SARAH HARMER at the Now Lounge, September 16. Tickets: free to contest winners. Attendance: 50. Rating: NNNN
as sarah harmer got set to perform, the NOW Lounge vibrated in a state of hushed reverence. Most of the 50-odd folk had fought hard to score tickets to the exclusive evening, a paradoxically intimate coffeehouse-concert-cum-international-webcast. The jarring camera-friendly lights casting a stark sterile glow over the small stage were the only reminder that the audience reached further than the chosen few seated at tables.
That intense glare was duly noted by the tiny dynamo up front, who quipped, "Welcome to the brightest show ever!" as she ambled forth to take her place on the riser, dwarfed by an acoustic guitar.
Harmer has been touring for over a year in support of last year's critically lauded You Were Here disc, and you had to wonder if those songs aren't getting a bit stale for her. Perhaps that's why she went back to her roots for this show, which relied heavily on material from the three album released by her former band Weeping Tile.
She kicked off the set with the cryptically political 1st Lady, which has been tweaked and expanded since its appearance as a brief interlude on Weeping Tile's Cold Snap album.
The new version (recorded for the Gas 2-disc compilation album, a benefit to raise legal funds for Quebec City protestors that dropped September 11) is a tight, ominous, harmonic-heavy number that's reminiscent of the title track on You Were Here.
The songs, sung solo, were enriched by Harmer's dusty drawl and Lucinda Williams-worthy vocal crack. A new, as yet untitled song -- written earlier this week -- was remarkably polished, with typically poetic moon-gazing lyrics.
Harmer sustained the quietly intense atmosphere throughout the 90-minute set. Whether introducing her brand new guitar ("I thought I'd bring it onstage to get it used to being in the spotlight!") or delivering a hearfelt -- if meandering -- speech on the importance of dealing with grief in the face of last week's disaster in New York, she captivated the crowd with her quirky earnestness.
It's too bad that her summer stadium tour opening for the Barenaked Ladies was, for many of Sarah's stateside fans, their only chance to experience Harmer in a live context.
The Kingston stylist's elegantly crafted acoustic tunes and stirring voice are best suited to much more intimate setting.