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 Everett True

Joanna Newsom live @ The Tivoli, 16.01.10

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Joanna Newsom played a few weeks back in Brisbane.

On occasion, she bordered on the magical: her voice slightly more reminiscent of Kate Bush then I recall it being before: the song about the daddy long-legs being particularly charming and lengthy (I might have dreamed the subject matter): the drummer in particular bringing his instrument alive through simple use of elegance and silence, the way most drummers are entirely unable to do: the new songs (and the evening was stuffed full of them) boding well for her forthcoming TRIPLE album. I stayed the length, and that’s rare.

There are reports elsewhere. (In particular, I enjoyed Justin’s typically dry summation of events here – which is where I’ve lifted the photograph from.) So I thought that I’d give you a reprint of a review I wrote of one of the lady’s first UK shows, lifted from Plan B 0.5 in 2004. (Nice reference to Nicanor Zabaleta!)

Joanna Newsom
Komedia, Brighton

The girls are chattering, talking in hushed whispers: “God, but she’s so beautiful.” Yeah, but it’s a strange idyll of beauty, so Southern US, so Gone With The Wind, so delicate and womanly and simultaneously childlike, divorced of artifice and purpose, existing not to impress or corrupt but of itself. It’s that rarest of beauty: feminine, one that other women in particular, appreciate and admire. (Men are much more base.)

The lights are darkened: no fancy light show here, no flashing amber and grey, no smoke clouds pluming and curling up to the ceiling, just a lady in a summer dress cajoling and plucking at a harp that dwarfs her petite frame. Just a smile and a wide open mouth, words tumbling and top-tailing one after another, sometimes astonished, often playful, always charming. There’s just Joanna Newsom and her Nevada City vision of life and romance and boughs and ghostly places: ice cream churns exposed and heavy on the travail, taking up an entire porch on a lazy summer’s evening, cities made out of hay and friendship, the plumage of a male peacock vibrating. No lights, no between-song chatter – just a black ether where strangers, unfamiliar with the work of this ethereal harpist, applaud reverently, taken off-guard by such pure, ragged-sweet grace. Well, not everyone…

“I didn’t come down here tonight,” remarks one cruel boy to another in the toilets, “to hear someone sing like a thalidomide child.”

These evocative, homespun stories of Joanna Newsom are many things: rambling, beguiling, full of a naïve joy at the absurdities and wonderment of life, backed with a solitary harp. And not even that, for the first song, when Joanna stands stage-front and reduces a throbbing Komedia to silence with an a cappella, shouted lament that baffles and excites simultaneously. But impeded by fate? No fucking way. That’s like saying Tom Waits can’t sing.

A whole other world opens as you immerse yourself in Joanna’s music and her 2004 album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, a world of “rough, straggly sage”, “palaces and storm clouds” (‘En Gallop’). She’s hardly been stifled from birth: quite clearly, the opposite holds true – Joanna is one of those privileged few given the space and time to develop and to breathe freely. If her music and folksy way of singing and harp-playing sometimes seem to hearken back to ‘simpler’ times (which were never simpler, of course, just more brutal and uncaring), it’s because she genuinely seems to have sidestepped much of the bullshit and detritus of modern day society.

As with her mentor Will Oldham (who discovered Joanna from a cassette she made of her Appalachian folk/bluegrass-influenced music), you feel immensely privileged to be privy to such secret delights. Unlike Mr Oldham, however, Joanna never lingers too long in sorrow. There’s too much to be discovered: too many whalebones and molluscs and pies to mull over and enjoy.

Sure, if you want to be cynical of innocence, you could wilfully misinterpret Joanna’s way of enunciating certain syllables as childlike, retarded even… But unlike, say, Coco Rosie’s studiously art-laden mysteries (their 2003 album La Maison De La Rêve is a superficially close parallel), you never get the impression this is faked, forced even. (Not that you really do with Coco Rosie, either.) And unlike Will Oldham himself, you never get the impression that this is any kind of act. This is pure Joanna: harp and all.

Also. Step back a second. Ignore the voice. Concentrate on the harp. Concentrate on the magic (with a ‘k’ if anyone’s taking notes – and someone should) of songs like ‘Sprout And The Bean’ and the stop-start ‘The Book Of Right-On’: tumbling, febrile, hypnotic, assured, making full use of both range and silence.

What I know about harp-playing could be written on the tiniest string of Nicanor Zabaleta’s cast-offs, but this is incredible. I hold no truck with specialists or virtuosity, goodness knows, but Joanna makes her harp sing in disparate pastoral splendour. Creative, alert, alive, always looking for a fresh way of explaining…again, it’s her childlike playfulness and curiosity that is her greatest asset. She plays the harp like a troubadour, but never once forgets how special the gift of music is.

You could lose yourself in Joanna’s stories for an eternity. She transports the listener into a world far from mundane Brighton rain and the shouts of lads on the streets outside. And yet, you know that through Joanna’s eyes those very streets and shouts themselves would turn into something magical, possessed. This is her gift: the gift of transport and delight. This is the ability to put across her other vision.

The girls whisper excitedly, about the harp, the voice…but most of all, the untrammelled beauty. And the boys?

The boys keep quiet, for fear of exposing themselves.

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