ Mike asked, still trying to keep us engaged. We groaned an unenthusiastic yes as though we were bored students reacting to a teacher who didn’t understand our needs.
Perhaps owing to his disappointment that we didn’t get excited by his magpie report, Mike asked if anyone were interested in the fact that he’d seen a Dodo in Hyde Park. Perhaps Sarah hadn’t been paying attention, or perhaps birds are not her strong point, but in an apparent effort to sound remotely enthusiastic about Mike’s bird discussion, she asked what a Dodo sounded like. Mike explained that he didn’t know as the Dodo had been extinct for years.
Then suddenly it dawned on me this could be a set-up for the next tune, as someone suggested that the Dodo’s call might sound like ‘Ssshhhh!’ That prompted Sarah to say that the room was very like a library, and that the next song was about a sexy librarian. Just on the verge of launching smoothly into the song after that introduction, she had to stop and ask where her pick was, before retrieving it from the floor with a sheepish grin.
The band then burst into incredible life as they played the delightful new Almost (again, the title is in the first line and nothing to do with the chorus of ‘And if I am the sailor / And you are the warm gulf wind’), with fantastically light and frothy verses and rocking, dreamy chorus. Indeed, although I had not noticed it before, the song’s lyrics were now more clearly about a librarian tempted to ring a friendly library visitor. Sarah’s guitar had sturdily survived being felled by her earlier, and the song wowed the hundreds of us seated on the ballroom floor.
Sarah then said it was great to be in London, and it was lovely that it had been sunny that day (Spring was just creeping in and the clocks had recently sprung forward so the sun seemed to have descended upon us suddenly) but that her band was going home the following day. She explained that she was about to treat us to another song from the new album, Dandelions in Bullet Holes, which she said kind of took place over here. Now playing the acoustic guitar, she counted in the band and they eased into the utterly stunning song, another gorgeous taster available on her website. Her soothing voice crooned throughout this sumptuous number, as she strummed an easy rhythm while Dean added brushed cymbals. The only slight spoiler during this performance was the fact that the bass was way too heavy in the mix and almost dragged down the sleepy beat, but really nothing could ruin such a perfect arrangement. Again, Julie’s voice fused beautifully with Sarah’s, and when Sarah ended the tune by prettily plucking out a few notes on the guitar, she was soon drowned out by roaring applause.
Before the next number, Sarah said she felt lucky to come over with her band and play, and she thanked all those who had made it happen. She then played the familiar introduction to the stately Open Window (The Wedding Song), accompanied by the electric piano. Everyone applauded this choice tune, and the various instruments took turns adding layers to its waltzy, swirling dreamlike rhythm. Admittedly, they took a second to find their true rhythm until the slightly plodding bass was added to underline the tune. Mike’s backing vocals joining Sarah’s were mesmerising, with Julie coming in on the chorus. People became so moved by this radiant performance, with Sarah’s softer voice sounding like Joni Mitchell now, they were taking photographs of her with their mobiles and using any gadgetry to hand to capture the magical moments. When the band finished playing, the ballroom filled with wildly loving cheers.
Keeping with the sequence of that album, the band plunged into Uniform Grey (the title was in second line this time, while people might expect it to be ‘You Don’t Do What I Want You To’ or ‘If That’s What You Choose’), complete with a plodding clip-clop beat, with Sarah sounding quite like Maria Muldaur (of ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ fame in the 70s), accompanied by a western electric guitar riff. The tune was terrific fun, and just before the instrumental, Sarah called something half decipherable like, ‘Let’s put some stomp into this!’ During the electric guitar solo, Sarah played the wandering minstrel and sauntered with her acoustic guitar over towards bassist Maury, and they both faced each other whilst playing in proximity, nodding to the beat, in a sort of acoustic version of Bon Jovi. As the number drew to a close, she freely beamed to our big cheers, and the band slipped off the stage and through the nearby door, leaving Sarah on her own with her acoustic guitar.
Taking advantage of her solitude, Sarah delved into the moving solace of Capsized, unusually watching us as she sang, in the manner of an impressive Sheryl Crow, the marvellous, poignantly painful lyrics, such as ‘Can I trade this thin skin for a shell’. The subdued song with a slight jazzy feel was a bit more approachable live without the mournful organ that drags it down a bit on the album. Despite being unmanned, the drums were desperate to join in, playing themselves whenever Sarah’s resonant voice caused the snare drum to vibrate against the sticks that had been left on it. Closing her eyes near the end of the song, Sarah truly had a commanding presence as she sang in powerful anguish the last lines of ‘Heavy heart, have you heard?’ When we erupted into massive applause, she subtly reached behind her and moved the offending drum stick off the snare drum so that it couldn’t participate in the next number.
Introducing that song, I believe Sarah made some comment about wearing her hockey socks. Julie returned to the stage and sat at the piano, on which she joined Sarah, still on acoustic guitar, in playing a lullaby. Go To Sleep is the closing track on the new album (again, the title is in the first line), which exudes soothing comfort better than any lullaby your mother ever sang to get you to sleep as a baby (if any of you have mothers who actually did that). The harmonies with Julie were godly. Again, the snare drum, presumably with the other stick or brushes still on it, decided to play at the end, but its vibrations could not spoil the amazing magic these two women created.
Guitarist Mike O’Neill returned to the stage during our applause, removing the remaining offending inanimate drum-beater as he returned to his spot across the stage, while Sarah said the next song would be Tether from the new album. Here was another meandering, gentle sleepy tune, initially with Sarah just singing over her acoustic guitar until Mike’s electric guitar joined in. Julie remained seated at the electric piano that she was not playing, but near the end whipped out a flute seemingly from mid-air and added a lovely solo. The lyrics again seemed to portray intricately the environment around Sarah’s home: living in the cold, close to the road.
In the middle of the tune, Sarah did her own version of folky scatting, adding a soft ‘bah-bah-bah’ before wandering into the final verse, during which the drummer and bass player stepped onto the stage and began playing. At that point, the sound mixer zapped up the volume on Sarah’s microphone to a distorted proportional degree, but then, no one ever minds hearing Sarah’s voice at full blast. The band, including the flute, ended up almost rocking out, and though the song had no catchy refrain, its lovely poetry mesmerised us all. When its finish was met with huge cheers, Sarah treated us to huge smiles, which weren’t always forthcoming, so I imagine she felt gratified that we appreciated her new material.
Barely pausing as we enjoyed Sarah’s smile, the band burst into one of my (many) favourites of Sarah’s songs, The Hideout. The room was enveloped in this incredible, unhurried but enormously catchy tune, with bassist Maury Lafoy providing sadly mostly inaudible backing vocals and Julie at times playing a melodica, one of those combination recorder/keyboards. The song is one of the few that features the title in the chorus, and I love its bright sense of freedom and relief after shaking a recent love from one’s mind, if not quite heart, and offering to share the hideout where ‘you can come, you can stay if there’s something you need to get away from.’
Over the massive din of applause that followed, Sarah thanked Toby Burke for warming up the crowd that evening. There followed a quick pause before the band burst into a huge rocking sound with a thumping beat. Everyone cheered wildly upon recognising Basement Apartment from You Were Here. Its enthusiastic welcome betrayed the audience as largely Canadian who either knew the song as a number performed by her former band, Weeping Tile, or more likely found Sarah’s brilliance upon hearing that song on the radio, as it apparently did incredibly well in Canada when she re-released it as a pepped-up solo project. I must confess that, when I first played that album having heard nothing from it before, that track passed over me in comparison to most of the other fantastic songs. It is, I must admit, instantly likeable and it vaguely put me in mind of what their other sister would sound like if Lucinda and Dar Williams were actually sisters themselves. Fun and foot-tapping, the song was let down, I felt, by its slightly monotonous chorus largely consisting of ‘Every time I breathe’, which sounded a bit too much like an over-egged pop pudding aiming to make friends with the radio. To be fair, if I heard that song on anyone else’s album performed in exactly the same manner, I no doubt would have seen it as an epiphany. But amongst the outstanding Around This Corner, the incredibly gripping Lodestar and other genius creations on the album, Basement Apartment seemed too basic. Having said that, its lyrics perfectly demonstrate Harmer’s amazing knack to paint intricate portraits of her surroundings, describing the cold basement apartment with a dripping tap where she ‘can smell the bleach that they use in the hall’, which rather mirrors the suffocating state of a stale relationship.
Hearing the song live warmed me to it. Sarah remained on acoustic guitar and her vocals fit admirably with those of bassist Maury and keyboardist Julie. Mike managed to tweak his electric guitar somehow near the end so that it sounded as though an invisible violinist were on stage playing a solo. When they finished, I cheered as much as anybody for the amazing performance, and it took a lot to keep up with the Jones in the room of Sarah enthusiasts.
After thanking us, Sarah told us the next song would be Took It All, another one from the new album, as she changed to electric guitar. Mike created a heavy sound on his electric guitar and Maury really thumped the bass before Sarah joined in with a Portishead-type of slinky, sleepy jazzy rock feel to her vocals. When she hit the chorus and raised her voice to a higher octave, she reminded me a great deal of Aimee Mann. At one point, she pressed her back against that of Mike and they swayed together as they played out a rock chick moment, perhaps reminiscent of her Weeping Tile days. Drummer Dean spent a lot of time whacking the cymbals with finesse, and Maury and Julie provided smooth backing vocals again.
We owe a lot to Took It All, a song about greed written quickly for a radio series on the seven deadly sins, as that showed Sarah that recording at home with her boyfriend Marty Kinack co-producing was a positive thing and, fortunately for us, finally got her working on her latest album. So in effect, her presence here tonight and all its wizardry was attributable to this song, which perhaps is why she chose that one to close the show. She quickly thanked us all and left the stage with the others, just before 10.30pm.
Of course, we were having none of it. It was quite easy to cheer our little hearts out—although we still remained seated on the floor—and the band returned almost immediately for an encore. As they took to the stage, two people called out requests for the first time all evening—we’d had no complaints so far, so there had been no need—and the second person asked for Lodestar, my absolute favourite, and loads of people cheered at the very thought.
Sarah was keeping to her plans though. She picked up her acoustic guitar and started things off by singing the first line of Don’t Get Your Back Up, ‘Baby, if I could keep it together, don’t you think I’d try,’ which always reminds me way too much of the Foundations’ hit in the ‘60s Baby, Now That I’ve Found You, later covered by Alison Krauss. This song is another that, in my mind, paled in comparison to the top-grade choices on the rest of her first album. Its rhythm is wonderfully fun and her voice on it reminds me of the fine Thea Gilmore, but again the chorus seems to drag the song down a bit. Still, it’s quite loveable, and as huge cheers in the Bush Hall greeted its first line this evening, I happily admitted to being a black sheep when it came to its due appreciation. Still, the live performance of the song won me over effortlessly, and it was like hearing an old friend come through the door. At some point, someone kicked over a bottle that rattled on for seemingly an age, but fortunately it fit in rather well with the thumping bass and bright rhythm of the tune. The song had a warmer tint to it live, boosted by backing vocals by Julie and Maury that added an interesting diversity that the too-smooth album version perhaps lacked, and we all loved it.
Even during our heady applause, Sarah continued to look quite serious, and the band struck up the introduction to Things to Forget, another song from her new album that I’d already had the pleasure of hearing on her website. The keyboard imitated a trumpet better than usual, though I always prefer the real thing, and Sarah simply held her guitar without playing for most of the song. She sang gently with her eyes closed, with Julie providing lovely harmonies on the chorus that began, ‘But holidays are made for reading.’ The soft, lovingly performed heartfelt song went down wonderfully well with the audience.
Sarah then invited onto the stage a friend of hers from Wales whom she said she had not seen for seven years: Dave Allen (actually, he's from Banbury, Oxon--thanks to Alex Gow for pointing that out. Read more on Dave in Alex's comments in the guestbook). I half expected the well-known old school Irish comedian, but instead a casually dressed 30-something wandered on stage with a violin. Although the presence of strings on stage should have been enough of a clue, what got my heart leaping was hearing Sarah tune her guitar by tweaking notes that sounded like they were straight out of Lodestar. As she did so, she let her eyes wander around the crown moulding of the unusual venue and she muttered, ‘Nice stuff!’ Our chuckles were drowned out by the wonderful opening of the angel’s orchestration that is Lodestar.
She delicately plucked at her acoustic guitar and sang stunningly about a picturesque owl and the pussycat type scene on the water. The song is perfect. Its music is spellbinding, building up swirling layers from a subdued and sleepy but thrilling start. The lyrics are resplendent, Sarah’s own words interwoven with lines from D H Lawrence’s poem New Year’s Eve, which begins, ‘There are only two things now, / The great black night scooped out / And this fireglow’ and two verses later offers ‘Listen, the darkness rings / As it circulates round our fire. / Take off your things.’ Sarah works them into her own song with a brilliant artistic intellect, sensibly discarding the Lawrence lines about bruised throats, breasts and nakedness. And rather than the darkness that flickers and dips in the poem, Harmer’s ‘oar dips into oil like water.’ Predictable and partly icky of me to say, but Sarah’s powerful, crystal voice really shone like a lodestar guiding us to nirvana during this number.
As Allen’s violin featured in a brief solo, Sarah let another rare, relaxed smile cross her face as she leaned back to listen to her friend play. As the bass and then keyboards joined in, the drummer was absolutely beaming, as were we, at the incredible construction of an aural wonder before us.
The overlapping layers of the song rose and raced towards its conclusion as Julie switched to the melodica again. I turned from stressing slightly about how I would probably have to leave early to get from way out west in Shepherd’s Bush to the seemingly distant station from which the last train home would depart soon, to feeling faint from the wondrous beauty overtaking the room. No one could resist being entranced by this song, and perhaps it could be her Babylon, given the chance. The song is more immediately captivating than any other, despite the success she’s had with her singles, and its beauty is not only artistically alluring but also has radio appeal. She could really blow the whole UK away….but I suppose now we must concentrate on her new album, which sounds like it has some terrific songs as well, although surely nothing could top the treasure-ridden You Were Here.
Almost five heavenly minutes later, Sarah looked around at Julie and Maury on backing vocals, at her friend Dave even managing to rock out on the violin, and at drummer Dean and guitarist Mike delving into the joy of the piece as much as anybody, and she signalled to them all to finish. Sadly, they did just that, and the band said good-bye and left us for good.
What amazes me most is that I was so nearly one of the unlucky souls, like most of the people in London, who remained ignorant of Sarah’s brilliance. Fortunately, back when Q was still a respectable music magazine, I cut out the review of You Were Here as it mentioned clarinets, trumpets and cellos and quoted a few clever lyrics, and I later came across that clipping and took a chance on the album, unheard. The discovery paid off big time. Such a natural talent, free of the horrid styling by labels and so capable of writing outstanding lyrics with emotional twists accompanied by foot-tapping tunes, should be known to and loved by everyone. I know she has met with a great deal of success at home and rightfully was nominated for a Juno award, the Canadian Grammy, but she deserves even more. Thankfully, I have been exposed to this hidden treasure, and as I spread the word where I can, I remain hopeful that Sarah will one day gain the huge recognition she deserves world-wide. Thank goodness I have the privilege of knowing about this gem and had the joy of experiencing her live performance. And amongst candelabra chandeliers and crown moulding—who could hope for more?
Copyright © 2004 by TC. All rights reserved.
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of Sarah Harmer playing live in concert at Bush Hall, Shepherd's Bush, London.