"Hello, Maine!" Joanna Newsom shouted mischievously, following her opening song Sunday night at the Aladdin. After everyone had a hearty chuckle, she made it clear that she knew she was really in Oregon. With most artists, such clarification would be gratuitous, but Newsom's so quirky that it was probably wise. After one more song, she made it clear that she has a personal connection to the region, confessing to a momentary error in her playing caused by seeing "my Aunt Grace and Uncle Peter and [getting] really excited." But it was the audience that was really, REALLY excited, lavishing loud ovations on both those opening numbers of the kind that many performers hope to generate by a concert's end.
Newsom faced a sold-out-well-in-advance, heavily twenty-something crowd, peppered with local rock heroes such as Sean Croghan, Janet Weiss, and Helio Sequence drummer Benjamin Weikel, testament that there's something deeply compelling about Newsom's seemingly ethereal folk that draws even fans and makers of loud music to listen to her quiet voice. And it's clear why such physical players as the three mentioned above would be wowed by Newsom's aggressive playing; after all, the harp has to be one of the mo st physically demanding instruments to play. A harpist's arms are in constant motion, and the ability to lock elbows in at the sides (as drummers, guitarists, and keyboardists often do at least part of the time) does not arise. And I don't even want to think about what the calluses are like.
Another notable feature of Sunday's crowd was the preponderance of women wearing peasant blouses, Ren-fair-ready dresses, elaborate hairdos and other means of meeting the fantasy world Newsom conjures more than halfway. Even if you didn't dress the part, though, she drew you in and transported you to her turf. As she straddled and strummed her harp, the huge frame of the instrument reminded me of that gigantic, circular stone portal, the Guardian of Forever, that Kirk and Spock jumped through to travel in time on Star Trek
. I could easily envision Newsom somehow sucking the whole house through the time-portal of her harp and into her redolent, altered atmosphere. (One reviewer of the new album has discovered that its title, Ys
, is, perhaps appropriately, also the name of an online fantasy game.)
Of course, Newsom not only draws listeners into a pseudo-medieval past, but also back to the '60s. When I first saw Newsom--a couple years ago at Berbati's—she opened for Woodstock vets and wooly Brits the Incredible String Band. And when five accompanists joined Newsom onstage this past Sunday to perform scaled-down arrangements of the orchestrally accompanied tunes from her new album, I recognized at least a couple of the players from '60s survivor Vashti Bunyan's U.S. debut show last summer at Disjecta. Comparisons between Bunyan's whimsical, earthy repertoire and the hand-knit songs on Newsom's debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender
, are obvious, and as the band meandered through Newsom's new material, the songwriting model they most clearly evoked was, sure enough, that of the Incredible String Band's extended, loopy epics on their 1968 masterpiece, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
While fellow '60s baroque-folk vet Van Dyke Parks' Technicolor and Cinemascope arrangements are part of what makes Ys
such a remarkable album, it was actually very validating of the strength of Newsom's compositions to hear them rendered by down-to-earth acoustic instrumentation—albeit, Newsom explained, based on Parks' work; the songs more than survived the transition, like those rare instances when a TV show based on a big-screen movie succeeds on its own terms. Accordionist Dan Cantrell pr oved particularly valuable in adding depth and color to the otherwise string-based band, and Ryan Francesconi's tambura added an exotic flavor that bolstered the harp's tone at several key moments.
The wide-ranging imagery of Newsom's lyrics--with their oblique natural and historical references supposedly symbolizing a complex personal cosmology--is one of the things that disorients her listeners and lures them into a childlike sense of wonder. It's like as a child, when your mind drifts while listening to the lady at the library read some fairy tale that your kid mind can't wholly comprehend, but which powerfully evokes odd images nonetheless. Being beyond casual understanding is not a weakness of N ewsom's lyrics, but rather one of their secret strengths.
Also in the category of "It's not a bug; It's a feature" are Newsom's occasional vocal "squeaks," which used to be more frequent and less controlled. I counted exactly three times during her set that she emitted what could be called a squeak, a momentary, between-notes tone that sounded like a chair leg moving sharply on a wooden floor. Each time, it was a vocal device applied with precision, and, one sensed, for a very good reason (if not a clear one). In general, her voice was rich, full, and expertly con trolled, and laden with momentary funny phrasings for which she fetchingly screwed her mouth up and to the side.
If, dear reader, you indulged me my Star Trek-related harp metaphor, I hope you'll allow me one more image that flashed through my mind watching Newsom work--of her harp as a loom upon which she wove a constantly unfolding tapestry that, again as in a fairy tale, gradually became so large and colorful that it ultimately enveloped reality itself. Those of us in the Aladdin Sunday night succumbed willingly, and I bet I'm not the only one who's felt, in the days since, still somewhat stitched into Newsom's vi vid tableau.
Bridges and Balloons
The Book of Right-On
Monkey & Bear*
Sawdust & Diamonds
Peach, Plum, Pear
Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie
Joanna Newsom - Vocals, Harp
Ryan Francesconi - Tambura, Bouzouki, Guitar
Kevin Barker - Banjo, Guitar
Dan Cantrell - Accordion, Vocal Harmonies
Neal Morgan - Drums, Percussion, Vocal Harmonies
Katie Hardin - Glockenspiel, Vocal Harmonies
Photo: from the artist's MySpace.