Words By: Matthew Jaworski
Joanna Newsom :: 01.31.08 :: Brooklyn Academy of Music :: Brooklyn, NY
Many musicians evoke a love/hate response from listeners, but few, arguably, more so than harpist Joanna Newsom. Within the first few moments of hearing Newsom's unique amalgamation of folk, orchestral, jazz, and African tribal music, most people fall into one of two categories: those who immediately, angrily turn it off and those who can't imagine living without it. However, upon seeing her perform live, hardly anyone would deny that the 25-year-old Newsom is a masterful entertainer who skillfully captivates and engages her audience.
Newsom played two, distinctly different sets in the gorgeous Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). For the first set, she and her band, Ryan Francesconi (banjo, tambura) and Neal Morgan (drums, backing vocals), were joined by conductor Michael Christie and the Brooklyn Philharmonic to perform her most recent album, Ys, in its entirety. For the second set, philharmonic violinist Lila Sklar, who also contributed spectacular vocal harmonies throughout the night, joined Newsom and her band to play both older material, as well as a couple of new, untitled pieces.
As the orchestra sat patiently, Newsom, wearing a beautiful, long, black dress, took the stage looking like an opera singer, which complemented both the old opera house's ornate décor and her bandmates' jackets and ties. She took her seat, adjusted her massive harp, gave a nod to the conductor and gently plucked out the first notes of the epic "Emily." Newsom's warm, graceful voice resonated majestically through the hall as the ensemble joined in. Conductor Christie, intently focused on the harpist's agile hands, deftly steered the orchestra as Newsom pushed and pulled the tempo through the song's different moods and styles. Soaring strings blended seamlessly with swampy banjo, while earthy woodwinds churned amidst the stomping drums.
After an excellent version of the adult fairy tale "Monkey and Bear," the rest of the musicians stepped aside for Newsom to play "Sawdust and Diamonds." Her prodigious talent shined the brightest here as the rapt audience listened to only vocals and harp. Her earnest fingers flittered softly across the strings and produced a luscious, galloping drone. With no other instruments to distract, the audience could concentrate on her typically entrancing, pastoral lyrics. Magical lines like "It is terribly good to carry water and chop wood/ Streaked with soot, heavy booted and wild-eyed/ As I crash through the rafters and the ropes and pulleys trail after/ And the holiest belfry burns sky-high" bewitched listeners. The song ended with a whisper and the crowd rained thunderous applause onto the stage.
The final two songs of Set One, "Only Skin" and "Cosmia," highlighted the supporting band members' talents. Never taking the focus off Newsom, Francesconi and Morgan added tasteful, dynamic layers, and both exemplified the essential qualities of "serving the song." Morgan, in particular, was very impressive. Playing a sparse drum set (bass drum, floor tom, two cymbals and a tambourine) he switched between sticks, mallets, brushes and his bare hands multiple times within the same piece, coaxing the appropriate timbre that best suited each passage's varying mood. In the middle of "Only Skin," he subtly detached his bass drum pedal, tilted the bass drum towards him and started playing it with hands like a djembe, all the while laying down spot-on backing vocals.
After a brief setbreak, Newsom, now wearing a pink velvet dress, Francesconi, Morgan and Sklar returned to the stage. Throughout the second set, Newsom's voice was in fine form. Her trademark squeaks and yelps were still present, yet seemed more controlled and sturdy than on her albums. Likewise, a couple of songs received newer arrangements. Newsom played piano and harmonium, respectively, on the recorded versions of "Inflammatory Writ" and "Peach, Plumb, Pear." Live, Newsom stayed on the harp, while Francesconi filled in the spaces with tambura and Sklar supplied purring, delicate violin.
The set also featured two new untitled songs that were debuted on the band's recent tour in Australia. Newsom (after some pro-Barack Obama politicking) introduced the first new composition saying it's probably not finished yet and that it doesn't have a title. Morgan joked that it should be called "Barbara," a play on the fact that many of Newsom's song titles are women's names. The second new song closed the set with Newsom alone on stage. Both songs were excellent, and to these ears they certainly sounded finished.
For the encore, Newsom was joined by frequent collaborator Kevin Barker (Aden) on banjo for a solid rendition of the traditional "Same Old Man," most notably recorded by folk legend Karen Dalton. The lyrics felt right at home coming out of Newsom's mouth, and lines like, "New York City continues all alone," struck deeply. As the last note rang throughout the hall, the audience leapt to its feet and cheered wildly. The crowd stepped into the bitter, winter air, but felt only warmth thanks to Newsom's magical spell.
01.31.08 :: Brooklyn Academy of Music :: Brooklyn, NY
Set I: Emily, Monkey and Bear, Sawdust and Diamonds, Only Skin, Cosmia
Set II: Bridges and Balloons, Book of Right On, Colleen, Inflammatory Writ, new untitled song, Peach Plumb Pear, Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie, new untitled song
Encore: Same Old Man
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