Joanna Newsom + Neal Morgan @ The Tivoli, 04.03.11

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Seating ourselves luxuriously on a balcony wing beneath the air conditioner, support act Neal Morgan takes to the stage in bare-footed skittish apprehension, scuffing his feet nervously like a rebuked child. Clutching a black book of lyrics and sniffing morosely, he bobs about, an awkward tangled string of bravado and nerves. After mumbled apologies for having a cold, he flicks on his sampler, stands stock still before his microphone and lets forth his strain of minimalist a cappella with a choric vocal backing looping into harmonies, a bastardised brand of poetic spoken word with a heavy rhythmic influence, which makes me recall a friend alluding that Joanna’s drummer would be her support. As the set continues, he seems to amass his nerves. The percussion influence ramps, as does the vehement spit-fire of lyrics, evoking something similar to Portland’s Parenthetical Girls in overwrought loquaciousness. As he coughs into his sleeve and wipes his nose on it, his spluttered thank-you’s trail into his last song, a mask over his awkwardness as the crowd politely applauds with bemused expressions upon many faces.

While Joanna Newsom and backing band ascend the stage, I nervously perk up. Seating herself behind her elegant wooden harp, she tosses her magnificent blonde mane back impatiently, giggles at her guitarist and drummer, and plucks the heralding notes of ‘The Book Of Right On’. Her playing is, to be trite, mesmerising. Her dexterous thrumming is so deft and fluid, the creation of such intricately spun epics as Newsom’s songs would seem effortless if it wasn’t for the delightful facial tics she displays: an involuntary twitch of the nose, or jerk of the head, as she negotiates a particularly lush piece of plucking.

Drummer Neal Morgan and guitarist Ryan Francesconi field audience questions as Newsom takes a lengthy period to tune her harp, resulting in one of the most painfully awkward social junctures of stage time I’ve ever experienced. Cringe-worthy crowd interactions aside, the band work seamlessly to augment Newsom’s songs in an unobtrusive, organic manner. The reverent fan within me soars with delight while observing how Newsom has matured her earlier works, with a wry ear cocked for how her distinct early vocals have ripened: reworkings of ‘Inflammatory Writ’ and ‘Peach, Plumb, Pear’ are startlingly and sublimely different.

Amid the parade of Newsom’s most gorgeously complex gems, the crux of the evening approaches: Newsom dives into a song off the new record. I listen shrewdly, attempting to catch a subversive glimpse of her patented splendor in the lyrics or melodic skeleton. I just can’t. Nettled, I observe my friend beside me squeaking with joy and humming along.

After acquiescing to a hearty entreatment for an encore and sardonically shutting down a fan asking for the triumphant epic ‘Only Skin’ (“They will never let me play a 20-minute encore!” she trills), Newsom rounds off with a new song that had caused me particular frustration, ‘Baby Birch’. I moodily slump back, yearning for a closer from Ys to round off a brilliant performance.

The next day, I’m travelling on the bus with a song in my head. I’m picking through my mp3 player, trying to locate the elusive melody. I discern it. It is, most comically, ‘Baby Birch’. I settle in for my journey, the dust settles, as Murdoch said, and something clicks. It is perfect.

Photography: Reuben Beer

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