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Sarah Jaffe treats Harlow’s to her smooth voice, sharp wit

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In a rustic jean jacket and laced up military-style boots, singer/songwriter and Dentin, TX native Sarah Jaffe took the stage at Harlow’s on Saturday night without introduction. Discretely arranging the mic, she cut through the chatter of the bar’s full house of patrons with the earthy croon of “Paul/The Body Wins,” sustaining heavy notes for seconds at a time.

The opening song was a two-parter of sorts, splitting seamlessly into a danceable second half, featuring looped vocals and a drum-machine beat. The electronic jolt, though an element largely absent in her most current album “Suburban Nature,” set the tone for the rest of her crisp, chest-pounding set.

Having successfully secured our attention with a solo performance, Jaffe introduced the rest of her band.

Using cloth-topped sticks resembling timpani mallets, drummer Jeff Ryan lent a tribal, galloping rhythm to Jaffe’s open-hearted performance. Keyboardist Scott Danbom added an airy, contemporary layer of sound to otherwise more straightforwardly country-inspired songs. Robert Gomez and Becki Howard subtly rounded out the band with backup guitar and elegant vocal harmonization.

Jaffe delivered heavy lyrics like those on the rough and stunning “Under” (sample lyric: “Ain’t nobody’s girl/ I ain’t nobody’s man”), off of the 2008 EP “Even Born Again,” with the same matter-of-fact style that she offered deadpan quips to the audience.

“Alright, goodnight,” Jaffe said one song into the performance, feigning what would have been the world’s shortest set.

“Thanks for letting me come to your open mic night,” she said later in mock self-deprecation.

As comfortable as she was with sarcasm, appeared equally enamored with sweetness. Within moments, the platinum-haired singer went from appearing darkly intense, peering coolly out of blue-green eyes highlighted by high-arching brows, to smiling widely in the wake of a joke, her eyes crinkling in glee.

Jaffe was notably energized during the band’s cover of the sunny Harry Nilsson song “Me and My Arrow,” softening her performance to honor the borrowed tune’s bouncy melody.

Audience members, apparently also fans of the early-’70s Nillson song, bellowed along to its chorus: “Me and my arrow/ straighter than narrow/ wherever we go, everyone knows/ it’s me and my arrow.”

A well-rounded performer, Jaffe seemed just as at home leaning languidly into the electro pop underpinnings of new track “When You Rest” as she did brooding through her murkier tracks. “Pull it together” the song’s lyrics instructs over a tauntingly slow beat.

Watching Jaffe perform is to feel as though you are in capable hands, happily going along for the ride knowing the performer is in full control of her lush musical talent. The tumbling phrasing and plucked melody of new track “Sucker for Your Marketing” kept the audience clinging to Jaffe’s every word.

Though clearly a natural singer, capable of hitting a range of notes with comforting effortlessness, Jaffe doesn’t rest on her vocal laurels. Rather, she gets creative in the way that she holds her mouth while singing, a practice that lends itself to an array of unique aural effects.

For instance, in order to produce the hollow, echoing pitch on “Under,” Jaffe held her lips in an oblong formation. With the jut of her chin, she produced the tighter, shimmery vocals of “When You Rest.”

Though attentive and cheerful in between Jaffe’s songs, the majority of night’s audience members appeared to be previously unacquainted with her work, barely batting an eye as the band broke into the chugging intro of its best known song and usual crowd favorite, wistful crooner “Clemetine.”

But if you looked closely enough, you could spy a small smattering of Jaffe-die-hards positioned directly in front of the singer, whispering every word and smiling warmly.

The night’s highlight came at the end of the performance as Jaffe and her audience harmonized in “church camp” fashion for closer ”Before You Go.” Having never performed in Sacramento before, Jaffe seemed at first uncertain that we would go for the proposed collaboration.

“I know we don’t know each other very well, but I’d like you to sing this last song with us,” she said.

One brave soul towards the back of the venue was the first to pipe up with a smooth singing voice, and the rest of the crowd followed suit. The audience’s repetition of a few lilting bars served as the ghostly backdrop for Jaffe’s delivery of the song’s wary lyrics: “My heart pretends not to know how it ends.”

From behind his kit, Ryan took photos of the audience-cum-choir, as swirling yellow stage lights illuminated us in brief flashes.

Noticeably moved by the crowd’s enthusiastic participation, Jaffe told the crowd its effort was the best she had seen all tour.

“You just beat out my hometown,” she said. 

For tour dates, visit Sarah Jaffe’s website.

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