Joanna Newsom presents a challenge for the reviewer. So much of music writing is anchored in comparison, from the facile (this artist is so-and-so meets so-and-so), to the workmanlike (placing the work in a general or particular historical context), to the elevated (same as the previous two, but done well). The problem with Newsom is that she is one of a kind, and thus comparison and even contexts are not available and one is left with mere description. The most adequate critical response to Newsom's work would seem to be not the lowly newspaper (or blog) writeup, but a Master's Thesis.
The singer/composer/harpist/pianist (she is truly all of those things, thus that critic-proof uniqueness) came to the Orpheum last Saturday to present some songs from her sprawling triple album Have One On Me. The old-style performance palace was packed. A wall of faces, sober, many with glasses–a well-dressed intellectual crowd faced Newsom, not enraptured, rarely passionate, but listening, trying to take in the stories she told in strings of melodies that used the chords of folk, but did not follow any familiar pattern of verse and chorus.
Newsom's material is often described as “complex,” but this might not be the right word for it. She does use the occasional big word here and there, and, as mentioned, she doesn't generally stick to the most standard pop and folk formulae (though several of the songs on her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, and, most recently, Have One On Me's “On A Good Day” are perfectly crafted little gems). But neither her music nor her lyrics are particularly outlandish or extreme. She's as “complex” and “difficult” as Joni Mitchell and Lauryn Hill–that is, she operates with a logic that has more to do with jazz or classical composition. And in the age of Twitter and instant reaction and snark (she's cute! she's done modeling! she had an artsy upbringing! she has dated other famous people!) that logic sometimes reads as a complexity that, given the right amount of time and attention, is not really there.
How to assess the performance at the Orpheum then? How many singing harpists can one compare Newsom to? To how many practitioners of the long-form song poem, who also happen to be their own producers? Who else works like this in the indie world, drawing bigger crowds than anyone from the classical/art/museum/avant-garde ghetto?
As we said, Newsom is one of a kind and she does what she does and it's always interesting. Is it enjoyable? That depends (as the range of reactions in the audience showed at the Orpheum). Yeah, some indie boys and girls have crushes on her: audience yelps went from the adorable to the annoying to the slightly stalkerish. But that means nothing in the context of the music.
The first 15 minutes of her appearance are paradigmatic:
After a delicate, low-key opening set***, Newsom took to the stage smiling, wearing a fancy, impeccably tailored, polka-dotted blue gown that exposed the front of her legs.
Audience guy: “You look terrific!”
Newsom (bashful and playful): “What a polite young man”
More annoying audience guy: “You look hot!”
Newsom (without missing a beat): begins playing and singing Have One On Me's “'81” and doesn't stop until the final refrain: “I believe in innocence, little darlin'. Start again. I believe in everyone. I believe, regardless. I believe in everyone.”
Immediately after that she introduces her band and tackles the much-admired title track of the new album, the song about Lola Montes, with delicious, serpentine verses like “A tarantula's mounting Countess Lansfeld's handsome brassiere, while they all cheer.” One flashes back to the “columnated ruins domino” of Brian Wilson's “Surf's Up,” a song Leonard Bernstein adored, with lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, who arranged Newsom's previous album Ys. “Surf's Up,” the cult Smile project, Brian Wilson playing on a Leonard Bernstein TV special collapsing the distance between pop, art and pop art, like Dylan's “Visions of Johanna,” another Jo(h)anna (maybe a Joan).
Where were we?
Oh yes, the title track of Have One On Me, something about 19th century courtesans and daddies longlegs, with a ramshackle marching band feel at times, trombone and all, and the woman in the blue gown absolutely in control of the stage and the audience.
Reveries, trying to follow the lines. Listening.
Newsom's fans listen, and that's rare these days. Speaking of Dylan, looking at the audience on Saturday was like looking at those crowd shots in Don't Look Back, all those besuited, bespectacled young Brits still living in black and white with swingin' London right around the corner, listening to the inspired young troubadour with the unusual instrument. Big harp instead of mouth harp, and you had the same rapport across the stage line last Saturday. Particularly impressive in the age of Twitter and constantly vibrating pockets.
And then it goes on, steady from there. Newsom back and forths from harp to piano, always setting the pace for her performance and leading her accompanists. Songs from the first LP (yes, Have One On Me is best enjoyed as a box set of 3 vinyl LPs, each sequenced as carefully as the acts of a good play) are the core of the set. “Easy” (“honey you please me even in your sleep”–she wrote that) gives way to “You and Me, Bess,” and then it's back to the first album (she can also sequence a set) for crowd-pleaser “Inflammatory Writ.” People who've lived with her quirky debut for years are now mouthing the lyrics along with her and bobbing their heads.
Then back to the new album: “Autumn” (she can do a little operatic soprano, a couple of seconds of Queen of the Night grafted onto the basic masonry of the House of the Risin' Sun), “Soft as Chalk” (going back to New Orleans, maybe to the voodoo lounge of the satanic majesties, just for a second). Van Dyke Parks' lush arrangement for Ys' “Cosmia” set aside for a new chamber arrangement with smaller strings and jaw's harp.
Audience yelper: “Do you love Los Angeles?”
Newsom: “I love many things about Los Angeles. I'm a Northern California person, you know.”
And then she starts Have One On Me's “In California,” a strange out-of-time California with no Snoop, or Facebook or cellphones (or dayjobs), a universe of feelings, landscapes and the world of dusty volumes of folk ballads. It devolves into a a birdlike cacophony and leads to the record's “single” or “hit” (you should be aware by now how little meaning these words have in this context), “Good Intentions Paving Company,” featuring her brother Peter on cowbell. Here we can't avoid mentioning Joni Mitchell, grafted onto that New Orleans shuffle, and filtered through Vince Guaraldi and Charles Schultz (another Northern California person, you know). There's head-nodding–people are getting into it: see the intellectuals groove to the jam at the end, as Newsom gets a little (just a little) loose for once in the whole show and does that smiling while looking over her bare shoulder thing. The only even vaguely smoldering moment and she knows it and keeps smiling.
And then it's back to the business of being a serious musician, a composer, closing the main set with a reimagined “Peach, Plum, Pear” from The Milk-Eyed Mender, except now she's ditched the croaking-faerie affectations of 2004 and, like Dylan in the Nashville period, she shows that, yeah, she can sing too, if she wants to.
She bows before the encore.
Audience yelper: “I love you”
Same audience yelper: “Seriously, I love you so much”
The encore is a devastating “Baby Birch,” one of the crucial moments of Have One On Me (fans have fixed on the themes–abortion? whose abortion? Is “Easy” about a lover or Jesus?–really: it doesn't matter). Newsom starts with her solo harp, then the instruments start coming in, and for a brief second things get kind of intense–there's even a flash of feedback. And it's over.
Yes, but was it enjoyable? It depends on what you enjoy having done to you, more and more unusually these days, by a performance.
Set List (all songs from Have One On Me, unless otherwise stated):
– “Have One On Me”
– “You and Me, Bess”
– “Inflammatory Writ” (from The Milk-Eyed Mender)
– “Soft As Chalk”
– “Cosmia” (from Ys)
– “In California”
– “Good Intentions Paving Company”
– “Peach, Plum, Pear” (from The Milk-Eyed Mender)
– “Baby Birch”
***: Fleet Foxes singer Robin Pecknold (who also plays as White Antelope) did a six-song set of gorgeous neo-folkie songs, all apparently new, except for the existential riddles of the Foxes' “Blue Spotted Tail.” One of the songs had the urgent strumming of Dylan's “Chimes of Freedom”-period, but Pecknold's voice veers more towards the John Jacob Niles-ish. He seems a little in awe of the headliner, as he should. Pecknold's version of Newsom's aforementioned “On a Good Day,” which sadly he didn't perform, can be found online, which is worth doing.