November 10, 2010
Better than: listening to Joanna Newsom's recorded songs.
I think it's fair to say that very few people would accidentally find themselves at a Joanna Newsom concert. With her unique voice, epic song structures, and unusual instrumentation, she is not a casual musical choice.
Last night, though, a Granada audience that was comfortably large and, above all, respectful to Newsom's music made that deliberate choice. And they were handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
Taking the stage at 9 o'clock with her five-piece ensemble, a chicly dressed Newsom sat at her harp and chatted for a couple minutes while she adjusted her microphone.
A relaxed and warm personality flowed from her as easily as the notes for opening song "Bridges and Balloons" from her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender. And, for the next 100 minutes or so, Newsom and her band provided an unhurried performance of her chamber-folk music, balanced among her three releases.
It was one of those too-rare evenings where a rapt audience was treated to an exquisite performance with perfect acoustics.
Newsom's harp was center stage, and percussionist Neil Morgan and a grand piano occupied stage right. Stage left was occupied by Ryan Franciconi playing a variety of guitars, banjos, recorders and tambura. Joining him, two lovely ladies were playing violin and viola, and Andy Strain was on horns including a great trombone and occasional Jew's harp.
While Newsom's recordings have always demonstrated prodigious skills as a harpist, last night she dazzled with her voice. And the voice that on recordings seems to be the factor that separates her fans from her detractors was an amazing instrument. It moved effortlessly across octaves, conjuring up memories of the agility of Joni Mitchell at her peak. Her songs, with their complex and endless lyrics, sometimes seem like lost stories from the Canterbury Tales. And while these stories may not have been any more comprehensible, they were far more engaging seeing Newsom deliver them.
She moved between harp and piano throughout the evening, as well. Her harp seemed to be demanding a little extra attention with regard to tuning, causing her to stop a few bars into the evenings second song "Have One On Me," and to take an extended tuning break a few songs later. The crowd did get a little rowdy at this point, as drummer Morgan fielded questions until a somewhat panic-stricken Newsom was able to proclaim, "Done!" and launched back into the set. It was a few minutes before the truly mesmerizing parts of her performance, but Newsom recaptured the crowd and the band was able to reclaim them. Every song was a highlight, including "Easy" (a deceptive name), "Good Intentions Paving Company," "Emily," and set-closer "Peach Plum Pear."
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After a short break, the band returned for an encore. Abandoning the harp that had frustrated her throughout the evening, Newsom and her band played "It Does Not Suffice," apparently for the first time live.
Lovers embraced as those leaving early quietly deposited their bottles in the trash. And when it was over, a thoroughly satisfied audience filed out into the evening.
Personal Bias: I have not seen such a respectful audience since Sigor Ros made their Dallas debut at the Granada. And while I have been frustrated with sound at the Granada too often, last night was perfect.
Random Note: Newsom was pretty gorgeous, too. What a smile!