If playing the last show of a month-long West Coast tour had Sarah Jarosz feeling worn out, she hid it well Friday night at the Tractor Tavern.
Jarosz was effervescent as her talented roots trio delighted the sold-out room with a choice blend of sublime bluegrass skill and Jarosz’s mature ear for songwriting. And it seems that many of Jarosz’s peers—the Grammy-nominated singer and multi-instrumentalist is just 22—were interested in seeing her play, as there were plenty of younger people to balance out the decidedly older crowd.
Young and old alike whooped and hollered for Jarosz as she launched into her first number, “Annabelle Lee,” from 2011’s “Follow Me Down.” The raucous crowd would maintain its enthusiasm all night long as Jarosz and bandmates Nathaniel Smith (cello) and Alex Hargreaves (fiddle) burned through a blazing hour and a half long set.
There were plenty of new songs, like the title track from “Build Me Up From Bones,” released last year. That song in particular highlighted Jarosz’s songwriting prowess: “The moon’s a fingernail/scratching on the back/of the night in which we lay beside.”
Jarosz put her band through its paces with a few highly enjoyable instrumentals including John Hartford’s “Squirrel Hunters” that featured plunging fiddle runs and triumphant, electrifying interplay between all three members. “These cats are young, but they sure can play,” seemed to be the general audience consensus.
A couple of Bob Dylan covers made their way into the show, and while “Simple Twist of Fate” offered a unique take on the classic 1970s-era Dylan song, it was “Ring Them Bells” that made the lasting impression. Featured on “Follow Me Down,” Jarosz gave the song a refined alt-country vibe and highlighted the wonderful melody in a way Dylan never could hope to.
“Mile on the Moon” continued the songwriter vibe and it was one of a handful of songs that sounded like they’d be right at home on Sub Pop, not Sugar Hill. It indicated that if she wants it, Jarosz has plenty of crossover appeal.
Still, Jarosz is best described as a bluegrass artist. Call her newgrass if that makes you feel better, but she’s firmly planted in the roots scene . . . for now. But there’s plenty of hope for people that want to see Jarosz have some crossover success. She’s got an engaging voice but more importantly, she plays with the experience and confidence of someone in their 40s.
Never was this more apparent than on the Tom Waits song “Come On Up to the House,” which she used to close the show. Waits’ version is plodding and growly (did you expect something else?) but Jarosz infused cheery life into the song and made it seem like a celebration.
It was a fitting end to a show that did nothing but confirm what fans of roots music already knew: Sarah Jarosz is for real and she’s going to be around for a long, long time.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails