Live: Joanna Newsom, Shredding Ethereally At Town Hall


Jamming up north not too long ago.

Joanna Newsom
Town Hall
Thursday, March 18

“Did you say, ‘Play faster?’ she asks. “No! Fantastic!” replies one of several hundred rapt, lusting, audience-bound gentlemen. Thought so.

So Joanna Newsom is fully deified onstage these days, her shows church-like in both their reverence and their silence; the dude next to me starts unwrapping a piece of gum and it sounds like the demolition of Shea Stadium. Tonight, we’re airing out the triple-album monster Have One on Me, which I admire plenty and enjoy somewhat and haven’t come anywhere close to fully absorbing; as background music, regarded with anything less than total concentration, it evaporates into the baroque, elegant, inscrutable ether.

This, thankfully, is as captive an audience as you could imagine, mesmerized by every harp-pluck and whimsical/melancholy coo as tunes like “Kingfisher” and “Easy” and “Soft as Chalk” twist and turn and mutate; they’re dense and fussy, but there’s usually some recurring riff, some sharp lyrical dart to orient you. In this regard the slow, funereal “Autumn” hits hardest: “Driven through with her own sword/Summer died last night alone/Even the ghosts huddled up for warmth/Autumn has come to my hometown.” Wrong season, but it kills anyway.

The problem is Newsom’s band: two violins, trombone, a banjo/guitar/etc dabbler, and a trick-jazz drummer, all adept and slick but entirely unnecessary, overcomplicating the already way complicated enough mini-symphonies Newsom can and should pound out all by herself. She shreds on that harp, a one-woman orchestra, dainty high-pitched arpeggios grounded by spry, booming bass notes. Nothin’ else around like it. Older tunes like “The Book of Right-On” are mercifully less cluttered; “Emily,” one of the epics on 2006’s Ys, strikes the best balance, long and convoluted but carefully gathering momentum (the drums don’t distract for once) and building to an unusually ferocious climax. Huge bursts of applause after that one. Which is not, of course, unusual.

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