concert reviews

Sarah Harmer at the Birchmere, Alexandria, VA, Saturday 17 April 2004

Folk singers seem unable to perform a song without telling its story first, and Sarah Harmer was no exception during her show Saturday at the Birchmere. She chatted with the audience about almost every tune, explaining that one song was about a certain person she tried to avoid ("Around This Corner") and another about an awkward phone call she received ("Greeting Card Aisle"). Regardless of unhappy back stories, she disguised any trace of melancholy behind upbeat melodies, jangly chords and a wide smile.

Harmer played three songs solo in the middle of her set but for the most part was joined by a four-piece band, whose expert instrumentations and gorgeous harmonies kept her tunes from the trap into which so many other folk singers fall. In particular, keyboardist Julie MacDonald's singing blended so smoothly with Harmer's that at times they seemed to form one single voice that split itself into perfect intervals. MacDonald also played flute; on "Tether," the wind instrument pushed the melody into a new dimension, tying the whole song together with her breath.

Harmer performed almost every song from her latest album, "All of Our Names," to a warm response, but the audience seemed more familiar with the tunes from her previous release, 2000's "You Were Here," which she played with a freshness that allowed the set to flow seamlessly from old to new.

Opener Hayden played a relaxed but rather monotonous 40-minute set that included "Trees Lounge," the track he penned for Steve Buscemi's 1996 film of the same name.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post, 19 April 2004
.: Selected discography: All of Our Names (Sarah Harmer, 2004); You Were Here (Sarah Harmer, 2000).