The best kind of live performances are those that completely change the way you view an artist. You can listen to their albums all you want, but sometimes you have to see them live for a light to go off that lets you really understand what they’re all about. I’d always liked and appreciated Joanna Newsom from a distance, but I have to admit I’d never been a fan, per se. It all seemed a little too weird for me to really get into. I had a feeling that her live show would be something special though, and that it could easily be one of those aforementioned, perspective-changing performances. The fact that Fleet Foxes frontman and Seattle native Robin Pecknold was opening sealed the deal in terms of my attendance.
I walked in a little after 7:30 to find Pecknold already mid-song. The stage was bathed in green and purple light and cluttered with Joanna Newsom’s harp, music stands, and other assorted gear. Pecknold had nestled himself out a little spot next to a guitar rack, where he sat with his legs crossed, tapping the air with his ungrounded foot as he plucked away on his acoustic guitar and sang. It was a comfortable, informal, and intimate set with patrons still making their way to their seats as Pecknold played and carefully sipped tea from a paper cup between songs. He spent a considerable amount of time tuning and switching guitars as well, seemingly using a different one for every song. I don’t think anyone really minded, but he apologized for the “snafus” toward the end of the set anyway. He played some of his solo material, a few Fleet Foxes songs including “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” as well as several new songs. The highlight of the set, however, was Pecknold’s soaring, crystalline voice that could have filled up a venue ten times the size of The Moore. It was calming, quaint, and pure as he sang verses and plucked along before letting go a series of prolonged “ooOOooOOh”s where his voice would take off with a beautifully pure pitch that felt and sounded like it could have cured diseases. Pecknold finished after about 45 minutes and left the stage to applause from his hometown fans as the intermission lights came on.
As soon as Joanna Newsom showed herself on stage the entire crowd erupted. She had long hair and was wearing a light, paisley-ish dress as she smiled and sat down at her harp bench to play “81,” a song off of her triple-LP Have One On Me, which was released earlier this year to all but universal acclaim. She finished to unbelievably wild applause before the rest of her band joined her on stage to play the new album’s spider-themed title track. Before they started she introduced everyone: a percussionist, a trombonist, two violin players, and Ryan Francesconi, who played various guitar-based instruments and arranged the latest album as well as the truncated adaptations they would be playing live.
Seeing Joanna Newsom live was truly a unique experience and I entranced the entire night. Her band, or ensemble, as is probably a more accurate word to describe it, was incredibly precise as they went through the delicate arrangements. They played a good deal of songs from Have One On Me, as well as some old favorites such as “Emily,” which blew me away and was the highlight of the night as far as I was concerned. Every single song received an absolutely huge ovation. It was one of the most enthusiastic crowds I’d ever been a part of.
The entire night was Newsom taking the audience on a guided journey through her world. She would sing about pollen and blossoms and butterflies, skipping stones and sunny fairyland reveries, all with a sweet authenticating poignancy that the audience couldn’t help but get swept up in. The instrumentation served more as sound effects to Newsom’s fairy tales rather than something that was solely musical in the traditional sense. There were rarely parts that remained constant throughout an entire songs, instead coming in and leaving when they were needed, to add levity or build intensity as the songs meandered about. Particularly impressive was Neal Morgan, the percussionist who was constantly busy adding little accentuations here and there, whether it be through quickly scraping something along a cymbal or delicately dropping one tambourine on top of another at just the right moment. Newsom let us know toward the end of the set that he was barefoot the entire time.
While the entire arrangement and spectacle of her band was unlike anything I had ever seen and incredibly effective in portraying sonically the enchanted twists and turns of the world of Joanna Newsom’s music, it was Newsom herself that everyone was there to see and her presence on stage was enthralling. I have no frame of reference when it comes to harpists and what constitutes good harp-playing, but watching her fingers moving about so quickly and delicately as she sang was unreal. She played a good deal of piano too, and just like on her harp bench, she was always poised with perfect posture and used her entire mouth to enunciate every syllable she sang. Since The Milk-Eyed Mender her voice has become less toy-ish and childlike and more rich and traditionally beautiful. At times she would form a circle with her mouth and hold out a perfect quavering note that was as close as a human can come to replicating a songbird.
Her banter on stage was priceless as well. She was bubbly, expressive, and had the audience smiling and laughing all night. She continually made funny and odd quips, saying things like “I need a Gatorade,” and, after gathering all of her hair behind her head as she sat down on her harp bench, mentioned that she just gotten a haircut and was still “figuring out how it operates.” Sometimes she would take the time to look out at the audience and simply smile as she was doing things between songs. When she would finally get the tuning just right on her harp, she might look up with wide eyes so that we could share her joy in finally finding the right tuning.
After she finished “Emily” she let the audience know that she’d be playing one more before starting into “Peach, Plum, Pear,” a favorite off her debut album. For some reason I’ve always been a stubborn ass when it comes to giving standing ovations. Even if the entire audience is standing around me, I’ll stay seated unless the performance was especially extraordinary. As Joanna Newsom finished her last song, however, I didn’t even think about it as I joined the rest of the audience in standing to show our appreciation of her amazing performance. I’m glad to say I was right about her live show and that I was able to experience what all the hype was about. From now on I’m officially a fan.