Two decades ago one of my all-time favorite albums was released: “You Were Here” by Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer. It’s home to the single “Basement Apt.” which I still hear on the radio. There are 11 other tracks on the record, all of them damn near perfect, especially “The Hideout,” “Don’t Get Your Back Up” and “Lodestar.”
Four years later came “All of Our Names” with the tracks “Almost,” “Greeting Card Aisle,” and “Silver Road.” Another stellar release if ever there was one. “I’m a Mountain” was released in 2005 and then “Oh Little Fire” in 2010. It’s also worth noting her debut album “Songs for Clem” from 1999. Harmer also started the band Weeping Tile in the early 90s and that’s a rabbit hole well worth your time.
After “Oh Little Fire,” all was quiet on the Harmer front, at least in terms of putting out new music other than a few rogue singles. That ended on February 21 with the release of her first album in a decade “Are You Gone.” The album is stupendous but hold that thought for a second as I fill in a few blanks.
A press release revealed that Harmer has been quite busy over the past decade as a grassroots organizer. She co-founded the citizen’s organization PERL (Protecting Escarpment Rural Land) and led the coalition’s successful efforts to prevent a quarry from being built on the Niagara escarpment while also becoming a fixture in local politics and advocacy. In other words, she became a different kind of rock star and is a huge environmentalist. Like I needed another reason to love her!
I also learned that Harmer considers “Are You Gone” to be a “spiritual successor of sorts” to “You Were Here” and that the album’s title is a “meditation on the idea idea of presence, and a bookend to the questions posed on ‘You Were Here.” Harmer wrote the tracks for “Are You Gone” over the past ten years.
But I will say I’ve missed Harmer, despite the deep appreciation for her previous albums. I’ve wondered on and off for the past decade if she’d head back into the studio but knew that even if she never recorded another thing she’d always be a favorite artist and that I’d always be thankful that I got to see her play live a few times, with the last time being in the fall of 2010 when she played a show at Port City Music Hall in Portland, Maine. Heck I even interviewed her back then for the Portland Press Herald. And I reviewed her show at The Big Easy, also in Portland, way back in April of 2004 when she was touring for “All of our Names”. That review is longer online but I found an old copy and it included these lines:
“Her voice is as crisp as line-dried sheets and clear as a dinner bell calling people into the interior of her thoughts: “Intensity of stars reflected in the water silently ignite, the oar dips in to oil like water and we are away,” from “Lodestar,” is but one example from “You were Here.”
This all brings me to Sunday night, March 1, 2020. Sarah Harmer played what appeared to be a sold-out (or very close to one) show at City Winery in Boston. After an opening set from Chris Pureka (she’s fantastic, check her out and thank me later), Harmer and her band played an 18-song set which included eight songs from “You Are Gone” along with the Weeping Tile one “In the Road,” “Greeting Card Aisle” from “All Of Our Names,” “Late Bloomer” from “Oh Little Fire” and four from “You Were Here” including “Basement Apt.” and another favorite of mine called “Don’t Get Your Back Up.”
Harmer was backed by a guitarist, keys player, drummer and bassist and my attempt at scribbling down their names when she introduced them was unsuccessful. But wow, they were fantastic and it didn’t hurt one bit that there were woman on keys and drums.
Harmer’s voice is as mesmerizing as ever and the decade that has passed since I last saw her live evaporated from the second the took the stage. Hers is a voice that exudes warmth but is also rife with feeling . You just want to keep listening to whatever she’s singing. But the vocals are only part of the story because lyrically, Harmer’s quite frankly the bomb.
Take the album’s first single “St. Peter’s Bay,” (which was the 7th song of the Boston show). Another press release offered the backstory and described the song as a “cinematic love-letter to wilderness and the depth of human feeling with a surprising backstory. “I wrote St. Peter’s Bay on the plane to Prince Edward Island for a Hockey Day in Canada theatre show, but the hockey part is only a prompt. The song is about the end of a relationship, set against the frozen shoreline of Lake Ontario. I thought what better way to start the record that with black and white pioneer era sound, and a tale of love burning down to its final ember” is what Harmer said about it.
Here’s a few lines from “St. Peter’s Bay:”
“Every little crack in the ice seemed to be enough to make you think you might go under/So stay to the shore and wander some more and reconsider every direction/The ice out is black/Only thing looking back…is my own reflection.”
Another tremendous -perhaps my favorite- track from “Are You Gone” is “The Lookout,”which was part of the Boston performance. A piano is the first sound you hear and then Harmer starts with “Wake up every day I wonder what you’re thinkin’ about the weather/Later in the night I wonder if it’s ever gonna clear/If it’s raining here I hope that you’re not doing any better/I heard it on the wind from place that I’ve been and won’t go back to/It rattled the lock on an old thought that I was attached to.” From that moment on, the tempo picks up, dips back down again and flourishes along a path lined with Harmer’s bittersweet words. Goddamn great song right there.
Then there’s the fire-breathing track “New Low,” which, IMHO, should for sure be the next single. Horns and drum beats land like punches and the fast-paced tune clocks in at two minutes and thirty nine seconds which were all the more ferocious and effective live.
The second to last song of the night is another “Are You Gone” track called “Little Frogs,” a free-spirited, lively tune that packs Harmer packs so much into in under three minutes of alt.country glory.
The Boston show ended on a full-circle note was Harmer reminded so many of us why we were such huge fans in the first place: “Basement Apt.”
I gotta wash the sheets on my bed
Gotta watch the things that go unsaid
God I wish we’d leave it at this
Everytime I breathe
Everytime I time I try to leave
Everytime I breathe
Pure gold my friends, pure gold.
So hey, go get yourself a copy of “Are You Gone.” I bought it on vinyl at the Boston show and when Harmer eventually makes her way back to Maine, I’ll be the nerd with the sharpie awkwardly hanging around all starry-eyed.
I’m gonna stick the landing on this thing with ALL CAPS because my excitement is real and “Are You Gone” is certainly worthy.
WELCOME BACK, SARAH HARMER!