Concert Review: Sarah Harmer at Whistling Gardens

We almost didn’t go.

We hadn’t purchased tickets to see Sarah Harmer at Whistling Gardens prior to our vacation, and, well, after the break-in and the massive amount of rebuilding we needed to do, it just didn’t seem to be in the cards.  We’d canceled five planned concerts in New Jersey, Portland, Denver, and New York City because of all the time and money we needed to put our lives back together again.  You don’t really think about how much time it takes to get money from your homeowner’s insurance company, but while you wait weeks and weeks for the check, you still have to replace furniture and repair windows and buy new clothes — and install an excessive amount of security features so that it never happens again.

But then we found we had enough Marriott points for a free hotel stay, and we realized that we’d been so immersed in the darkness following the break-in that we needed a bit of distance from it to reset.  And what better way to nourish your soul than a Sarah Harmer concert under the stars?

It was a perfect evening.  Even though the forecast called for possible storms in Wilsonville, Ontario, the sky was dotted with only fluffy white clouds as we arrived at Whistling Gardens.  After ticket exchanges and hand stamps, we were ushered through the gardens to wine tents and the rows of chairs lined up to face a tiered section on which Sarah and her band would be playing.

Because it was a last-minute trip, we missed out on VIP tickets, which would have allowed us into the first four rows of seats, but we were content just to be there (despite very tall men with hats sitting in front of us).  The setting sun to our left posed the biggest problem of the night, for it hadn’t dropped low enough behind the trees by the time Sarah took the stage, and many of us had to shield our eyes with our hands for the first three songs before it set.

The first set was full of the classics, like “The Hideout” and “Don’t Get Your Back Up,” and a few tunes from Sarah’s last album, “Oh Little Fire.”  She also played a song called “St Peter’s Bay,” which might be new to folks who haven’t seen her in concert over the past several years, but it’s one we’ve heard at every show since 2012.  Each time I hear it, I feel like she’s been tinkering with it, making it better and better.  I keep hoping she’ll finally lay that track down (along with the two songs she sang at the 2013 Holiday Rock Show in Kingston that have haunted me with their beauty ever since).  Hint, hint, Sar.

If you’ve seen Sarah perform before, then you know that she’s always on point; I’ve never left a Harmer show even remotely disappointed.  Not only was Sarah’s performance excellent, but damn, the sound was absolutely perfect that evening.  I’ve attended a lot of outdoor shows, and sometimes you expect the sound to be a bit muddy, but I can’t even say I’ve ever attended an indoor show with such good acoustics.  After spending the past year at shows ranging from small basement concerts in rural Connecticut to sold-out performances at Terminal 5 in NYC, I’ve grown accustomed to sub-par sound.  Even the best venues can’t seem to get it right.  But the vocals were so crystal clear that it was almost like listening to a CD.

And the banter between songs?  Primo.  Sarah’s always one to chat a little with the crowd, sharing stories of how the songs came to be, but she had more funny quips than usual that evening.

By the time the intermission ended, it was dusky and we’d moved to a set of unclaimed VIP seats for a better view.  Unfortunately, intermission gave a rather large group of twentysomethings time to imbibe more, which led to them filling the rows behind us and talking loudly for the remainder of the show — well, until they decided to get up and dance in front of us.

I’ll never understand the desire to spend money to see someone perform live only to talk through their entire performance — but I can appreciate the need to get up and enjoy the music.  Most shows I see these days are general admission, and I’ve grown to love the feeling of being pressed to the rail, the excitement of hundreds or thousands of people surrounding you.  I walked away from a string of Sleater-Kinney shows in December bruised and battered (from being pressed into the rail, not from moshing — I’m old), but all the better for the experience of communing as a crowd, the culmination of such unfettered love and adoration for a band that spoke to so many of us.

The closest I’ve come to being bruised after a Sarah Harmer show was at the 2014 Rockin’ the Square concert in my home-away-from-home, Kingston, Ontario.  We were at the rail, and some overzealous teenagers and kids were slamming into us throughout the show.  But I have to say that was probably my favorite show of all: Sarah’s vocals had almost a tinge of those old Weeping Tile days, and the energy was palpable.  The midges were swirling through the air on that humid night, making a halo above Sarah’s head, and it was one of those moments of pure Kingston magic.

There were no midges at Whistling Gardens – not that I could see — but kildeer were swooping low over the crowd and through the stage lights, and they brought the magic with them.  And that magic crested during what has become one of my very favorite Harmer tunes, a song called “Just Get Here,” which was written for a documentary about Al Purdy.

I first heard “Just Get Here” at the 2015 Sandbanks New Waves Festival in Prince Edward County.  Rain had been threatening all day, but the skies opened halfway through AroarA’s set, and quickly the amphitheatre started filling with runoff and mud.  Everyone scurried to the one giant tent to huddle together and wait out the storm.  The skies cleared just in time for Sarah’s set, and even though we were soaked and covered in mud, everyone enjoyed the music under the stars.  “Just Get Here” moved me to tears with its beauty that night.  Who knows, maybe I was emotional from exhaustion (we had driven 6.5 hours from home that morning to be there) and being absolutely drenched and freezing, or maybe it was just the magic of that moment.

And the magic was recreated Saturday at Whistling Gardens — minus the torrential downpour.

When the encore came around, we all moved to the stone barrier and sang along to “Lodestar.”  It was the perfect ending to a concert under the stars, and then we all tripped our way through the darkness (Whistling Gardens: For real, get some path lights) to our cars, smiling and happy.

Soul nourished; mission accomplished.

[Apologies for the lack of photographs.  I usually bring my DSLR, and have captured some great shots of Sarah and her band at other events, but I left it at home this time and distance/darkness/stage lights are a nightmare combination for iPhone cameras. Instead, enjoy the videos, posted with permission from quietdictionary on YouTube.]