THE GIG: Sarah Harmer
WHERE: The Great Hall, Toronto, ON, Canada
WHEN: 20 November 2010
IN ONE WORD: Polished
The first concert that I ever went to was at the Molson Amphitheatre on July 12th, 2001. I was 13 years old, watching the show with my dad because I was too young to hang out in Toronto without parental supervision. The Barenaked Ladies were the headliners, and Sarah Harmer, barely older than a teenager but still getting some serious radioplay at the time, was the opener.
Over the past nine years she’s done some growing up. Somewhere along the way she picked up the stage swagger and wardrobe of the lead singer of a globetrotting rock band. The show actually begins at the ticketed time, a real rarity for musical performances, so when I arrive on rockstar time (add at least 30 minutes to any show start time and you get rock star time) I’m 15 minutes late. The auditorium is dark except for a spotlight on the band. There are a few thousand people in the room, but somehow the room feels very intimate as if there it’s just you and Sarah. But that’s the affect that her music has on you- bittersweet as it is, and so honest it’s almost always enjoyed in the privacy of a midafternoon lull.
Is this why en route to the concert, as I bumped into familiar faces on the Saturday night subway, none of my friends seemed to know who Sarah Harmer was? In the crowd here at Massey Hall, I look around to see what kind of faces are in the crowd. Predominantly the crowd is mostly middle-aged, and they’re not all CBC radio types either, these people who have traveled from Windsor, Ontario and Oshawa to trade jokes with the artist between songs, and hang off the steel strings of her guitar.
If the performer was nervous about touring for the first album she’s released in five years, it doesn’t show. She spent the subsequent years after the release of 2005’s I’m A Mountain helping to found organization PERL (Protecting Escarpment Rural Land) to preserve a piece of the Niagara Escarpment at Mount Nemo, just outside of Burlington. To raise funds and awareness for the organization, Sarah and her band hiked their way along the Bruce trail, performing at venues along the way. Sarah is also associated with Canadian environmental action organization Environmental Defence, and copies of the organization’s petition to ban harmful chemicals such as lead from cosmetics are pressed into our hands as we leave the venue. The environmentalism isn’t wasted on me. I grew on Niagara Escarpment land, in the shadow of one of those quarries which gave Miss Harmer the “Escarpment Blues”. And the fact that cosmetics are made with chemicals that aren’t safe to be smearing all over our bodies is just another way that the cosmetic industry is failing women. I feel a woeful undertone in Sarah’s admission of writing sad songs, while wishing she could make people dance.
This album is much less sorrowful than the country and folk songs of the last though, and PERL is getting closer to saving Mount Nemo too. The sound on Oh Little Fire has come full circle back to the cheeky, rock-driven pop sound that made me fall for her on that balmy summer night under the amphitheatre 9 and half years ago. The acoustic guitar comes out for a few songs such as when Sarah and Julie Fader sing I’m A Mountain’s first single “The Ring”, but at least for now the artist seems to have put the folk singing aside.
Overall I was very impressed with the complete professionalism of Sarah’s performance. The little things she did, like starting the show on time, shows me that she cares a lot about the performance she puts on. She and her band performed flawless versions of tracks from her latest studio album and her voice and stage presence were both more commanding than I imagined they would be. So maybe its not without reason that Sarah’s name affects a bit of a legendary air amongst fans. Long live musical heroism in honesty.
© Natascha Malta, Music Vice