When Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan assembled to form an Americana all-star trio a few years ago, the name “Monsters of Folk” had already been claimed by an all-male supergroup. “Monsters of NPR” doesn’t really have the right ring to it, and avoiding “I’m With Keillor” proved to be wise, even though all three women were strongly associated with “Prairie Home Companion” and are now staples of its successor, “Live From Here.” They settled on I’m With Her, which was not without liability as a moniker, as the phrase was soon thereafter pilfered as a political mantra. That vague association is okay — I’m With Her’s show Monday at Los Angeles’ Teregram Ballroom did feel a bit like a rally, in favor of stunning female harmony singing and virtuosity.
Watkins wryly noted early in the show that the trio’s first album, “See You Around,” “was recorded a couple years ago… and came out a couple months ago.” The crowd chuckled, and no reason was given for the delay, though tour schedules and contracts seem likely culprits. Some music fans may remember that the last time an all-star team of female singers got together for a joint effort — Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, with “Trio II” — scheduling difficulties delayed the album’s release for five years, so by that standard, I’m With Her are well ahead of the game. This trio did some overseas dates and released a few cover songs in 2015, but they didn’t delay gratification too long for most of the initial dates on their first American tour to sell out in advance, like this L.A. show. Fans of their individual efforts know it’s arguably a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts situation. Since Jarosz’s last solo album won Grammys for folk album and American roots performance of the year, inasmuch as anyone can predict Grammys, it would seem like “See You Around” already has a leg up in those categories for 2019.
On tour, they aren’t reprising any of the three members’ solo songs, with the lone exception of O’Donovan’s “Hornets.” On top of a full run-through of the new album’s 12 tracks, Teragram attendees got seven cover picks, starting with Jim Croce’s “Walkin’ Back to Georgia,” continuing with John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters,” among others, and ending with Bill Monroe’s “Lord Lead Me On” and an additional encore of a song they don’t usually perform, Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband.” The covers weren’t all roots-focused: They made Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt” sound as gorgeous as anything in the hillbilly-folk tradition, and they also landed upon some Max Martin & Shellback goodness with a strictly acoustic rendition of “Send My Love (to Your New Lover).” They noted that a studio version of that track is currently available to stream, “so the money can go to someone who needs it more than us”; presumably they meant Spotify, although Watkins did additionally joke that Adele owes them a new car.
Seeing the show after hearing the record offered fans a better chance to figure out who sings what — if that even matters — since they blend or separate their voices so constantly within most of the songs, it becomes impossible even for a careful listener to keep track. That’s part of the moment-to-moment sense of surprise of “See You Around,” which isn’t necessarily expected, since the trio format would seem to come with inherent limitations. Sometimes all three play acoustic guitars, though Watkins goes heavier on the fiddle and occasionally plays ukulele or fuzztone electric guitar, and Jarosz got some anticipatory whoops mid-show when she finally reached for the banjo. (The closing Nina Simone song was a cappella, except for some three-part boot-on-floor percussion.) How they mix up the vocal parts is even more varied and interesting. Go to the Genius lyrics site for “See You Around,” and you won’t see any of the usual lyrical annotation, but someone has gone to great length, via the use of notation and bold and italics, to point out whether one, two, or all three are singing on every line of every tune. In other words, they’re a harmony nerd’s dream.
When all three voices are going — hell, when just one or two are going — it’s bliss, but sometimes a nervous kind. The cover of “See You Around,” presumably shot somewhere in sunny California, makes the trio look like the gals of Haim, but it’s a visual misnomer. The album was recorded in wintry Vermont, and the mood of the material often reflects that. If they have a spirit animal as a group, it might be Gillian Welch, and in fact they cover a previously unrecorded song of Welch’s, “Hundred Miles,” as the one track on the new album they didn’t jointly write. There’s a Welch-and-Rawlings-like sense of literary portent in a number of the tracks, whether it involves dealing with married lovers in “Close It Down” or separation as painful as the breaking up of continents in “Pangaea.” Occasionally, though, things do get as sunny as that album cover — as in “Ain’t That Fine,” a statement that life is good enough, which Watkins (the local of the trio) said was inspired by the good vibes of her Echo Park home turf.
At least one member of I’m With Her has publicly bristled at their being called a “female supergroup” — presumably they can live with the “super” part, but the “female” tag seems reductive. There may be a good point there, but it’s worth appending the possibly patronizing gender tag in the service of pointing out just how rare and special all-female harmonizing is. In the past year, we’ve had terrific records in that narrow vein from sisters Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer and the faux sisters of Lucius. But as a trio, I’m With Her really up the ante, or mess with it, in fascinating ways — not always going for the soothing effect you might imagine, but harmonizing at an anxious, scattershot clip in “Game to Lose,” which feels much more like a rock song than something out of any of the participants’ bluegrass roots. Even within the pared-down structure I’m With Her has chosen, they’re with heterogeneity.
(Extra points for Watkins, a once and possibly future member of Nickel Creek, clocking in again as one of L.A. music’s VIPs. Monday’s I’m With Her local tour stop came just three nights after she spent the better part of three hours being an essential part of the house band at the Jerry Garcia tribute at the Theatre at Ace Hotel. There really should be a Grammy category for “plays well with others.”)