Joanna Newsom - Birmingham Symphony Hall
In recent times, Joanna Newsom has made something of a name for herself in refusing to stick to the rigid verse-chorus-verse-chorus blueprint favoured by most modern day ditties, instead lolling within the sprawling musical structures of her own creation. To counteract Newsom's wide scope and tendency toward the verbose, I'm going to attempt to make this as succint as possible: Joanna Newsom effing ROCKS!
Unfortunately, due to a cocked-up bus schedule (thank you, Travel West Midlands), I miss the esteemed Roy Harper, a support act I was interested in catching due to Newsom's personal investment in him following his influence on her 2006 album Ys. However, Newsom takes to her harp at 8.45pm, completes her encore at 10.30pm and, in that time, she performs 13 of her beautiful masterclasses in songwriting (the relative leanness of the setlist proving the expansive nature of the songs), her cutglass tones never missing a note or lyric as all the while she looks resplendent creating some kind of secret sonic magic upon her harp. Now is simply not the time for objectivity, and this is no longer a review but a public service announcement: see this woman play live before you die. Trust me.
Newsom's set is largely made up of material from her most recent effort, Have One On Me, a triple-CD boxset that has been entrancing me with its melodies, motifs and marvels since its UK release in March. Despite the extravagance of the new album, it seems Newsom is aware of the hold sophomore effort Ys still has by warning the audience that its staggering Van Dyke Parks arrangements will tonight be performed in their 'reduced' form. Of course, this is Newsom talking and 'reduced' translates as two ladies on strings, a trombone player, a spider-limbed fellow on drums and percussion, and long-time collaborator and arranger Ryan Francesconi playing every other instrument ever. Ultimately, the two cuts from Ys performed tonight, 'Cosmia' and 'Emily', sound close to their recorded versions, their wordy yet transcendent forms reenacted so beautifully that, if I shut my eyes, I can imagine I'm in a fairytale of Newsom's creation - and that's a good place to be.
Before her band join her on stage, Newsom draws us in with a solo performance of ''81', where she implores us to join her in her "garden of Eden", the invite made all the more tempting by the controlled cracks of those unique and ever-evolving pipes, as well as the enigmatic figure she cuts on stage: a waif in a slip dress. Once her band are in play, it's interesting to revisit three golden oldies from debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, especially as they're all dressed up in finery; while 'Inflammatory Writ''s original vocal-and-piano waltz threatens to subside under added layers, 'Peach, Plum, Pear''s finale is a special moment, the recorded version's harpsichord replaced by some suitably fiery harp-plucking.
However, the night undoubtedly belongs to this year's Have One On Me, the title track itself setting a precedent with its complex movements containing perfectly judged wordplay, moments of true melodic beauty, and a central performance that is heightened by the versatility displayed by the band. Newsom herself shows another facet to her talents by taking to the piano for 'Soft as Chalk' and the flighty 'Easy', which manages to evoke Madame Bush in vocal style as well as ivory-tinkling. The highlight of her tenure on keys though is the jaunty 'Good Intentions Paving Co.', proof that even though harps, violins, banjos and timpanis (!) are cool, sometimes all you need is a good ol' handclap for punctuation.
The full power of the intertwining players results in some equally enriching episodes, with the dramatic narratives of both 'No Provenance' and 'Kingfisher' awarded extra weight thanks to clever orchestration. The latter includes some truly blissful interludes that conjure up visions of the Orient before Newsom begins the blood-letting in the song's final stretch. With much of Newsom's work wrapped in story and metaphor, it's the encore then that proves most effective due to the highly personal nature of the lyrics: whether it concerns abortion or not, 'Baby Birch' is utterly wrenching and a paean to loss that only proves cathartic if you can bear the aching sadness at its heart and make it to the end ("There is a barber, who's cutting and cutting away at my only joy"). It's performed with utter conviction by Newsom on her harp, with subtle additions by the band adding a sense of disquiet before it erupts at the end. It's the proverbial icing on a grand tiered cake, and evidence that Newsom's wordsmithian ways can cut to the bone when we're least expecting it, painfuls truths hidden beneath her tall tales of fancy and awe. The lack of album centrepiece 'In California' is a slight but only a small one, as Newsom proves she is one of today's definitive talents and, with the help of her band, brings her intricately woven tapestries to wonderful life in Birmingham for one unforgettable evening. In short, she's pretty good, like.
'81 / Bridges & Balloons / Have One On Me / Easy / Cosmia / Soft as Chalk / No Provenance / Inflammatory Writ / Kingfisher / Good Intentions Paving Co. / Emily / Peach, Plum, Pear // Baby Birch