By Amber Schadewald and Sam Stander
TAKE ONE “Have you seen her before?” a spirited woman asked a random couple in the front row at Oakland’s Fox theater Monday night, just before the lights began to dim. “She’s a fucking angel.” And it’s hard to disagree. California’s own folk-harp-composing-wonder Joanna Newsom is a beautiful, beautiful being who produced a perfectly impressive evening with song after long song of feather-light melodies.
The show was lined with songs new and old, but consisted primarily of those from her February release, Have One On Me [Drag City, 2010]. Her fingers danced like tiny forest fairies across the towering collection of strings, creating surreal melodies that otherwise only exist in dream sequences and lands of happily ever after. Newsom’s whole face smiled as she played and I especially enjoyed watching her bright red lips as they took on various shapes; from large o’s that created airy open vowels to horizontal concoctions that produced Newsom’s classic, fluttering sounds. Her “new” voice, or what has developed after nodules were removed from her vocal chords last year, is gorgeous and full, yet hasn’t lost all the unique characteristics fans adore and non-fans despise.
The evening’s mini-orchestra was comprised of local musicians, hailing from Oakland and Alameda. Together they delivered flute melodies, trombone solos, tender violins, banjo, electric guitar and all kinds of funky lil’ sounds to fulfill Newsom’s intricate compositions. Closing my eyes, I saw all kinds of stereotypical soothing images: dolphins clearing the surf, dew drops on roses, whiskers on kittens….well, to say the least, I left the Fox feeling so content, you could’ve wrapped me up with a bow.
Angel? I’d say Ms. Newsom is more of a real-life Cinderella, hypnotizing all the forest critters with her organic harp and piano sounds, calling them to her like a pied-piper, but instead of making them clean her room, she puts them all into a deep, satisfying slumber. Ahhhhh. (Schadewald)
TAKE TWO Remember when Joanna Newsom was this weird dark-horse harp wunderkind with a challenging (some would say grating, others might say revelatory) singing style? That was eight years ago, believe it or not, and by most accounts the 28-year-old singer songwriter has since outrun the shadow of her perceived fey persona to establish herself as a formidable force in modern popular music. Her prodigious skill (which opener Robin Pecknold compared, oddly, to Einstein) was on display Monday 8/2 at Oakland’s Fox Theater, where she took the stage with a five-piece backing band and played a set featuring material from all three of her LPs.
The band set-up is necessary to convey the complexity of her more recent compositions, including bangers like “Emily,” the epic opening track from 2006’s Ys [Drag City], originally arranged by Van Dyke Parks but reduced for this group by multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi. Not so surprisingly, however, the most powerful sonic moments emanated from Newsom’s harp and voicebox. Sometimes, she reaches a kind of ecstatic energy where she is shout-singing some of her lyrics, hitting the odd notes that were more characteristic of her singing voice prior to her development of vocal cord nodules in 2009.
The other musicians provided texture throughout, but on certain numbers, the talented players especially stood out. Andrew Strain’s mournful trombone on “You and Me, Bess” complemented Newsom’s playing beautifully, while the Celtic-y fiddle from Mirabai Peart and Emily Packard added lushness to “Kingfisher.” Have One on Me highlight “Good Intentions Paving Company” was accompanied by “some Pecknolds and some Newsoms” who came out on stage and appeared to be tapping rhythm sticks or drum sticks together.
Newsom is a virtuoso harp player, but in keeping with the general diversification of her music on Ys and this year’s Have One on Me, she spent a lot of the show at the piano, switching off instruments roughly every other song. Her performance of “Inflammatory Writ,” which already features piano in its recorded form on The Milk-eyed Mender [Drag City, 2004], featured a country-inflected arrangement that may very well improve upon the classic album version. Other songs that benefited from live performance were Have One on Me opener “Easy,” on which the whole band just sounded smashingly good, and older track “Peach Plum Pear,” which closed the set before the encore. It’s a testament to Newsom’s development that her wailing intensity at the end of that song now far outstrips the force of the overdubbed choruses on the recording. Still one of her most strikingly beautiful compositions, both musically and lyrically, the track as performed Monday sounded like the closing song to a melancholy romantic film.
In contrast to the quasi-refined aesthetic of much of her music, Newsom brought Pecknold onstage for an encore of “Picture,” the boozy Kid Rock/Sheryl Crow (or Allison Moorer) duet. Perhaps those anticipating a collaboration on “On a Good Day,” a Newsom track that Pecknold covers, might have been disappointed, but the change in tone was both hilarious and well-executed. The auxiliary Pecknolds and Newsoms returned to the stage to snap in time and dance across the stage, before the close of the show was met with a second standing ovation.
Newsom’s novel-length songs might seem a tight fit for a riveting live show, but especially when juxtaposed with Pecknold’s lovely-sounding but formless songs in the opening act, the brilliant structure of her pieces kept the concert hurtling forward. If you’re the sort to dismiss Newsom’s harp-driven stylings as something quaint or merely trendy, seeing her live might persuade you otherwise, since this harpist is as exhilarating as any more conventional rocker or folkie you’ll encounter onstage anytime soon. (Stander)