Joanna Newsom (photo: Jon Bauer)
Joanna Newsom feels more myth than mortal. She’s an idiosyncratic elf-esque harpist whose voice comes across as a caricature of a British nanny, yet she sold out a venue as large as the Fox Theater well in advance for a completely seated show this past Sunday. Cultural critics in both the mainstream and underground respect her, yet she’s altogether removed from the usual fare either covers. She performs in elegant ball gowns on stage, yet is as capable of razing rock and roll as she is of tender folk. I’ve just never considered Joanna Newsom as plausible — a legend spoken of more so than heard.
This perception collapsed as she walked onto the stage and revealed herself as wholly human. Smiling radiantly and letting out a girlish laugh, Newsom leaned anxiously into the crowd’s enthusiastic welcome. Throughout the show she was lighthearted, jovially cracking jokes between songs and intuitively responding to calls from the audience. The singer is 34 years old, yet could have fooled me into thinking she was an eager teenager in the way she graciously received the applause that followed every song.
On the other hand, however, Newsom never lost that touch of intangibility. Her fingers were authoritative and graceful in the way they traversed her golden harp, as expressively intimidating as spiders maneuvering their web. She showed no signs of fatigue throughout the technically demanding show, as she led a six-piece band that constantly rotated from instrument to instrument. The crowd was silently transfixed as Newsom and her band transported the Fox Theater to an antiquated era of music as elegant as it was affectionate. Her songs can be epic, but they never forget to be humble. Sunday night raised the standards for how a concert should be — with performers who are attentive, impressive, and committed to the arrangements rather than individual moments.
The power of Joanna Newsom is in the nuance: the way her voice does an inverted creak as she transitions from line to line, how she’ll create split-seconds of silence between swelling soundscapes, and how the mandolin and violins tread beneath the harp’s patient guidance. The drums don’t keep time so much as bolster the momentum of the strings. Newsom treats tempo as taffy and stretches it to suit her narrative structure — echoing the rise and fall of a hero’s journey or the collapse of tragic romance in the way the cadence of her fingers either sprint or saunter.
Joanna Newsom songs are intricate, but never overwhelmingly so. They are rich and thoughtfully crafted, with lyrics that are rustic yet hold modern resonance. The audience enthusiastically recognized songs from the very first notes, giving the most rapturous applause for “Anecdotes” off of last year’s excellent Divers, and “Cosmia” from 2006’s Ys. “Sapokanikan” was a personal highlight for me, with its channeling of childhood whimsy through virtuosic sensibilities. The climactic four-voice choir gripped me on the edge of my seat before giving way to a recorder quartet outro that was harmoniously healing. The band one-upped themselves, however, by following with “Leaving the City,” another Divers standout that bordered on pure rock and roll in its tumbling chorus and heavy chords.
As the show wound down, Newsom invited onstage Fleet Foxes mastermind Robin Pecknold for “Time, As a Symptom,” and the two’s wholly one-of-a-kind voices slipped remarkably well into one another. Regarding Pecknold, the elusive university-hidden musician opened the show with an ephemeral, yet incredible, acoustic performance. While he’s opened for Newsom on previous tours (including a another show at the Fox in 2010), his low profile in recent years heightened the significance of seeing him out of the shadows and on the stage. Sitting cross-legged in denim and a beanie, with one little swerve of hair sticking out front, Pecknold began his set with a haunting reverb-heavy instrumental that proved his delicately acrobatic guitar chops.
Yet it was the moment he let open his warm, enveloping voice that the worth of the performance truly came to light. I’ve been hoping to see Fleet Foxes in concert for years since becoming a fan — seemingly entering their music as they were phasing out. And while I’m cautiously optimistic about a reignited Fleet Foxes on the horizon, I feel as if though last night I witnessed something altogether more special. Watching Pecknold starkly shine on stage, set up as if he was simply practicing in his bedroom, felt like the watching the root from which the rest of music grows — like jumping into the center of an ocean instead of simply experiencing the waves on shore. He sings with his eyes closed — as if the audience needn’t been there, or that he completely forgot we were there. And I’m grateful to Newsom for allowing me to have been.
Pecknold and Newsom continued to share the stage for the last two songs of the evening, with a trombonist and extra vocalist joining to provide further accompaniment. Performing “Good Intentions Paving Co.” the large ensemble treated the crowd to a celebratory conclusion with emphatic warmth and genuine merriment. The audience subsequently erupted in a well-deserved standing ovation, the first of two throughout the night, with the second one following an encore featuring the song “Baby Birch” off on the stellar Have One On Me.
Newsom proved on Sunday why she’s earned such a devoted fan following. I’d be remiss to classify her performance as just a concert, because it was unlike any I’ve ever been to before. The production, with its faded landscape backdrop and bucolic attire, wouldn’t look out of place at a Renaissance fair, yet the music would prove far too ethereal for such a setting. When Newsom closed off songs with an upward sprint across her harp, the ascending effect was just a degree shy of Disney. But while her voice is capable of drawing bluebirds to her fingertip, Newsom’s melodic gift isn’t derived from prettiness, but rather power. She commands beauty through the skillful navigation of the emotional tides of her stories. The performance was immaculate, because Newsom is infallible in her approach. Her popularity despite being a sonic outcast is testament to a profound reach unique to her craft. Newsom’s not writing this music because it’s marketable — people are listening because she is striking something magical.