Joanna Newsom: 18 March 2010 – New York

Joanna Newsom

“Playing in New York always makes me kind of nervous,” Joanna Newsom confessed halfway through her March 18 set at Town Hall. She had no reason to be; truly, the acclaimed singer, songwriter, and harpist was among friends — an audience of 1,500 devoted fans and admirers (including, reportedly, Lou Reed and longtime boyfriend/SNL personality Andy Samberg), captivated by her every move. During the quiet bits –opener “Jackrabbits”, say, with its yearning empty spaces — you could hear the venue door creak. When applause rang out, the appreciation was palpable and deeply sincere. “You’re fantastic!” shouted one zealous audience-member above the din. “What’s that?” said Newsom. “Play faster?”

The modesty is not, I suspect, just an act. Obscured by her colossal instrument, nervously chattering between tracks, Newsom seemed genuinely flattered that we like her — we really like her — and without a hint of ego. Dutifully, graciously, she introduced her stage musicians one by one, and the credit was well earned. To hear Have One on Me is to marvel at the most intimate and expansive songwriting of Newsom’s career (Ys seems positively theatrical compared to the aching confessional of, say, “Does Not Suffice”), but to see it performed is to appreciate even more the subtle intricacies of Newsom’s densely woven arrangements.

Have One On Me claimed about two-thirds of the 90-minute set. Its heavy representation felt only justified — not simply because it contains more songs than her previous two records combined, but also because of its gorgeous, sprawling richness. Buoyed by some of Newsom’s most personal, sweeping songwriting yet, it scales back Ys’s bombast in favor of both well-worn intimacy (“Jackrabbits”, “Go Long”) and folksy eclecticism (“Good Intentions Paving Company”, “Soft As Chalk”). These are wrenching songs about loving (“Easy”), losing (“Baby Birch”), and letting go (“Does Not Suffice”). Uncharacteristic in its lyrical and melodic directness, the record feels like the closest Newsom will come to a Blood on the Tracks — a confessional opus, straight from the gut.

Perhaps, then, it’s that central contradiction that renders these songs’ live performance so compelling: their stark, piercing directness, complicated — but never threatened — by Newsom’s weaving, dense arrangements. Consider “Kingfisher” and “Baby Birch”, two of her strongest (and lengthiest) selections: melodies both hummable and mournful, lamenting and lilting, driven slowly and powerfully to swelling crescendos (and a gorgeous instrumental coda that lent “Baby Birch” its encore finality).

Newsom switched to piano for the pleading “Easy” (“Who asked you if you want to be loved by me?” demands the singer atop swelling orchestral flourishes) and the earthy “Soft As Chalk”, which was countrified by album arranger Ryan Francesconi’s whining twang guitar. (Indeed, Francesconi — switching between guitar, banjo, and Bulgarian tambura — and outstanding percussionist Neal Morgan proved their worth time and again throughout the set, complementing Newsom’s material with equal parts confidence and restraint).

But it was when she finally strayed from new material, launching into “Inflammatory Writ”’s bold, brassy piano intro, that she drew the greatest crowd response. This was the first of three Milk-Eyed Mender selections scattered throughout the night (from Ys came only “Emily”, an indisputable highlight); but instead of striving to recapture her debut’s sparse, childlike innocence, Newsom conferred onto it the bold, surefooted richness of Have One On Me. It was a delicate maneuver that allowed her to reconcile her stirring debut with half a decade’s musical growth. And so “Inflammatory Writ” came rejuvenated by strings and male backing harmonies. “The Book of Right-On” lent itself naturally to Neal Morgan’s driving percussive momentum (believe it); they sounded at once familiar and new, deeply enhanced by a newfound depth.

But only “Peach, Plum, Pear” achieved total redefinition, closing off the set (encore aside) with unequaled energy and grace. Gone completely were the shrill harpsichord and shaky vocalisms of its recorded version. Newsom’s voice has grown immeasurably since 2004, and she wrought the song’s cycling progression from the harp instead (teasing the audience with a four-chord intro that so slyly dared to be recognized). Morgan’s booming drums provided a rhythmic backbone foreign to any previous conception of the song, and the rendition blossomed into a gorgeous ensemble of string flourishes and backing harmonies, only to melt into an aching coda of trombone, cello, and harp interplay. “You’ve changed some,” goes the refrain. Indeed. She’s never sounded better.