As I was waiting for Joanna Newsom to take the stage at Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Tuesday night, a flock of young girls sat down next to me in the pew. While none of them seemed any older than about 10, they all looked the part of Newsom acolytes: braided hair, tie-dye t-shirts, wide-eyed excitement. Their mother explained that not only were they huge Newsom fans, they were also aspiring harpists. It was, admittedly, a somewhat peculiar sight, one that for a cynic might have served to reinforce Newsom’s reputation as a renaissance faire refugee and a magnet for the same. But to me, the troupe of pint-sized fans pointed toward something far less superficial. Through their eyes I saw Joanna Newsom as not just a talented songwriter and musical virtuoso but as something arguably more significant: a pop artist who serves as a role model for girls who aspire to be serious musicians.
Those aspiring musicians, however, have a lot to catch up to. On Tuesday night, Newsom displayed a mastery of her craft, simultaneously plucking out the slow, creeping bassline of “The Book of Right-On” with one hand and rapidly tickling the upper registers with the other, singing unwaveringly all the while. And while she didn’t seem to need much in the way of help, she received a noticeable assist from her excellent backing band, which included multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi, who wrote many of the arrangements that appear on her latest opus, Have One On Me. Working in tandem with the band, Newsom gradually brought songs like “Soft as Chalk” and “Good Intentions Paving Company” to life instrument by instrument, crafting lush soundscapes that teemed with minute details. And while there was no denying the new songs, “Monkey & Bear” from 2006’s Y’s just might have been the night’s highlight, with its dense wordplay, character-driven narrative and exquisite, itinerant melodies. Watching Newsom’s fingers run lithely across her harp’s strings, plucking out notes that reverberated off of the synagogue’s domed ceiling and throughout the cavernous space, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. Here’s hoping that those young harpists felt the same way.