Sarah Beth Tomberlin has a way with words that worm their way into your heart, her understated melodies wearing grooves that gradually fill with the sediment of sentiments that you’ve hidden from yourself so well that you forgot you felt them until her tender voice and gentle guitar shook something loose.
With her second album, I Don’t Know Who Needs To Hear This… (Saddle Creek), Tomberlin’s songs are bolstered by a talented cast of players—including multi-instrumentalist Felix Walworth of Told Slant and guitarist Cass McCombs—who have an uncanny understanding of which sonic spaces to fill and which to hold open.
Over the course of her set at PhilaMOCA, newly joined by a full band that seemed completely in tune with one another, Tomberlin transported the record to the stage. Effortlessly shifting between instruments, each musician sounded indispensable, with Walworth’s intuitive drumming providing the pulse. From the emotionally naked “Easy” to the more ambivalent “Happy Accident” to the crystalline sing-along “idkwntht,” Tomberlin moved at a deliberate speed yet cast off every tune as a casual revelation.
Though the album is lovely as it is, deliciously sad in some places and undeniably hopeful in others, the inspired, richly textured and thoroughly human performance reflected both the messy episodes that our memories have eroded into safe little recaps of the romantic tragedies that have led us to where we are now, as well as the sparks of levity that all too easily get lost in the heavy family histories we carry with us everywhere we go.
Jana Horn, accompanied by Jonathan Horne, opened the show with a set of puzzling-yet-absorbing songs from her first full-length, Optimism (No Quarter). The best of these, “Jordan,” rewarded listeners who leaned in to revel in the mystery of it all.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich