Sound Choices

Alex Schaaf

Joanna Newsom’s new album “Have One On Me” is already leading the pack for my favorite album of 2010. A massive, sprawling work, it covers three discs and contains over two hours of music, and it is a staggering display of Newsom’s talent. I had the chance to witness this talent live last weekend at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, and I was not disappointed.
The show featured opening act Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, who started the night off with a beautiful acoustic set, showcasing his powerful voice as it drifted out into the theater accompanied by moderate portions of reverb. Pecknold played a short set, giving us a mixture of Fleet Foxes songs, covers – such as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Blues Run the Game” – and new songs.
There was an odd flow to his set, as he took plenty of time in between songs to tune his guitar and sip from his cup of tea – he explained that he was a little feverish that day, and apologized for his “Comic Book Guy voice,” an apology that proved to be unnecessary thanks to his strong voice. A solid choice for an opener, Pecknold left the crowd anxious for more material from him sometime soon.
This odd pacing continued after Pecknold’s set concluded at 8:30 p.m. Newsom came on stage soon after and began tuning her harp, a process that ended up taking half an hour. She then left the stage, not to be seen for another half hour, as her set eventually started at 9:35.
Later, in response to an audience member’s awkwardly rude question, she explained that her voice required a lengthy warm-up so as to avoid injury, and she apologized for the delay, to which she received a warm ovation as one audience member shouted, “You don’t need to apologize!”
Once Newsom’s set got going, everything was forgotten as she and her band made their way through an impressive presentation of many songs from “Have One On Me.” In the second half of the set, we got a few older songs, but the night was focused on the new material.
It helped that Newsom’s band was comprised of the players that helped make the new album so powerful: guitarist Ryan Francesconi did the instrumental arrangements for the album and for the live show and drummer Neal Morgan played an important role in both live show and album as well. “Have One On Me” features reduced instrumentation compared to her previous album “Ys,” so she and her band closely matched the album’s arrangements while adding a few little changes here and there to make the live show a new experience.
Two violinists and a trombonist added extra flair to many of the newer songs and contributed to the already rich acoustic sound that the group produced. Newsom’s voice was front and center in the mix, and that was a wise choice, as she sounded stronger and more “on” than I thought would be possible. She managed to not only match her voice as it is on the album, but at times, she seemed to surpass her recorded performance.
Several times throughout the set, Newsom had to check the tuning on her harp, pauses where she invited the crowd to ask questions of the rest of the band. These little interchanges could have been more humorous and enjoyable, but instead turned out relatively awkward. Not that the crowd should have been expected to produce meaningful, intellectual questions for the band to answer in thoughtful ways, but the rest of the band just seemed a little unskilled at “killing time” which made the tuning breaks a little more tedious. But no matter.
These breaks really served to illustrate Newsom’s dedication to her craft, to producing the highest quality performance from herself and from her harp, and they were well earned, after all. Ripping through songs like “Monkey & Bear” or “Have One On Me” surely takes a lot out of a person, and I highly doubt that many people left the Pabst unsatisfied – after all, she received two standing ovations.