The music industry is and always has been inherently jaded. It seems that most audiences need something either wildly out of the norm or blatantly terrible to jostle them out of their typical listening cycles. And then, there are acts like Tomberlin. These artists and bands serve as fascinating bright spots on the face of new music, using existing genre norms to form something pure, intense and brutally honest that cuts to the core. Though unassuming at face value, these acts hold a veiled power that comes through in every song. At Ann Arbor’s own Blind Pig on Sunday night, Tomberlin stunned the crowd with this very candor, seizing their attention completely for a fleeting hour.
Tomberlin, the moniker of lead singer and writer Sarah Beth Tomberlin, performs with only a guitarist and keyboardist — a spare ensemble that works to enhance the pure emotion of her music. Sunday’s performance was a date on her first tour supporting alternative rocker Mirah.
“I am so excited to be touring for the first time,” she giggled at the beginning of her set. While Tomberlin may be green, her intensity is old, evident in songs from her debut album At Weddings that have been percolating since her high school years. Raised in southern Illinois by a minister father and homeschooled until the age of 16, the religious influences in her music are clear but not contrite — the only obvious similarities to hymns are Tomberlin’s piercing clarity and smooth choir-girl voice, which serve to carry emotionally-complex lyrics in a peaceful haze.
Tomberlin took the stage in black jeans, an oversized grey sweatshirt and her long blonde-brown hair pulled back in a large scrunchie, standing at the mic with the same calm I imagine she would have standing in line at the post office. She is obviously a natural performer, and it’s not because of any crazy stage antics — her presence speaks for itself, devoid of any glitter. Her gravitas silenced the sparse crowd at The Blind Pig on Sunday, while they settled into their seats anticipating the headliner. As soon as Sarah Beth Tomberlin’s mouth opened, everyone else’s closed. There’s a special kind of magic in her intonation: While her songs are beautiful and emotionally poignant, they cover bases that have been run a million times before — love, loss, tears, family struggle, confusion, life struggle. What makes Tomberlin’s music stand out is that incredible voice, and everything that seems to hide behind it. It seemed as if she was able to project every emotion at once through that club microphone, enhanced by the atmospheric guitar and synth of her modern arrangements.
Tomberlin effortlessly played through the entirety of At Weddings throughout her hour at The Blind Pig, leaving the audience slack-jawed with her quiet power. On songs like “Tornado” and “Any Other Way,” the songwriter’s voice soared and dropped with equal measure, all within the net of her beautifully plain presentation. She is an example of what pure talent can really do in a space where it is allowed to run free: In that sparsely populated club, under a slowly turning disco ball, Tomberlin was the brightest spark there.