Little Ghost

Joanna Newsom

at ArthurBall, February 25

Okay, so I have this theory: Joanna Newsom is actually a dead person.

Stay with me here.

First off, she appears to be a dead person. She strides onstage like an apparition, with hair the color of sunlight draping down her back and falling in loose waves to her waist. Her face glows with the revenant beauty of a bygone photograph, and her diaphanous, cream-colored dress flows with her every ghostly motion.

And secondly, the woman plays the harp. Who the hell plays a harp? I will tell you who plays a harp: Dead people play harps, as they are tools of musical antiquity, and the Official Instrument of the Afterlife.

I’ll confess that before I saw her perform, Newsom’s debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, had left me somewhat unmoved. Composed of girl/harp duets, her recorded warbles resemble childlike mountain-music meanderings with their affected high pitch, and do a grave injustice to the spooky beauty and deeply soulful incantations that manifest live.

Inside the cavernous Ex_Plex, a sold-out audience was barely breathing, caught in the awestruck stillness of a séance. This delicate girl has an arachnid touch, stroking and plucking at her panel of strings, weaving back and forth over a musical loom, and tickling out sounds with fluttering fingers. Vocally, she somehow channeled the gorgeously hollow-toned moans of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, and summoned guttural growls à la Björk to spin narratives up to 10 minutes long that bore a disjointed whimsy like poetry translated from another language.

Regrettably, a ghost encounter is very much a “you had to be there” experience. Promo photos and her available CD have yet to capture the type of eerie, supernatural power that she held over ArthurBall. But judging by the five new tunes she howled to a rapt crowd, it seems that her next release may be her most haunting yet. Perhaps her label will employ a few paranormal experts to aid in its recording.

—Alie Ward

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