It seems that in each generation of bluegrass, there comes a new reigning trio of powerful women. Like Dolly, Linda, and Emmylou before them, Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz, and Sara Watkins have come together as a new band: the aptly named I’m With Her. Each has made a name for herself as a solo artist, and in Watkins’ case, also as one-third of beloved trio Nickel Creek. They’ve collaborated with musicians such as Punch Brothers, Julian Lage, Chris Thile, and many others in the bluegrass-folk world. Their debut album, See You Around (out February 16 via Rounder Records), is a tapestry of gorgeous wordplay, femininity, and astounding musicianship.
I’m With Her graced Thalia Hall Friday night, at the very beginning of their first world tour. They were joined by Nashville artist Andrew Combs. Combs represents a part of Nashville music that often goes underappreciated – alt-country. Landing somewhere in between modern folk-country and a classic troubadour sound, his smooth vocals and suave stage presence made for the perfect way to open the night. His songs are dotted with figures from his life (often his wife) or fictional characters. Though he only came with an acoustic guitar, his sound filled the cavernous theatre and captivated the sold-out crowd.
When I’m With Her took the stage, it was to an enthusiastic welcome. They and their other bluegrass contemporaries are the kinds of musicians that garner loyal, generation-spanning fan-bases. Their audiences often know the women from their solo careers and collaborations with other members of the bluegrass community, and each show feels like you’re there with friends. It was my second time seeing them as a group, and my third or fourth time seeing each of them individually. These are familiar and comfortable musicians, who make you feel like you’re a part of their lives. They are also simply incredible musicians. Though they are only three, the stage was populated with at least seven instruments – multiple guitars, Watkins’ violin, a mandolin, a ukulele. All three women alternated instruments throughout the set. The album See You Around was co-written between the three of them, and it becomes so clear while watching them how tightly knit they are as a group. Their chemistry onstage is undeniable, and their writing is a testament to the strong bonds they have.
The group started their set with the title track from the album. It’s a beautiful, three-part harmony-laden song about moving on from a relationship. Sarah Jarosz took the lead, while Aoife and Sara provided backup harmonies. The three women came together for the chorus, singing in perfect tandem. For the rest of the show, they moved through the album, including a song originally written by guitarist Julian Lage, which they set lyrics to. It’s a slow and subtle 6/8 waltz, entitled “Ryland (Under The Apple Tree).” Aoife O’Donovan’s angelic voice soared through the theatre to an enraptured audience. In addition to their instruments, they alternated lead vocals. Each had different moments in the spotlight. They also covered a favorite of theirs, Tom Brosseau’s “Today Is a Bright New Day,” and a version of the recent Adele hit “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” It sounded like it was written for them. They possess a certain lightness to their performance, even when they’re singing songs with more gravitas. They’re such an incredible joy to watch perform, and it was clear at their departure from the stage that the crowd had no desire to leave.
When they’d finished their set, the applause lasted for a solid two minutes before they made their way back onstage. This time, they came up to a condenser mic at the front of the stage. As an encore, they performed the instrumental from their album and what was most likely an old spiritual. They left the stage again, only to return once more. This time, they sang what I knew they would: their a cappella, foot stomping, clapping number, “Be My Husband.” In pitch-perfect unison, they ended their beautiful set.