Future of bluegrass

Sarah Jarosz leads young trio of acoustic hotshots at Big Room

Sarah Jarosz’s trio, featuring Nathanial Smith on cello (right) and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle.

Sarah Jarosz’s trio, featuring Nathanial Smith on cello (right) and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle.

Photos By Alan Sheckter

Sarah Jarosz, Wednesday, June 8, at Sierra Nevada Big Room.

Finger-picking and singing her way through a diverse set of progressive indie-folk music, bright-eyed Sarah Jarosz and her two band mates captivated Chico during a sold-out show in the Sierra Nevada Brewery’s Big Room on June 8. The precocious 20-year-old was poised and proficient as she laid out a 17-song acoustic stream of consciousness that included plenty of material from her just-released sophomore effort, Follow Me Down (currently No. 3 on the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart), along with some earlier material and Bob Dylan and Tom Waits covers to boot.

At the outset, one couldn’t help to think, “Hey, they are good for their age.” After about five minutes it was obvious that, “They are good—period.”

Deftly switching between guitar, mandolin and clawhammer banjo, Jarosz led a trio that included the prodigious Nathaniel Smith on cello and Alex Hargreaves, who spent his early childhood in Chico, on the fiddle. The young trio’s cumulative age is under 60.

An Austin, Texas-area native and now a New England Conservatory music student, Jarosz has been soaking up rootsy Americana music for half her life. But where you or I might simply listen to the recordings, Jarosz has been privileged enough—and worthy enough—to gain experience sharing the stage and studio time with the likes of Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, Shawn Colvin, Vince Gill, Darrell Scott and more. In its own way, each of these collaborations has found its way into Jarosz’s musical worldview.

Some songs were reminiscent of Colvin or Gillian Welch, others had a Nickel Creek flavor, and others, like “Come Around” and “Old Smitty,” visited Fleck’s improvisational territory. One gets the feeling that the band could devote a whole show to any of these styles, but the very supportive audience instead got excellent small helpings of several styles.

On the genteel ballad “My Muse,” Jarosz’s croonings melded perfectly with Smith’s cello pickings and Hargreaves’ slow draws on the fiddle. The instrumental “Mansinneedof,” which showcased Jarosz’s mandolin aptitude, was reminiscent of Nickel Creek. The set also included a lovely solo rendition of “Gypsy,” which was inspired by an anonymous woman on a subway; as well as Bob Dylan’s 1989 spiritual ballad, “Ring Them Bells.”

“Broussard’s Lament” provided a touching look back at Hurricane Katrina, as Jarosz sang, “They told us Thursday they would come; they told us Friday they would come; Saturday came and still the dying lived on.”

Mature as she is, Jarosz, who appeared with her hair tied back and wearing a tasteful black dress and brown boots, is still refreshingly youthful. Most of her between-song banter included anecdotes about the songs themselves, but at one point she spoke of a nearby place that caught her eye on the way to the show. “I think me and Alex will have our first visit to In-N-Out Burger,” she admitted with a sheepish smile. “I’ve heard tales about it. I’m pretty stoked for that.”

Jarosz and her band closed the set with a rousing, sing-along version of Waits’ uplifting “Come on Up to the House.” And for the first encore, they paid homage to newgrass luminary Tim O’Brien, who played the Big Room two weeks prior, with the instrumental “Land’s End.”

The evening kicked off with a set of soft acoustic numbers by Chris Webster (of noted Sacramento party band Mumbo Gumbo) and Nina Gerber (Kate Wolf, many others). With Webster providing beautiful vocals, and Gerber answering with just-right guitar accompaniments, the duo ran through such classics as “Bye Bye Blackbird,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo,” and a sweet instrumental version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”