John Leventhal, Dave Speranza (bass), and Sarah Jarosz at the Cistern Yard during the First Citizens Bank Front Row series at Spoleto

Grade: A+

“I’m giddy. My face is going to hurt from smiling so much,” Sarah Jarosz told an equally happy audience gathered under the Cistern’s oaks Sunday night for the first of her two Spoleto USA performances. 

It was the singer-songwriter’s first live performance in 15 months, and smile she did. So, too, did the evening’s temperature – a giddy 60-some degrees, like a palpable grin spreading across the Lowcountry on Memorial Day eve, making a perfect setting for Jarosz-style magic.

Jarosz turned 30 years old just last week, “a day before Dylan turned 80,” she shared as she introduced a Dylan cover toward the end of the set. But she performs with a gravitas well beyond her years. Her instrumental prowess on guitar, mandolin and banjo is matched only by the soaring instrument of her voice — strong and clear — which danced across the cool night air like nobody’s business. It’s hard to decide what to love most about the versatile artist: her evocative lyrics, her stunning virtuosity, or simply the non-plussed way she takes the stage and doesn’t hold back. No pretense, just sheer talent. 

Accompanied by a full band including Jon Leventhal on guitar and keyboard, the multi-instrumentalist and “musician’s musician” who produced Jarosz’s Grammy-winning World on the Ground, Jarosz opened with a defiant “Pay it No Mind” and rolled into a set that included most of the heavy-hitters from World, her Americana album released almost exactly one year ago. 

“This is like a belated debut, the first time we’ve gotten to perform these tunes,” said Jarosz, noting that the pandemic shut down the album’s tour. “Johnny,” in particular, showcased Jarosz’s stronger turn toward storytelling on this album, while “Orange and Black” demonstrated her for gift with a catchy chorus. 

But it was a raucous “Annabelle Lee,” an older tune, where the band’s tightness and Jarosz’s stellar banjo picking gathered full energy. Her searing solo cover of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was near perfection, leaving the audience, or me at least, sure that I’d indeed found what I was looking for. Music to sooth over any remaining rough edges from a bruising year. A dazzling voice to transport us to a glorious, giddy place.

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