This is a tale with two moving parts. First, a twenty-two year old young woman becomes so good, so fast…and delivers two sets of impeccable and improbable American roots music last night that it just might be as good as it gets. And for the second part of this story, she performs this magical musical feat at a simple house concert with two old friends from four years of summer music camp. Well, maybe not quite your usual house concert, but by description and definition a house concert nevertheless.
Katonah is officially classified as a hamlet, although the 1,679 residents prefer to call it a village. Located in New York about a good hour (without traffic) north of Manhattan, it’s the residential destination of more than several celebrities, has a private day school where Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau attended and was once home to Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill W. For such a relatively tiny space of incredibly beautiful countryside, they have three public schools, two private ones, a hardware store, an annual carnival, a parade and a Chili Night, which I suspect has little to do with the weather of late.
Of more importance to you and me, is that Katonah is home to Caramoor, the ninety-acre summer home and country estate purchased by Walter and Lucie Rosen in 1928. The rambling stucco home, which at 26,000 square feet is slightly larger than my apartment, took a decade to build and was filled with their vast collection of European and Asian art and furnishings. In 1945, the Rosens bequeathed the Caramoor estate and the contents as a center for music and art, in memory of their son who was killed in the second World War. The next year the Music Room was opened to the public for three summer concerts. Not just a beautiful venue surrounded by priceless art, this room is finely tuned for the most natural acoustical sound that has yet to grace these old ears. And from those intimate concerts that the Rosens shared with their friends when they lived there, it has “evolved into a non-profit foundation to serve the public as a venue for year-round concerts, and as an engaging learning environment for the more than 5,000 local school children who take part in Caramoor’s arts-in-education programs each year”. (From the Caramoor website.)
While some may imagine a program of strictly classical music, you might be surprised to know that they have been presenting an American Roots Music series, with concerts in the exquisitely appointed Music Room, and also outdoor in various settings and locations on the estate. With ninety acres, there’s room to breath and enjoy the landscaped grounds. Artists who have visited, or are planning to, include Emmylou Harris, Richard Thompson, Aoife O’Donovan, Del McCoury, the Stray Birds and Rosanne Cash…the latter will be headlining the annual American Roots Music Festival on June 28th, which is an all-day event.
Last night, which would be March 8th if I get this written and published before midnight, Sarah Jarosz performed to a sellout crowd. Showing poise, personality and professionalism that astound given her young age, she played songs drawn from her three albums and live EP, some favorites from friends and mentors Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, two Dylan covers and the Paul McCartney tune “On The Wings of A Nightingale” which was written for the Everly Brothers’ comeback concert in the 1980’s.
Accompanied by cellist Nathaniel “Old Smitty” Smith and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle (or violin…your choice), Sarah alternated between clawhammer banjo and guitar, but stayed mostly with the beautiful sounding octave mandolin. She handled all the lead vocals with a range and projection that reminded me of both Joni Mitchell and Nora Jones, with a sprinkle of Gillian Welch. Her melody lines, especially on songs from the new album Build Me Up From Bones, can be traced back to a bluegrass tradition, but also effortlessly slide back and forth to jazz and classical scales and modalities. (The pic here is from the Grammys this year.)
Born in Austin, she started learning mandolin at age ten, attended and graduated college at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and now calls New York her home. As we have come to expect these days at roots music concerts, whether in a home or a hall, the audience was mostly older…they could be her parents or more likely grandparents. I sat near a young couple who were friends of violinist Hargreaves, and they too were thinking the same thoughts as I: how do we fill the seats with younger people? While certain hubs from Portland to Brooklyn offer affordable and attractive options and scenes that cater to a more age-appropriate crowd, other genres such as jazz, classical and blues are also experiencing an audience that is turning grey. It is a challenge we face as the boomers go bust.
Those of you who read my posts know that I usually like to drop in music, and for this one I’ve found something special. Sarah and the guys did an NPR Tiny Desk Concert just a few months ago, and it captures much of what last night’s show offered. So here you go…and make sure you visit her website and continue to support live shows and buy some music. And here is the website for Caramoor too.