This week someone asked me to name the best show I had ever seen. What kind of question is that? It’s like asking someone what your favorite song is? Impossible! Too many variables: venue, sound, who you are with, number of drinks ingested . . . oh, and the band, don’t forget the band. In early 2005, Brightblack Morning Light organized a very cool festival in Bolinas. They called it Quiet Quiet Window Lights and it included Peggy Honeywell, Women and Children, Michael Hurley and Devandra Banhart at Smiley’s Saloon plus Vetiver, Brightblack and Joanna Newsom at the Bolinas Community Center. To see Joanna Newsom sing “Sadie” for the first time, alone with that giant harp, gave me those chills down the spine that push shows to the top of the imaginary fave list.
Someone yelled “You are a mermaid!”, to which she replied “cool theory.”
5 years later, Joanna Newsom played a sold-out show at the Fox. Despite all the odds, I was able to score some well-priced orchestra seats from the friendly scalpers right outside and just minutes before she took the stage. Due to some super delicious but seriously slow island cuisine at Hibiscus, we missed head Fleet Fox Robin Pecknold. Fortunately, Joanna brought him out for the only encore, an inspired cover of Kid Rock’s “Picture.” Â Joanna was joined by 2 violins, a trombone, drums/percussion and one guy who played everything else (guitar, banjo, oud?!).
Ms. Newsom was strikingly beautiful. Poise, charm, humor, the whole enchilada. She made the huge Fox Theater feel like a living room where we might chat and sip tea. Her harp skills were astounding. She plucked a lot of notes out of that monster and, best I could tell, never missed a one. Her voice is seriously fine tuned since back in the Bolinas days. The quirky warble that I initially hated, but grew to love, is almost gone. Still, there is enough of a trace left that I didn’t miss it too much. Her voice is more harp-like now, bouncing up and down in perfect pitch, and at times delivering the comforting, warm-bread tones of Emmylou Harris.
The silky butter on this bread was Joanna’s piano work. She moved from harp to piano and back, almost giving that piano equal time. As with many of her recordings, the songs from her latest release, Have one on Me, sounded better live. She tipped her hat to Van Dyke Parks and played several songs from her lushly orchestrated 2006 collaboration, Ys. She closed her set with an oldie, “Peach, Plum, Pear,” from her sweet and warbly 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender. The previously mentioned encore brought out the range of her impressive piano skills, and she seemed right at home in the honky tonk style.
Embarrassingly, this was my first time at the Fox. The theater is really a spectacle. Born in 1928 but closed since 1966, we are so incredibly fortunate to have it back. I look forward to many more shows there, starting October 1st for the Flaming Lips!
Encore duet with Mr. Fleet Fox, Robin Pecknold.