Joanna Newsom brings the joy of music to L.A. (7/31)

Standing ovations rarely mean much. First of all, most of the shows I see have everyone standing to begin with, so there is nowhere to go from the regular ovation. Secondly, clapping at the end of a set is so commonplace that a band will come back for an encore even if the reception isn’t even that warm. When Joanna Newsom finished her 75 minute main set on Saturday night, the crowd erupted from their seats at the formal Orpheum Theater in Downtown Los Angeles to the kind of applause that is reserved for the movies. Someone had even thrown flowers on the stage a few songs earlier, which Newsom finally collected like the ballerina or ice princess or opera star figure that she can be likened to in regard. My first Joanna Newsom concert was everything that I imagined it could be and for all you thinking she is just some hipster hype, a creation of elitists who want to listen to music that the common person simply can’t enjoy, well, you’re wrong. Joanna Newsom is Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Nancy Kerrigan all wrapped up into one, but, you know, a harpist.

Now, this was my first time at the Orpheum Theater, which pictures showed to be the kind of venue which houses shows to which the orchestra pit I shot pictures from was actually necessary. So though I spent a good five minutes considering dressing up for the occasion, I risked it and went casual. To my luck, a good majority of the crowd felt the same inclination. Sure, there were a few suits, but for the most part, Newsom and her band were the best dressed people at the theater and though the environment spoke to a grander affair, the evening lacked the kind of formality that could weigh down on a performance and cause an artist like Newsom to lose her charm. In fact, a couple songs into her performance, she asked for the lights to be turned up in the audience, taking away from the spotlight vibe and creating a sense of community from the artist to the audience, which held through the conversational atmosphere of the show.

Robin Pecknold, the lead singer and songwriter for Fleet Foxes, opened the show with a 30 minute set that consisted of all new material (as best as I could tell) and proved Pecknold to be an able solo artist, with the kind of awkward humor that is necessary to get through the experience of being alone on-stage while facing hundreds of attentive eyes. Attentive is the most apt way to describe the crowd on Saturday night. Lost was the typical bar chatter, the clanking of glasses, or even white noise that fills the background at any large gathering. No, it was pretty much silent between songs, to the point where I became incredibly conscious of the noise cameras make while taking pictures and wondering if my cheaper, slightly louder camera was distracting to Pecknold. I have never thought about the noise a camera makes in my life.

The half-dozen songs played by Pecknold were all melodic, a little more laid back than the majority of Fleet Foxes tunes and focused a lot more of finger-picking as opposed to strumming. But they were still strong songs, like the majority of the band’s material, and it made me not only look forward to the new Fleet Foxes album, but actually anticipate it being quite great. Pecknold even noted that he recently quit smoking and thought it was affecting his voice in the short-term, but was better for his long-term survival. If his voice can actually get stronger after he gets through this awkward period, well, I can’t even fathom the heights that it could reach.

Pecknold cut his set 15 minutes short of his allotted time, which left 45 minutes of Joanna Newsom anticipation. Outside, one fan noted that Pecknold was alright, but crossed his legs funny. This somehow detracted from the live experience. To each their own. Then, after the wait became nearly unbearable, the lights dimmed and Newsom emerged from the side stage, all smiles and hand-waves, her joy palpable from the few feet I was away. Now, if you have read any of my reviews before, you have heard me talk about the joy of making music and how much of a difference that makes in a live performance. If the artist looks like they are genuinely enjoying themselves, if they seem to sincerely care whether they sound good and if they honestly care that the crowd is enjoying the concert, well, then what they play and how they play it becomes secondary. Seeing an artist create in front of you is not something to take lightly, and when they really want to be there and appreciate the bazaar fact that people paid money, gave up a night of their life, grabbed their love ones, drove an hour and sat in the same seat for three hours just to see them play some songs that they have probably played a hundred times, it is unlike anything else in the human experience. This is why I write about shows, this is why I listen to music and this is why Joanna Newsom is one of today’s greatest living artists.

I feel almost at a loss for what I can say about the individual songs. The first four numbers went off without a hitch, with me more interested at watching her contort her mouth to make the complicated sounds that you take for granted when hearing her on record. Everything that she makes sound easy and natural seems anything but when watching her. Newsom works hard and many of her trademark squeals are impossible to replicate, popping up at unexpected times to add the personality a live show demands. After performing “’81” solo, she was joined by a professional and quirky backing band that included Neal Morgan, the percussionist who was very much Newsom’s co-conspirator on this night, often locking eyes with her and sharing smiles as they ran through arrangement after arrangement. Also present was Ryan Francesconi, who, like Morgan, was responsible for some Have One On Me arrangements and provided guitar and banjo backing. Rounding out the stage were a pair of female violinists and a young trombone player who knocked the instrumental closing of “Good Intentions Paving Company” out of the ballpark.

For the most part, because the arrangers were on hand, the Have One On Me material was faithful to the recording, with only “Good Intentions Paving Company” coming off different because the backing vocals contained the backing musicians rather than a choir of Newsoms. It was a rollicking tune, the most up-beat of the night and even included a guest secondary percussionist in Newsom’s brother, Pete. Other standouts from her most recent album included “Soft As Chalk”, which she performed lock-eyed with Morgan to create a stunning feeling of collaborative spirit, and ”In California”, which began with an audience member asking her if she like L.A. and Newsom responding “I like some things about L.A.”

But, by far the standout from her recent masterpiece album was the encore of “Baby Birch”, which has the misfortune of containing a first verse which, if you know the overwhelming conclusion that is to come, can almost feel like torture to get through. The good kind of torture. But when the second verse hit, Newsom was at her most passionate as a vocalist, the backing band added perfectly on-cue hand-claps, the percussion building and then all singing the closing piece with immense power. If you know the song, you can imagine hearing it in all its perfection. It might be the best song written in 2010.

Even more fun, though, was hearing the trio of older numbers in their complete rearrangement for this particular band. “Inflammatory Writ” was always more of a throwaway for me, but found a bouncy joyousness in its live version and Newsom played piano with her hands leaping over each other and covering more ground than seemed necessary. It was completely impressive. “Cosmia”, she announced, had not been played with this band before and featured a brand new arrangement. The Ys number was probably most noteworthy by how much stronger her voice is at this point in her career. Finally, set closer “Peach, Plum, Pear” was a different song entirely, perhaps losing a little bit of power from the album version, but gaining what it had lost in it’s unpredictability. The song ultimately was a win, proving that her songs are strong enough to be completely transformed and still stand on their own.

And while it was sad to see the 90 minute show end, it was amusing to hear 16-year-old girls complain that no one appreciated her new music. Someone needs to take these kids to a bar to teach them a lesson in lack of appreciation. The fact that a harpist can keep a sold-out crowd in their seats with undivided attention for as long as she did speaks to something special. And if you get nothing out of reading this, get that Joanna Newsom is indeed special. When she smiles, the crowd smiles with her, when she speaks they listen, and when she sings, they feel every ounce of emotion that she puts into her music. So yeah, it was a pretty alright show. I absolutely can’t wait to do it again.

Have One On Me
You And Me, Bess
Inflammatory Writ
Soft As Chalk
In California
Good Intentions Paving Company
Peach, Plum, Pear

Baby Birch

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