Live | Sarah Jarosz @ St. Barnabas Church, Oxford


The venue for the Jarosz’s concert in Oxford was St. Barnabas Church, a 160-year-old structure that looms on the edge the Oxford Canal. The Church was founded by Thomas Combe, and his wife Martha, notable names in the history of the Oxford University Press, as well as keen patrons of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. This was an apt location for the show, in part, because it’s a beautiful spaciously place to hear music that ranges from subtle to soaring. However, more important for me was that Sarah Jarosz’s song writing and performance shares several characteristics with the work of Pre-Raphaelites, thereby doing a musical kindness to institution’s founders.

Pre-Raphaelite art is known for its use of brilliant colours, and Sarah Jarosz’s use of colour in the lyrics the song with which the opened her encore, ‘Jacquline’, are evocative with phrases like “your dark and misty blue”, and “in your pillbox hat and bright pink dress”. This image made even bolder the cobalt blue backdrop behind the altar, and reflected the warm pink accent lights stationed Church’s columns. Maybe more abstract but more to the point, the strength and texture deployed by a mere trio of string instruments and two voices were just as brilliant and potent as the colours of the wildflowers in John Everett Millais’s Ophelia. Sarah and company opened with ‘Over the Edge’, ‘Green Lights’, ‘Build me up from Bones’, a tryptic of some of her better known songs that expertly demonstrate this potency. This charged the atmosphere for the rest of the concert during which Anthony Da Costa, guitar, was a man possessed. Throughout the show he expertly crafted solos, accents, and swells. Jeff Picker’s bass playing was similarly expert, but initially laconic. However, a mid-set mandolin (Jarosz) and bass interlude convinced him to elaborate a bit more to the audience’s satisfaction.

Ms. Jarosz seems to take great care in observing nature and expressing herself through its images – another tenet of the Pre-Raphaelite approach. She often blends such images with intimate memories, “Somewhere across the fresh-cut lawn, We’re running barefoot through the wet grass, nowhere to be until the dawn”. Even on the first day of winter’s bleakest month, the warmth of the moment when she sang this lyric was palpable. There were several moments throughout the show that felt this way, in particular, her cover of Linda Ronstadt’s ‘High Sierra’.

Lastly, the Pre-Raphaelites, like the Romantics before them, had a keen interest in self-determined inspiration. The steady, sturdy performance of ‘Comin’ Undone’ spoke directly to this point, overcoming the weight of the world by letting the “Song in my head [keep] me marching on”, was particularly welcome given the news in the world of late. Similarly, their cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Ring them Bells’ inspired a similar feeling.

To put all this another way, Sarah Jarosz’ concert was a breath of fresh air, well worth the patronage of a man at the top of Oxford University Press (Thomas Combe) or a lowly student (me) alike.

Words: Paul Kellner