At first blush, I’m With Her doesn’t register as the type of band to be featured at Spoleto Festival. The fact that it’s made up of younger performers isn’t at all remarkable, of course; that is, until you discover that the band is touring their debut record, last year’s “See You Around.”
The key lies in Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins’ 11 solo albums, and many more recorded with various other bands, notably Nickel Creek and Crooked Still. With those sorts of pedigrees, it’s hardly surprising that they have played and recorded with a veritable who's-who of musicians in the bluegrass and folk idioms, among others.
And then there are the Grammy and other awards. I’m With Her is like the proverbial duck: If the band writes, sings, plays and records the way they do, then it must be a supergroup.
I’m With Her makes music in a genre that trades under many names. Americana is one word for it and in their Spoleto Festival concert Saturday night, Jarosz, O’Donovan and Watkins encapsulated that variant. The show traced a geography of the United States with songs about American places, roads, maps and the Rand McNally atlas. More Walker Evans than Ansel Adams, a road trip unfolded through these songs along the paths I’m With Her follows across America.
After opening with a new track, “Call My Name,” the band told a fraught story of escape along New England’s I-89, a roadway not otherwise immortalized in American popular culture. From there we were off and running on a journey east to west — from Chicago to San Francisco, from Providence to Phoenix — in keeping with the story of America itself.
No surprise, then, that part of the way we were aboard the Union Line. Motion was a constant. Highway 101 joined I-89. One song, titled “Overland,” is about the West as the Promised Land. Clearly a number that means a lot to the band, Watkins led the audience through a long chorus late in the show and we all travelled, haltingly, overland together.
I’m With Her’s music is about places. The trio jumped scales from an apple tree, planted for “my love and me,” to Crescent City, to Pangaea, in eponymous songs. There was a certain nostalgia in songs that evoked 19th century American geographical imaginations when people rode the railroads west and, likewise, when they sang about summertime love.
Their love songs are carefully grounded in movement and place. “Ain’t That Fine,” an early offering Saturday evening, opens with a couple in a car revisiting faded places from the past.
Half of the songs were covers. Jarosz explained that part of the reason for the band is how much she, O’Donovan and Watkins bonded over other artists’ songs that they love to sing together. The Spoleto performance included covers of Dolly Parton, Vampire Weekend and Adele. A song the band wrote from Johnny Cash’s trove of unpublished lyrics, “Chinky Pin Hill,” also made the cut. They ended the show with John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters.”
Their bluegrass suite in particular featured some polished playing, but showcased even more the band’s exquisite vocal harmonizing, nowhere more than on the evening’s most successful song, “Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan?” The same held for their encore, Joni Mitchell’s “Carey,” when each of them held down a verse and they shared the chorus, to great effect.
Ultimately, this is music in the tradition of artists like Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams. At a time when more people are worried about the direction of the country than at any point in decades, the show was an homage to things American, from places mapped through songs to stories told about the country’s history to musical genres. In one song there was even mention of apple pie.
It’s hard not to read the band’s name itself in the American register. Jarosz, O’Donovan and Watkins had been making music together for years before the Hillary Clinton campaign hit on “I’m With Her” for the 2016 presidential election. In that guise, the name had a short life, but this band, hopefully, will be around for a long time to come.
Reviewer Mark Long is professor of political science at the College of Charleston and curator-at-large and academic liaison at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.