There was a quality of romantic anticipation hovering over the Cistern on Saturday night as a steady stream of visitors filed through the arched entryways for an I’m With Her performance. Attendees grabbed a chilled drink and settled into seats or onto blankets on the periphery, and moths floated lazily in the stage lighting that left the columned Randolph Hall awash in color. The stage was set with various stringed instruments within arm’s reach of the band’s mics, indicating that a multi-instrumental display of talent lay ahead.
The I’m With Her trio, consisting of Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz, appeared promptly at 9 p.m. and opened with a simple greeting followed immediately by the gentle crooning of “Call My Name.” Pure coincidence, perhaps, that the show began with the lyrics “Bead of sweat runnin’ down my neck / I can wipe it away, but I feel it yet.”
The night was warm and humid, as expected, but certainly not unbearable considering the hour. Weather aside, “Call My Name” is concerned with a lover’s devotion and felt like a promise from band to audience that the show had something special to offer. Their perfectly harmonized voices, a hallmark for which they may be best known, rang clearly across the oak-dappled venue.
A couple of tracks later, a small sound equipment malfunction led to a pop in the mic mid-”See You Around” which was minimal, fixed, and recovered from effortlessly. Watkins, not missing a beat, used the opportunity to joke with the audience about sticky situations and “cautionary tales” as a lead into the eerie rhythms of “Wild One.” “Don’t cross over / Don’t get yourself undone / Don’t cross over / The other side is a wild one,” they warned in perfect harmony.
A surefire highlight of the night was hearing “Chinky Pin Hill,” the band’s contribution to Johnny Cash: Forever Words, a collection of songs inspired by Cash’s unpublished poems. Other contributors to the album include folk and country giants like Alison Krauss and Willie Nelson. Jarosz shared her recollections with the audience on participating in the Forever Words project: “We thumbed through [the poems] and found ‘Chinky Pin Hill.’ Then we pulled out the banjo, and it immediately became creepy,” she laughed. “This is the perfect song for a hot summer night.” With hauntingly beautiful strings, poignant lyrics, and complex banjo picking, the song is an enchanting homage to the spirit of the late legend.
I’m With Her’s performance was an emotional rollercoaster filled with moments both sad and sweet followed by twangy sass and laughter. The audience delighted in the band’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “He’s Gonna Marry Me” and was left enraptured by the vocal dexterity heard in Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).”
They covered Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt” — a band that they bonded over in their beginnings as a group. “We saw a bunch of bats flying around earlier,” they said. “Maybe it’s because they wanted to hear a song by Vampire Weekend.” The song gave Watkins a chance to show off her mastery of the fiddle, inciting the audience into unanimous whoops of approval.
I’m With Her loves to tip their hats to the music they love, but their covers embody the trio’s signature style so well that they hit the ears with a fresh sound. Covers were well-balanced throughout the show with originals from their latest album, See You Around. They even threw in one of Watkins’ solo originals — a nostalgic, affectionate ode to the memory of someone who is now absent. “There are a lot of memories of this town,” said Watkins of Charleston before the song began. “Most are good, but some of them are those make-you-stronger moments.”
When the group concluded just before 10:30 p.m., most of the audience began to file out as though there were no expectation of an encore. However, I’m With Her quickly returned to the stage to close and the throng of people backtracked to hear the last hurrah of the night. O’Donovan belted out the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” and left the crowd cheering with approval, an energetic end to a heartfelt evening with a rare and beautifully matched convergence of talent.