Visions of Joanna

Jul 31st, 2010 in Music

There is no middle-ground when it comes to Joanna Newsom.  You either love the music of this 28-year old singer from Nevada City, CA or you hate it.  And even if you love it, you wonder how her unique, challenging music will make it in this modern world of three-minute truffles and trifles.  Nonetheless you love and respect her teeming talents, and wish her well.  Seeing Newsom live not only confirmed her many talents, but made her recordings much more approachable.   So see her live if you can, and give her multiple listens and chances to win you over.  You will be handsomely rewarded.

Ms. Newsom came to the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara on Friday night, and played to a rapt crowd, including her family and ours from Nevada City.  From the moment Joanna and band took the stage, we were mesmerized by her well-versed vocals, heavenly harp and plucky piano playing.   And we also enjoyed the supporting ensemble, though with some reservations voiced below.

We have always heard strong Kate Bush and Rickie Lee Jones influences in Newsom’s vocals, but at the Lobero we heard more of the latter in her slurred effects and jazz-inflected timbres.  At other times, however, we heard Joni Mitchell and a bit of kabuki geisha (homage to Mrs. Lefort) to go with her semi-operatic intonations.  Regardless, the combination is unique and enthralling to these ears (though we acknowledge that, subjectivity and music tending to pal around, her voice in particular is not for everyone).  Mixed with her complex melodies and her literate lyrical tales, the net effect on us at the Lobero was absolute hypnosis.

The evening was primarily devoted to supporting her recent three-disc recording, “Have One on Me,” with a few older “hits” thrown in for good measure.  Newsom opened the set with her strongest suit by playing solo on harp her song ’81 (perhaps related to her year of gestation given her ’82 birth, but with multiple lyrical levels per her norm).  The combination of her hands-flying, intricate, rhapsodic harp playing and vocal gymnastics never fails to amaze, and left the audience big-eyed and mouth-agape.  In a word: stunning.  For some stellar lyrical stanzas from ’81 that we frequently sift, see way below at *.

The following rendering of ’81 on the Jools Holland Show gives a good flavor for her Lobero version:

Following ’81, the band joined Newsom in earnest, with Neal Morgan on drums, Andrew Strain on trombone, a pair of violinist/vocalist females, and guitar-banjo-tambura playing arranger, Ryan Francesconi.  With every part and nuance of every song seemingly scripted, it is clear that between Newsom and these musicians (with at least half of them reading from sheet music), the commitment to arrangement and structure is formidable.  If there has ever been true chamber folk, this is it.   The ensemble playing sounded at times like a small orchestra and at others, albeit briefly (when the reins and guard were let down), like a jazz ensemble.  And throw in some startling group handclapping that smacked of Brechtian theatre and some kabuki soundings, and you’ve got yourself a tautly-delivered theatrical performance of serious reckoning.

While we were hypnotized by Newsom and the group, we could have done without Francesconi’s joyless, bored guise (and his chiding of the crowd to be amazed by Newsom’s harp-tuning methods–really, Ryan?? Wow!!).  And we would have omitted some of Morgan’s effect-riddled and tightly-scored drumming (come on Neal, let fly occasionally–we know you’ve got the chops!).  Still Neal’s drumming, while mannered, was mostly the perfect fit with the chamber-folk-pop motif.  Throw in some violin shadings and some perfect and evocative muted-trombone flourishes from the amiable Strain, and you have a great, affecting ensemble sound.  There were even some humorous moments which, given her serious material, surprised us–especially when Joanna tossed off a humorous line about refusing to perform a song requested by  a Portugal audience member who kept yelling out a song request and even seemed to tear up in one of his requests:  “We won’t negotiate with Tear-orists!!”

Built into her generous, nearly two-hour set were some of our favorites, including Go Long, Good Intentions Paving Company, Peach, Plum, Pear and the encore, Baby Birch.

In Go Long, Newsom seems to draw parallels between the Bluebeard fable and her failed relationship with Bill Callahan and also relating to William “Bonnie Prince Billy” Oldham, though as usual, all are left to divine their own interpretation of her oft-oblique lyrics.   Check out a few lyric stanzas from Go Long below at #.

Joanna Newsom–Go Long

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Another of our faves performed at the Lobero was her Good Intentions Paving Company, which is seemingly about life and loves on the road and the effect on relationships, and Joanna returning to California as a changed person.   Regardless, we commend some stanzas from Good Intentions Paving Company below at ^.

Joanna Newsom–Good Intentions Paving Company

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And after an audience-captivating, set-ending performance of Peach, Plum, Pear and receiving a well-deserved standing ovation, Newsom and band came back for an encore (thankfully, the audience was worthy—see the parenthetical in the setlist at the end below) of the beautiful Baby Birch, which seems to be a tale of motherhood and missing/lost children. We love one of this song’s stanzas in particular:

“When it was dark,
I called and you came.
When it was dark, I saw shapes.
When I see stars, I feel, in your hand,
and I see stars,
and I reel, again.”

Joanna Newsom–Baby Birch

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And here is her beguiling chestnut, Peach, Plum, Pear, as performed on this tour:

Did we mention that Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes opened the show?  While we heard some vocal talent in Mr. Pecknold, we continue to believe that neither Pecknold nor the Fleet ones can write a worthwhile melody (save their B-track Mykonos). So we give him a big meh.   Maybe next time with the Foxes.

*Stanzas from ’81:

I found a little plot of land,
in the garden of Eden.
It was dirt, and dirt is all the same.
I tilled it with my two hands,
and I called it my very own;
there was no-one to dispute my claim.”

“The wandering eye that I have caught
is as hot as a wandering sun.
But I will want for nothing more,
in my garden:
start again,
in my hardening to every heart but one.”

“The unending amends you’ve made
are enough for one life.
Be done.
I believe in innocence, little darlin’.
Start again.
I believe in everyone.
I believe, regardless.
I believe in everyone.”

#Stanzas from Go Long:

“Last night, again,
you were in my dream.
Several expendable limbs were at stake
you were a prince, spinning rims,
all sentiments indian-given
and half-baked.”

“We both want the very same thing.
We are praying
I am the one to save you
But you don’t even own
your own violence
Run away from home-
your beard is still blue
with the loneliness of you mighty men,
with your jaws, and fists, and guitars
and pens, and your sugarlip,
but I’ve never been to the firepits with you mighty men

Who made you this way?
Who made you this way?
Who is going to bear your beautiful children?
Do you think you can just stop,
when you’re ready for a change?
Who will take care of you
when you’re old and dying?”

“I will give you a call, for one last hurrah.
If this tale is tall, forgive my scrambling.
But you keep palming along the wall,
moving at a blind crawl,
but always rambling.

Wolf-spider, crouch in your funnel nest.
If I knew you, once,
now I know you less.
In the sinking sand,
where we’ve come to rest,
have I had a hand in your loneliness?

When you leave me alone
in this old palace of yours,
it starts to get to me. I take to walking.
What a woman does is open doors.
And it is not a question of locking
or unlocking.”

And finally,

“With the loneliness
of you mighty men,
with your mighty kiss
that might never end,
while, so far away,
in the seat of the West,
burns the fount
of the heat
of that loneliness.

There’s a man
who only will speak in code,
backing slowly, slowly down the road.
May he master everything
that such men may know
about loving, and then letting go. ”

^Stanzas from Good Intentions Paving Company:

“And it’s my heart, not me, who cannot drive,
at which conclusion you arrived,
watching me sit here, bolt upright and cry
for no good reason at the Eastering sky.”

“And the tilt of this strange nation,
and the will to remain for the duration
(Waving the flag,
feeling it drag).”

“It had a nice a ring to it
When the ole opry house rang,

so, with a solemn auld lang
syne
, sealed, delivered, I sang.”

“And I do hate to fold,
right here at the top of my game,
when I’ve been trying with my whole heart and soul
To stay right here, in the right lane.

But it can make you feel over and old
(Lord, you know it’s a shame),
when I only want for you to pull over and hold me
‘Til I can’t remember my own name.”

And finally, below is the setlist from the Lobero Theater show June 30, 2010:

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