Canadian folk-pop musician Sarah Harmer entertained a small audience at the Ark last Sunday, introducing everyone into her world of back porch guitar strumming, life on the road and heartbreaks both large and small. The former singer of Canadian band Weeping Tile is currently on tour in support of her first solo album, You Were Here. Previously, she released a record that was “recorded on my back porch a couple of summers ago” called “Songs for Clem,” that consisted strictly of covers of her father”s favorite folk and country songs.
Those suspicious of the dreaded “women in music” tag need not be wary: We”re dealing with an actual musician here, not Jewel, the patron saint of Girl Music. Harmer is an experienced performer whose songs are both smart-alecky and powerful. While at times her jangly-pop inclination and occasional too-cute lyrics leaves one longing for a sound with more roots and less Lilith, Harmer is nevertheless captivating.
Gathered at the listening room was a small but enthusiastic crowd, built mostly by word of mouth. Actually, “enthusiastic” would be an understatement the audience, comprised of folks both young and old, was nearly foaming at the mouth with excitement. A group of six bragged that they had driven all the way from Indiana to see the show.
Watching Harmer and her backing band is a little like sitting in your living room watching close friends jam. She is engaging, quirky, and filled with a flustered humor, “I always forget if this song starts in C or D um, hang on a minute.”
Although Harmer is obviously a seasoned performer, her performances are refreshingly unpolished. The lyrics are matter-of-fact, treating all the subjects from songs about feeling lost in the crowd to a bluesy number about an abandoned houseplant with equal seriousness.
Harmer”s hour-and-a-half set was filled with the songs from her new album and heavily supplemented by covers. The amount of cover songs makes sense considering the material from her first album was classic folk and country music. Unfortunately, after hearing the music from You Were Here, the listener doesn”t really want to hear a Nancy Griffith song they want to hear what else Harmer is capable of. However, recognition of other artists” music is one defining feature of the culture of folk music, and Harmer chose excellent music. And of course, in the tradition of every self-respecting Canadian folkie, a Neil Young song was dutifully covered.
“Around This Corner,” spoke of seeing a potential lover on the street and deciding to “cover my heart so that you can”t hear it beat.” “Basement Apt.,” which Harmer herself describes as the most commercial song on the album, is guilty, Matchbox Twenty-style fun. You Were Here revealed the tendency of Harmer”s music to drag out a bit, but for the most part the set remained upbeat.
It must be noted that Harmer”s music performed live is much more fun than the canned sound of her album, which failed to capture all the nuances and intimacy of her work.
The bottom line is that no matter what one thinks of the sound of mainstream pop-tinged “folk” music, both the enthusiastic and the wary enjoyed Harmer”s set. Harmer is so interesting to watch because her audience feels that she is just like them, or someone they know well. It is this perception of familiarity that has earned her such an enthusiastic following, and Harmer”s greatest gift is her ability to unabashedly draw the listener into her world.