By David Courtright
Over the course of Joanna Newsom’s short but impactful career, critics have clamored to define her, to harness the wild strands of her style and composition into separable, ornate distinctions. Her early work borders on unlistenable, depending on what kind of ears you have. As her career has progressed, her work has certainly gained palatability, but still bristles with an idiosyncrasy few musicians of her generation possess.
Her live show is, as it ever was, nothing short of a revelation. My first experience of her was with the Atlanta symphony orchestra in 2007, when she played her sophomore album, Ys, in its glorious entirety with a full symphony. Ys. was a novella in five parts. Her latest, Have One On Me, is an 18-song sprawl, a meditation on home, innocence and love, strewn across three discs.
Last Thursday, after a short opening set by arranger and collaborator Ryan Francesconi, Ms. Newsom came out in a vintage pink velvet dress. Across her chest was an interlacing pattern of rolled fabric, which gave the impression that she was wearing a machine gun belt of bubble gum bullets. She wore her hair in a tight ponytail, her face glistening and dolled up beneath the soft light.
What always impresses me about Ms. Newsom is her effortless jocularity, her adorable down-to-earthness. Listening to her music, one pictures her descending from the trees of Rivendell on a braided rope of gold, harp in hand, to go on tour. And the media has certainly stoked the flames of that fairy fire. But at live shows, she is approachable. She often communes with the audience, even with a tuxedoed symphony orchestra behind her. She had her drummer repeat a joke she claims he stole from her: “Why did the scarecrow win the Nobel prize? He was outstanding in his field.” She cuts through the pretense with a gentle rapport and razor wit. Her lyrics are often compact, explosive bursts of rhyme and poetry. In a short turn of phrase, she can undo you: “The ties that bind they are barbed in spine, and hold us close forever,” or, “Driven through by her own sword/Summer died last night alone.”
Opening with “Bridges and Balloons,” Joanna had the audience captivated from the outset. She played a good number of older songs as well: “Emily,” the opener to Ys., as well as “Monkey and Bear” from that same record. Several more from older records, including “Peach, Plum, Pear,” “Inflammatory Writ” (a crowd favorite), and “Colleen,” which was featured on a live EP a few years ago. She closed the set with the heartbreaking “Baby Birch,” a song that gets to the heart of longing in a way few other songs can. Another impressive performance, fingers dancing across strings, with hundreds of captive eyes fixed in a taut silence.