Joanna Newsom

by Brian Bartels

26 November 2006

It can be tasking to deconstruct Newsom's epic landscapes, yet you still find yourself listening, quiet, patient, like a child tired from playing all day. It's so rough, so soothing.

Joanna Newsom

13 Nov 2006: Webster Hall — New York, NY

Mondays. While many are content to treat the week’s beginning like the plague it is—going out for a quick bite after the sun goes down or staying home and dreaming of the weekend— I like to grab the day by the scruff of its neck and give it a good shake. And, in New York City, it’s not very hard. On any given evening, I can open an events guide, close my eyes, and drop my finger anywhere on the page. On this particular Monday night, one could see former Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard at the Bowery, Panic! At The Disco at Madison Square Garden’s Theater space, Modest Mouse in the first night of a six-show stint, legendary Czech politick-rockers Plastic People of the Universe at the Knit, Les Paul and his Trio at Iridium, the Cult at Irving Plaza, Emilie Simon and El Perro Del Mar and Governor at Joe’s Pub, Jeff Daniels at Birdland (the actor? awesome!), or the Raconteurs opening for Dylan (when I saw that show my heart skipped a beat).  So, the problem isn’t finding something to do as much as deciding what you’re willing to miss. But, even with all those options, I didn’t think twice: I skipped every one to see Joanna Newsom.

I’ve tried to physically express—with hand gestures, concentrated gazes, and tightened neck muscles—to anyone in earshot how important it is for them to hear Newsom. Articles written about this mid-twenties harpist cover every square inch of adjective. She’s a critical favorite, perhaps because, after hearing so many bands that sound exactly like one another, a unique entity like Newsom is instantly reviving. It can be tasking to deconstruct Newsom’s epic landscapes, yet, even when you feel the message growing cloudy, you still find yourself listening, quiet, patient, like a child tired from playing all day. It’s her voice: so rough, so soothing.

In a society where men dominate big-budget films and TV shows, professional sports, and, yes, the New York music scene on a Monday night, I find comfort in knowing that its hours are also possessed by a gilded banshee bound by nothing. Though she’s already released one critically acclaimed full-length album, she remains on the outskirts of music’s orb, her sound labeled “freak folk”—a moniker I’ve had difficulty accepting. Though necessary, it’s a lazy disservice to the artist to pigeonhole such ambitious sound.

This rainy New York Monday drew a full audience to Newsom’s late show. She didn’t arrive until just after eleven, the expanse of stage lights limited to four mauve spotlights standing above her massive, beautiful harp.  It doesn’t take long for Newsom to quiet her audience, soliciting the crowd’s attentiveness with the restrained urgency of “Bridges and Balloons.” In the few short years she’s been recording, her live vocals have matured immensely. There is a sensual control in her delivery, her wavy long brown hair cascading over her shoulders as the lyrics unfold, evoking that haunting, yet familiar, feeling. 

After playing two songs from her first album, Newsom introduced the next as a traditional Scottish tune, working into it up from a whisper. These three songs provided a fetching warm-up for what would follow: Newsom played her new album in its entirety. Ys’s five songs—recorded by Newsom with the help of Steve Albini, Van Dyke Parks, and Jim O’Rourke—last a daring 55-minutes and are as ambitious as they are epic. Instruments layering the journey ranged from an acoustic guitar to a banjo, an accordion, a saw, and my personal favorite—which was unfortunately underused—a glockenspiel. 

In a packed crowd of a little over one thousand, I stayed on the outskirts, a decision which complicated the sound. Background noise from inconsiderate bartenders echoed throughout the fringe; people shooshed each other; security guards laughed at the “shooshing” fans; and cash registers howled like obnoxious gnomes. All the while, Newsom continued to pluck the strings with conviction—an impressive sight to see. She played remarkably fast at times, and I was so unaccustomed to the harp that, from my distance, it sometimes seemed she was scratching at empty bits of air. The band provided only minimal support—it really is her show—and it was peculiar to see them stare in silence while she dug into extended solos.  As Newsom worked her fingers across the strings, she was nothing short of mesmerizing. Her elbows jerking out every now and again, she weaved her musical webs with passionate eloquence.

The walls of Webster Hall couldn’t have offered a more appropriate arena:  adorned with sea horses, whales, porpoises, sharks, starfish, and seashells, fiery moons, and half-moons, the wallpaper seemed an accompanying pictorial to her off-kilter tales. And people were swept into it: a girl standing next to me broke into sobs when Newsom started playing “Sadie” and the audience erupted into giant applause after every song.

And, as I watched Newsom’s cocooned lullabies unravel, I forgot all the other fun the paper had promised. I didn’t wish to be anywhere in New York other than there, where clouds crossed among whispering angels, and we all stood starbursting toward daylight.

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