Sarah Jarosz was joined by her original co-conspirators on recording the studio version of Blue Heron Suite, Jefferson Hamer (on electric guitar) and Jeff Picker (on upright bass), to perform the entire suite live for the first time via Mandolin from The Bridge Studio in Brooklyn as part of a “World on the Screen” two-night event. The recording happened in New York in 2018, making a return to Brooklyn for this performance a particularly “full circle” experience for the three. The release of the album, Blue Heron Suite, was intentionally timed to May 7th to tie into Mother’s Day on May 9th, 2021, because the album was so largely inspired by Jarosz’s trips with her family to the Texas coast in her youth, and particularly by spending time with her mother there. The suite was original commissioned by the FreshGrass Foundation.
For Jarosz, it felt like a number of years had passed since 2018, but this was an opportunity to finally bring the full suite to fans, some of whom had heard the occasionally excerpt in live performance before. The trio also played some “oldies” from Jarosz’s earlier albums and some classic covers to close out the night. The performance was followed by a VIP Q&A session where Jarosz answered fan-submitted questions from across the country that took in the full sweep of her released work thus far.
The cycle of songs and instrumental movements had a series of recurring themes that extended to lyrical phrases and explored several sets of memories closely tied to a person (Jarosz’s mother) and a place (coastal Texas). Mood was not only evoked by focusing on certain instruments but by introducing a wide range of styles, particularly from Country, Folk, Blues, and Jazz music, but Rock was not always that far away, either, particularly due to the underlying structural element of the electric guitar. For that reason, the entire suite felt like a composition drawing attention to the qualities and potential of specific instruments and their ability to work together, but it also felt like a composition built of genres in a very intuitive and seamless way.
The six-song cycle, with musical interludes, was also sparing in lyrics and focused on gentle repetition to keep building a sense of recurring memories. The emotional arc of the storytelling was very clear, even as the suite encouraged the audience to piece together their own sense of narrative, moving from hopefulness to struggle, to reassurance, to a kind of trusting acceptance or wonder in the title track “Blue Heron”. Though Jarosz explained that the suite was inspired by a time in her life when her mother was going through chemo therapy, the suite works well as a more general reflection on natural beauty, companionship, connection, and uncertainty to reach out to audiences. For those who love string instruments, this was also an excellent showcase of range and styles for the upright bass, guitar, and electric guitar, with vocals used more like an accompanying instrument than as a dominant element in the suite.
During the “oldies” section of the performance, there was plenty of tradition behind playing Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” and her own adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee”, which has an almost Irish Folk theme to it and also called for Jarosz to bring in the banjo. “Ring Them Bells” was an interesting choice, a nod to Dylan’s upcoming 80th birthday, but also perhaps one that encourages and reminds of the need for unity among human beings in order to face any looming struggle. The rather fun, energetic, closing song was Dolly Parton’s “Why’d You Come In Here” which served to celebrate Country elements while also proving yet again how adaptable and modern Parton’s songs continue to feel due to their anchoring emotional core.
For those who joined the VIP Q&A session, there was plenty to learn about Jarosz’s views of her earlier work and also to hear from continuing performances by livestream. There was an in-depth discussion of the song “Johnny” from Jarosz’s latest album World on the Ground, a song which was partly inspired by the life of her grandfather, but taking the character’s name from Appalachian Folk tunes.
When Jarosz was asked what the best advice she’s received in music has been, she usefully passed on Tim O’Brien’s mantra during a workshop, which was to leave instruments out of their cases when at home from touring. That way you are much more likely to continue playing while at home, and Jarosz could confirm that thought has helped her out a lot.
A really charming performance included in the Q&A was “Up in the Clouds”, roping in Jeff Picker on bass. The song was written for NPR’s “Morning Edition” when Jarosz was asked to create something that reflected her pandemic year experience. The song takes in rather giant themes of life and death in a simple and unaffected way, placing life lived “up in the clouds” mentally and taking one’s place in the earth in death alongside the coffee cups of daily life. Details about feeling the need to learn something new with spare time and “get…loose ends tied” rings very true to 2020 and 2021.
Jarosz also performed earlier works, “Little Song” and “I Can’t Love You Now” and commented on how she feels about them now, though it was “Edge of a Dream,” inspired by some of her mother’s lyrics that has been the most transformational for her. The song was written when she was a teen and refers to being a lady at 18, but her mother’s original lyrics referenced being 30. Now, as she approaches her 30th birthday, she sees the song in new ways that continue to endure.
Asked about whether it’s difficult to play emotional songs from the past, Jarosz spoke about playing Blue Heron Suite and revisiting those times. But she feels that if she is “moved” now when playing something about the past, she did something “right” when composing the piece, since she wants audiences to be moved too. She commented that her goal is to “be as genuine and honest as possible as a creative person” and that she also loves to “make old songs new again”.
If you’re curious about Jarosz’s songwriting process, she enlightened the audience by explaining that while her methods vary, most of the time she composes music and develops it and also writes lyrics and collects them, with both activities happening separately. Matching melodies to lyrics will be something that she does at a later time when she “sifts back through them” a few months later, approaching a song “like a puzzle” to be assembled. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t occasionally have her “lucky moments” where it all comes together “at once” but she feels that’s a product of “paying attention” and collecting ideas all along.
Both Sarah Jarosz’s previous Mandolin livestream concert and the Blue Heron Suite performance continue to be available for viewing until May 23rd.