Sarah Jarosz, a prodigy in the kind of music loosely called Americana, just last week released a new CD, Follow Me Down. She was in New York for three separate performances, the first at the Living Room. Overflow crowd.
She was here a few weeks ago, too, on a Friday night, near the end of the winter that never ended, during a terrific rain storm. It battered the city. With the wind blowing from every direction at the same time and the horizontal rain following suit, you had more trouble with your umbrella than Alice had with her croquet flamingo. All along the East Coast, the weather was tossing jets in the sky around like jacks, and eastbound tornados were touching down in the Appalachians like drunken sailors staggering from shore leave back toward the sea.
But the old folkie Tom Rush somehow made it down from Vermont, classical pianist Shai "Fingers of Fire" Wosner from upper West End Avenue, and the whole permanent cast of " A Prairie Home Companion" from the prairie -- to Town hall, for their annual regular appearance in New York. Oh, yes -- and Ms. Jarosz, just-now-20-year-old already-Grammy-nominated phenom from Texas, by way of the New England Conservatory of Music, where she just finished her sophomore year. She made it too. In fact they called on her at the last minute to take Mr. Rush's place, but then he made it, too, and a good time was -- under the smooth, soothing impressarioship of you-know-who, whose first name is as military as he isn't -- had by all.
Ms. Jarosz wasn't done. From Town Hall she went down to the Rockwood Ballroom, on Allen Street, with its bewildering double-stage, different-performer-every-hour format. "Oh, it must be Rockwood 2," a newcomer, soaked to the bone, with his umbrella a botched thoracic anatomy lesson, would say. Out the door, back in the rain, to II. "Jar-rose? [It's ja-ROSH, more or less.] You want Number 1," the drenched door minder would say to another arrive, holding another bunch of tatters and skewers. The Rockwood is one of those places where the performer stands no farther away from you than your Ping-Pong opponent does. It was Sardinia in there -- packed -- a testimony to the vibrancy of the Lower East Side's wonderfully passionate and variegated music scene in the face of a very bad barometer. The waitresses swam through the crowd with their Stella drafts like eels.
Ms. Jarosz had seemed a little nervous at PHC, but here -- omg, she was amazing. A Patti Griffin song, a Paul Simon song, a Gillian Welch song, "Look at Miss Ohio." ("I wanna do right/But not right now.") Ms. Jarosz also performed a some of her own music, from the new CD. She plays at least guitar, banjo -- has a clawhammer style that will put you in a shack at the head of a holler flirting with black lung in about five seconds -- and mandolin, the last with virtuosity. "Be careful how you bend me" go the lyrics of the chant-like Patti Griffin song, and you felt that it might be this impossibly young genius talking to the star world she's soon to enter. A conversation with her later strengthened that impression of caution.
From there it was down to the Bowery Ballroom, on Delancey Street, in a cab somehow stopped and bribed into wait time with a nice, fat, wet twenty. Up even closer, Ms. Jarosz' face looks like a lovely version of Little Lulu, a cultural referent that perfectly dates her companion in the cab. She corrected the companion's guess that "Jarosz" is Hungarian -- it's Polish. She went on to describe a course in Long-Term Harmonic Memory that she was taking at the conservatory. It was preaching to the somewhat uncomprehending,
At the BB, the Punch Brothers were playing, and Ms. Jarosz lugged some of her instruments upstairs to the greenroom, where Chris Thile, the Punch Bros.' leader and his cohort, were getting ready. "I'm George," one of the other Punch Brothers said to Ms. Jarosz's cab companion-now-porter.
Before she sat in with the band, at the end of their set, Ms. Jarosz came back downstairs and just stood there, in another full house, waiting for the Brothers and then listening to them. They have a proverbial cult following in the boroughs' nether regions and elsewhere. Mr. Thile started in a band called Nickel Creek, more or less sponsored by Alison Krauss. He is like a mad Gumby onstage, and the music they all play is tirelessly witty and inventive -- bluegrazz. Robert Hurwitz, the solid, chiseled-face President of Nonesuch Records, the group's label, walked in from the typhoon to listen. (Later he said, "I went up to the balcony during the performance, and for the first time in I don't know how long, I looked down and didn't see a single device that was turned on.")
In the later conversation referred to earlier, Ms. Jarosz elaborated on the course in Development of Long Term Harmonic Memory. It followed a course the previous year in Development of Long Term Melodic Memory. That much was comprehended, and also that the teacher, Ran Blake, instructs the students to memorize by ear, never by reading music, a new song for each class -- sometimes Stevie Wonder, sometimes Michael Jackson, often a student's own composition.
She also said that she hoped to make a living playing music, this acoustic kind of music. When asked what constituted a living -- what someone like star fiddler Stuart Duncan ("Cold Mountain" sound track) might make -- she said, "To be honest, I'm kind of curious myself." When asked if the conservatory/road-trip grind ever tempted her to just do the road trip, she said, "To be honest, I'd say definitely." It won't happen. Both of her parents are teachers. "With that being said," she added, "It's tempting, but I think I'll keep trying to do both." When asked about possible follow-questions, she said, "Can they go through my manager? Is that all right?" She was in the middle of final exams, it's true, and, after all, she is very young. Keep your eye on her. Start your eye with this: