04 February 2008

Joanna Newsom @ BAM - 1 February 2008

Dave Eggers' short-lived SPIN column "And Now, a Less Informed Opinion" was, to the best of my understanding, the first soapbox from where a somewhat nerdy male age 18-34 stood and sloppily gushed his praise upon Joanna Newsom.

I had no clue who Newsom was at the time - I don't think The Milk-Eyed Mender had been released yet - but I remember this particular piece very clearly because of the peculiar rant Eggers went into regarding her looks. He felt her voice was so oddly enchanting that he wished her to be physically revolting, his rationale being that for once a singular female talent could gain recognition without the assistance of her looks. Then of course, he went and saw her live and realized she was in fact a stone (elfin) fox. His conclusion: he would now have to share her with the world.

Had Eggers been in the audience at BAM on Friday, he probably would have been shocked at just how accurate his fearful prediction had become. The sold-out room was easily 70% male, age 18-34, and completely smitten for the entirety of her 2-hour-plus performance. You know those cartoons where a hungry dog or what have you gets a whiff of a freshly baked pie on the windowsill and then literally floats over to it via their nostril compass? Substitute 1000 or so blissed out skinny-jeaned dudes for the dog and Newsom for the pie and you get the idea.

The fact is, it's pretty impossible to divorce her appearance from her music (sorry Eggers). A tiny woodland sprite in a firetruck-red cocktail dress SHREDDING on a harp twice her size is simply unlike anything else you'll ever see. Throw in members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic as a backing band and you've got something special. Add the fact that it was her last time performing Ys with an orchestra for the foreseeable future and you've got something extra special. Subtract a meandering Obama monologue (yes, they did it again) and you've still got something extra special....

The show began with Newsom and her Ys Street Band (Neal Morgan on drums and vocals, Ryan Francesconi on mandolin and banjo and Lila Sklar on violin and vocals) performing Ys in its entirety alongside 28 members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. The result was frankly mesmerizing. True, this album can be a difficult pill to swallow in one sitting. Not counting all the instances I've had it on as background music, I've probably only played Ys straight through three or four times since its release. It's a sprawling, dense, unrelenting affair, one that I prefer to savor in smaller portions.

And yet, seeing it come to life before my eyes and ears gave me a newfound appreciation for the album as a whole (as cheesy and trite as that may sound). Played one after another, these five songs were powerfully engaging , each melodic twist and turn crackling with the same quirky fervor as Newsom's voice.

(Now, an aside. While barely on the subject of her contentious pipes, let me go on record as saying that her voice is remarkable in its range and emotional depth. It may not be for everyone, but the conviction and power she is able to summon when singing is undeniable. I love it.)

Okay, back to Ys. In being translated to the stage, new flourishes and wrinkles in this well-worn catalog of songs became evident as well; a staccato burst of french horn during "Monkey and Bear", subtle touches of marimba in "Cosmia", the vulnerably unadorned arrangement of "Sawdust and Diamonds". After its completion and a short intermission, Newsom returned with her touring band (sans Philharmonic) and appeared almost relieved to have the Ys portion of the evening behind her.

What followed was a looser and more playful run-through of material from The Milk-Eyed Mender, the Ys Street Band EP as well as some new songs. It's funny because most of the people I was with clearly preferred this half of the show to the Philharmonic portion, at least in part due to the unrelenting nature of Ys I'm guessing. This second act was definitely a welcome respite from the sheer power of earlier, and it was nice to see Newsom and her band wax nostalgic as the realization that her tour was coming to an end began to sink in. However, it's the experience of witnessing Ys come to life that will stay with me for quite some time. I suppose you should add me to the ranks of fanboys floating towards the siren song onstage.

*above photo from HERE

Listen:
"Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie"

Visit Joanna Newsom HERE because she doesn't seem to dig on MySpace

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

bang up and spot on review mate. i <3 Joanna.

catherine c said...

during the thursday night show, some drooly-mouthed manchild yelled out "MARRY ME" in between songs. Joanna sort of helplessly plucked at some strings for several uncomfortable seconds before her tambura player mercifully started strumming intro chords to the next song to refocus things and diffuse the discomfort everyone felt for her (and that poor asshole).

Anonymous said...

I wondered what that guy yelled! But everything seemed in good fun. The crowd was really quite great.
Not sure about the 70% male thing. I would have guessed pretty close to 50/50.

Yeah, I wasn't really big on "Ys" originally. Oh boy, has that changed!

Damn, It's Monday night. I'm still high from that Thur show. It's changed me.

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