Joanna Newsom, the unique singer/songwriter harpist from California, has been touring for a while. After a stretch of popular concerts in the UK, a brief United States orchestral tour was arranged that took her to six cities across the country starting last October. Surprisingly enough, Milwaukee was the first city she went to. Most recently she was at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony.Last Friday night’s show in New York City was the last one; she has no other scheduled dates and she expressed an uneasiness about that, but I’m sure there was also relief; this will give her time for much-needed rest.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music is a lovely venue. The audience was full of neatly dressed youngsters. There were even some celebrities in the crowd — we noticed Maggie Gyllenhaal among the few. It was a very homogeneous crowd of mostly white, “alternative”-looking people. This was especially interesting considering that we were in the very diverse borough of Brooklyn. But this isn’t surprising because music seems to have a way of conveniently organizing people into neat categories.
The first half of the concert was, as in Milwaukee, a complete performance of her 2006 release, “YS,” from start to finish, but this time with the wonderful Brooklyn Philharmonic conducted by Michael Christie.
When she introduced herself I could tell that her voice was a little shot, and her vocal performance was noticeably different than it was on the album. But this didn’t hinder her too much. From the beginning of “Emily” to the end of “Cosmia,” the songs were executed very nicely even if she was often critical of herself, apologizing after a few performances. The audience certainly didn’t mind. We were entranced the entire time and the tremendous weight of the music moved a lot of people to tears.
When she finished performing “YS,” there was a 15-minute intermission that gave all the youngsters an opportunity to run outside and smoke cigarettes. After the intermission she returned in a very bright short pink dress that incited a few members of the audience to whistle and cheer. The second half the show was similar to what we heard in Milwaukee, a few songs from her first album and a performance of her new song “Colleen” from an EP released last year. In addition to the new untitled song that she performed in Milwaukee, there was another song, also untitled, that she performed in Brooklyn. The first of these new compositions was very quiet and reminiscent of the music of her first album. The second song had a lot more energy and sounded a bit more like “Colleen.”
Joanna Newsom was very casual and comfortable on stage. She shared a few anecdotes with us: while she was in Europe someone kept requesting “Sprout and the Bean” but she couldn’t perform it because, she says, she’s forgotten how. She told us about how she cut her own hair earlier that day and was afraid that her hairdresser (in the audience) would get upset. She also saved a little time to remind us to vote for Obama. She spent five minutes telling us why he was the best candidate, and her drummer had a few words to say on that topic too. Several members of the audience cheered, while others were clearly uncomfortable.
Joanna Newsom is consistently satisfying. The next time she comes to a nearby city you should go check her out, unfortunately it may be a while until it happens again.